Philip Kaufman’s ‘The Right Stuff’: “A Search Film, a Quest for a Certain Quality that May Have Seen Its Best Days”

Written by Tim Pelan. Photo credit: Ron Grover © The Ladd Company, Warner Bros.


By Tim Pelan

The vexed question of patriotism hangs over Damien Chazelle’s First Man, a somber epic that manages to be both a very visceral examination of the dangers of punching the envelope to get further, faster, higher, out there, and also a downplayed study of private grief—post-traumatic space distraction. Where’s the flag planting? MAGA hat wearing fools cry, completely missing the point. Patriotism, or the wry underscoring of it, was also a bone of contention between Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men), initially brought on board to adapt Tom Wolfe’s mighty novel The Right Stuff, charting the birth of the space race; and director Philip Kaufman, who ended up writing the script himself. Goldman saw the story as beginning with the Mercury “magnificent” seven, not with Wolfe’s fascination for test pilot Chuck Yeager, the man who first broke the sound barrier and wrestled with the “demon in the sky.” Yeager arguably embodied the go-to spirit the astronauts, many former test pilots themselves, yearned to embrace, even as NASA engineers initially treated them as little more than a step-up from chimps in the hot seat—“spam in a can.” Goldman signed his contract on December 7, 1979, feeling it was an auspicious date for a patriotic movie, to buck against the then-American crisis of confidence during the Iran hostage drama. “I was supposed to tell the story of the astronauts,” Goldman recalled in his book Adventures In the Screen Trade. “And I did. More than that, I wanted to say, using them as a vehicle, that America was still a great place, and not just to visit.” Kaufman was more interested in the elusive, mysterious quality threaded throughout the wider three-ring circus of the Cold War’s space race. His thirty-five-page treatment for how he envisioned the film began, “This is a search film, a quest for a certain quality that may have seen its best days…”

Kaufman’s screenplay, written in eight weeks, echoed Wolfe’s structure, zipping back and forth between Yeager, the last of his kind frontiersman, barred from the space programme for lack of a college degree, and the chosen astronauts with their sometimes absurd and frustrating testing challenges to finally slip the surly bonds of the Earth. Otherwise, the timeline is linear, from Yeager’s introduction in 1947 to Dennis Quaid’s Gordon Cooper on May 15, 1963, as the last American astronaut to fly into orbit alone. Kaufman had around 1,800 storyboard panels created for his pitch to Alan Ladd Jr., head of the Ladd Company, after United Artists pulled out. “We laid out the storyboards on eight or ten tables in a conference room,” Gary Gutierrez, special visual effects supervisor recalled, “and then Phil told the story, walking Ladd around the room. Whenever he’d finish a couple of tables, we’d lay out some more. It took several trips around the room.”

Kaufman saw Yeager as key to the plot, and casting was crucial. It is thanks to his wife Rose that Sam Shepard was cast in one of his most defining roles. The Kaufmans were at one of Shepard’s poetry readings in San Francisco when Rose turned to her husband and said, “There’s your guy.” Sam Shepard in a brown leather jacket, chewing gum and riding his horse in the desert around Edwards Air Force base like Gary Cooper and stumbling across the experimental rocket-powered Bell X-1, has a mythic quality to it: the horse, spooked by this growling, flame-spewing dragon crouched in a hollow, itching to spring into the sky, and Shepard, drawn towards taming the beast. Reality occasionally gives way as here to fanciful suggestion in tracing the arc of reaching for the last frontier (time seems variable too—Yeager was 22 at the close of WWII, Shepard was 40 when cast). Kaufman told Empire that Yeager and Shepard initially bonded over comparing their pick-up trucks, of all things. “Most of Sam’s plays are kind of about a mythical father that was lost. Somehow Yeager adopted this role and the two of them became the closest of friends. Physically he wasn’t Yeager, but we were looking for the spirit.” Shepard was not a fan of flying, but let Yeager take him up in a Piper Cub. “I figured if I died while flying with the greatest pilot in the world, it would be OK.”


One actor who bore a stronger relationship to his real-life alter ego was Ed Harris, playing “Dudley Do-Right,” John Glenn, as his wife affectionately mocks him. Producer Robert Chartoff recalled of his audition, “When Ed Harris walked in, we couldn’t believe that such a person existed. He was not only a wonderful actor but looked so much like John Glenn. I said to Phil, ‘Please don’t let this guy get hit by a car. At least not until after the picture is made.’” The other Mercury astronauts are: Dennis Quaid, as the previously mentioned Gordon “Gordo” Cooper, the self-proclaimed “greatest pilot I ever saw”; Fred Ward as Gus Grissom, controversially portrayed as he was suspected at the time, a panicker who blew the hatch on his escape capsule too early and nearly drowned (NASA later exonerated him); Scott Glenn as the competitive, hard as nails Alan Shepard; Lance Henriksen as Walter Schirra; Scott Paulin as Deke Slayton; and Charles Frank as Scott Carpenter. Not all get equal screen time. The wives, of course, had their own quiet strained heroism, often having to cart families across the country and initially put up with crappy accommodation, never knowing if their husbands would come back from a flight. Barbara Hershey as Yeager’s wife Glennis “would look at photos of these women and they all looked like they’d been snowed in for the winter.”

Fred Ward was an Air Force vet, who manned a radar station during the Cold War, and looked up to the real-life astronauts. He was initially asked to play another astronaut at first but makes a memorable impact as Grissom. The sequence where he bails from his capsule and is lifted by the rescue chopper like a wet rag was filmed in Half Moon Bay, California. “I had a wet suit on under my flight suit, in pretty cold water,” Ward recalled in Wired’s Oral History. “And then they picked me up, dangling by a rescue noose. It’s a tragic scene.” The actor actually heard the later recording of the Apollo pre-launch test where Grissom and two others burned up on the launch pad. A sequence late in the film where Yeager takes an unauthorized spin in an experimental plane, the Lockheed NF-104, and pushes it as high as he possibly can, glimpsing the stars tantalizingly out of reach, resulted in the stuntman playing the ejecting Yeager, Joseph Svec, die when his chute failed to open. “We didn’t use any of those shots,” Kaufman recalled. “We were all stunned. It was so connected with the theme of the movie, how dangerous all of this stuff was.”

At one point Quaid, Kaufman and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel were in a small plane, Quaid in the pilot’s seat. Suddenly the plane started moving and Quaid took off. During filming, the mischievous actor had secretly taken flying lessons and gained his license. The production had the run of Edwards Air Force base, and Yeager as technical consultant could get access to almost anything. NASA initially withheld permission to shoot at their facilities. At the time of filming John Glenn was a senator and wasn’t crazy with his depiction in the film. He tried to get government and NASA access revoked. Robert Chartoff pleaded their case as American citizens, telling their story. That patriotic card again, and permission was granted.


Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum play two comically mismatched (fictional) recruiters, a kind of Greek chorus commenting on the “Gods” walking (or flying and orbiting) amongst us. We first see them breathlessly announce the Russians beating America to the punch, again and again. Their first suggestions for orbital test subjects are bizarrely stock car racers (“They have their own helmets”) and circus high wire performers. Then senator Lyndon B Johnson insists on pilots, and the duo begins their quest. A nice touch is when the little and large pairing exit their car at Edwards and shrug on each other’s jackets. Humor pricks the pomposity and derring-do of the space race throughout, such as Scott Glen’s Shepard waddling under the arm of a huge orderly through corridors, bladder under incredible pressure. He later sits for hours on the launch pad while endless checks are being made. “Request permission to relieve bladder.” As he goes in his suit, heat indicators spike harmlessly on the command console. Launch is a go. A montage shows unmanned rockets exploding before and during take-off, while a rictus grinned German scientist, the result of Operation Paperclip, watches haplessly (“Our Germans are better zan zer Germans!” LBJ is promised). Johnson (by now President) is thwarted in his attempts to get a photo op with Glenn’s shy, stammering wife: “Can’t anyone around here deal with a housewife?” he impotently rages in his limo.

The amount of research done for the film was astounding, and given the Cold War was at its height, the Russians were incredibly accommodating also. They gave access to footage of their training facility at Star City, which Goldblum’s character screens as leaked footage by an inside man. Each Mercury and pilot actor got a book of 40 odd pages on their real-life counterpart. Kaufman: “We combined the great NASA footage with pieces that were built on the set. We were pioneering in that kind of insertion of actors into historical events. For example, we combined footage of the real Alan Shepard being loaded into the capsule with Scott Glenn doing it on the stage. We had Scott Glen shaking hands with Kennedy; they did the same thing in Forrest Gump and made a big thing out of spending a million dollars to do it. We did that in one afternoon.”

Inspired by ILM, motion control cameras were initially to be used to capture flight, but Kaufman came to feel it didn’t achieve the gritty, vérité feel he wanted. He wanted the camera work to reflect the “jerry-rigged” sense of technology evolving to achieve NASA’s goals. “We’ll do it through ingenuity and maybe looking back to the past ways of doing special effects and coming up with our own ways.” Rear-projected footage was screened around cockpits, much like in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, Ron Howard’s Solo, and Damien Chazelle’s First Man, modern maestros also wanting that immersive, “real” experience, for actors and audience. Model planes were chucked from buildings over huge model landscapes on the ground below, the sky captured around them. Deschanel: “When Yeager goes up to break the sound barrier, you look down and you see the desert beneath; we had giant sheets of butcher paper with desert scenes on them and somebody was pulling the paper very slowly underneath the model so it would feel like you were at 20,000 feet with the Earth moving below.” A vibrator was attached to a camera lens, or a drill to a camera mount, to shake it up, and give footage that authentic, juddery feeling, buffeted by gravitational forces.


Around 300,000 feet of NASA stock footage was accumulated to save on special effects. The rocket launch for John Glenn’s flight around the Earth was all real. Kaufman told DGA Quarterly, “For the blast-off, I wanted all these sound geniuses in Northern California to convey the impact of the launch. We mixed it really big to get these great rumblings. At our premiere at the Kennedy Center in Washington, Henry Kissinger was sitting up front. I went up to the booth and told the projectionist, ‘I want to see his jowls shake.’”

“We created an exact life-size mock-up of the space capsule. The colored lights on Glenn’s cheeks are coming from the panel lights above his head; they look like teardrops coming out of his eyes.” The command capsule was rocked on gimbals set up at a studio in Hamilton Air Force base, which was decommissioned. Images of clouds and the spacescape were projected on the screen above his head.

As Glenn orbits the Earth, Gordo is dispatched to a tracking station in Australia to help monitor his progress. The Aborigines who ‘assist’ Glenn did not feature in Wolfe’s book. The director wanted to suggest that people have been in touch with the mysteries of outer space since the beginning of time. So we brought over Aborigines and imported a kangaroo to Edwards Air Force Base. The high desert of California has rocks that are very much like what you would see in the outback. The Aborigines brought their didgeridoos and loved to party at the end of the day’s shooting.” The sparks or ‘fireflies’ that Glenn reports as surrounding the capsule are hinted as being ascendant from the old Aboriginal spirit walker’s fire below. “I wanted to place a feat of modern engineering against an ancient sense of awe, wonder, and mystery.”


Glenn’s reentry was achieved through a combination of matte paintings, computer motion control, and re-photographed plates. Models on wires were hurtled towards the camera as they were scorched and set alight, flame trailing behind. Originally Kaufman was going to shoot Glenns’ splashdown, but choose instead to cut from the sparking flames to the ticker tape parade in his honor, streamers flitting across the flag filling the frame. “Just when you think Glenn is burned to a crisp and goes out in a blaze of glory, we cut to Old Glory! Not to be too corny, it makes you think of ‘The ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming.’ If Glenn’s story is told the wrong way, it could come across as shameless patriotism. I wanted to celebrate patriotism but also show America with all its foibles. Tom Wolfe wrote about the American circus. But in the midst of all the hucksterism, there was this thread of something called ‘the right stuff.’”

Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »


In the video above, some great, rare 34-minute vintage 1983 interviews on one of the movies which influenced Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. With director Philip Kaufman, Chuck Yeager, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Lance Henriksen, Walter Schirra, Scott Glenn, Barbara Hershey, Victoria Cartwright.



Before writer-director Philip Kaufman brought Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff to the big screen in 1983, onscreen astronauts were little more than alien quarry or asteroid bait. In Kaufman’s hands, however, spaceflight became a far more human pursuit—a story not of external threats but inner resolve. With its three-hour-plus run time and unconventional structure, the film—which tells the story of test pilots like Chuck Yeager and Gordon Cooper as they break the sound barrier and launch toward the exosphere—was almost as daring as its subject. (Kaufman calls it “the longest movie ever made without a plot.”) But it introduced an entire cinematic genre, what Quentin Tarantino has called the “hip epic,” inspiring everyone from Michael Bay to James Cameron, who hired its cinematographer for Titanic. Its dialog has become a go-to signifier of human accomplishment; director Rian Johnson celebrated landing his Star Wars gig by tweeting a clip from the movie. “Phil really pulled it off,” George Lucas says. None other than Christopher Nolan has called it “an almost perfect movie.” —An Oral History of the Epic Space Film The Right Stuff


“Philip Kaufman’s epic adaptation of the Tom Wolfe book, itself an account of the birth of the US space program, is arguably the biggest, most direct influence on Interstellar. Nolan and his creative team constantly referred back to NASA and the realities of space travel. So just as they visited the California Space Centre to view the Endeavor space shuttle close up, they also sat and watched The Right Stuff, taking detailed notes—on the filmmaking techniques especially. ‘At the time, you couldn’t get it on Blu-ray,’ laughs Nolan, ‘and I was actually hassling Warner Home Video to put it out, because it’s a marvellous film. But we screened a print of it. I’ve actually screened two different prints of it. One print was fantastic. What they did in-camera, with all these great projections through windows, so you’ve got the real reflections in the helmets and all that… You know, we just looked at that and I said, ‘Guys, it’s so much easier for us to do that now than it was for them. So we have no excuse not be doing these things in-camera. We can’t just throw it all to the visual effects guys!’ And we didn’t.’ In the form of test-pilot Chuck Yeager (played by Sam Shepard), Nolan also found the ideal for his lead character, Cooper, and through that was driven to cast Shepard’s co-star in Mud (produced by a friend of Nolan’s, Aaron Ryder): Matthew McConaughey…” —Empire


When Phillip Kaufman set out to film The Right Stuff, he was faced with the task of creating believable flying effects—of familiar real-world aircraft and space vessels—that could be convincingly intercut with Air Force and NASA documentary footage. To accomplish the job, he engaged experimental filmmaker Jordan Belson and USFX effects supervisor Gary Gutierrez. What followed was a two-year odyssey of discovery and growth, during which all three found that high technology did not always produce high satisfaction. —Cinefex 14, October 1983



The following is excerpted from remarks made by Bay Area–based film director Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Unbearable Lightness of Being) at “SamFest,” held by the Magic Theatre in May 1998 in honor of Sam Shepard. The article was originally published in the now-defunct San Francisco Examiner magazine on February 21, 1999.

I was writing the screenplay for The Right Stuff. In his book, Tom Wolfe kept talking about a certain quality… a quality that could never be mentioned: “There was something ancient, primordial, irresistible about the challenge of this stuff, no matter what a sophisticated and rational age one might think he lived in… Perhaps because it could not be talked about, the subject began to take on superstitious, even mystical outlines. A man either had it or he didn’t! There was no such thing as having most of it… The man who truly had it could ignore the rules… he would challenge all the limits…” This quality was a kind of Righteousness, but underneath it there was this Elusiveness. And all I could think about was how do you visualize… Elusiveness…?

Right about then, Rose [Kaufman’s wife] and I went to the Intersection, when it was over on Union Street, to hear Sam read some of his poetry. There he was, this tall, string-bean kinda guy in a leather jacket reading that… elusive poetry. Afterwards Rose said: “Well, there it is. Sam’s your man.”

“Yeah. But they’ll never go with him, Down There.” (“Down There” is you-know-where.)

To which Rose replied: “Sam’s your man.”

So… I said to Sam, “Sam, how’d you like to be in The Right Stuff?” And Sam said, “Unhunh. No thanks.” And I said, “How come?” And Sam said, “Not my cup of tea.” Sam bid me good night, and that was that.

And Rose said, “Sam’s your man.”

So I saw Sam again and I said, “How come?” again. And Sam said, “Well, I dunno. Maybe it’s ’cause I hate flyin’.” “You’re scared of flyin’?” I said. And Sam’s eyes got that kinda mean, snaky look, “I didn’t say I was scared of flyin’.” And then he was gone.

And Rose said, “Definitely your man.”

Sam’s staying at the Chateau Marmont… Down There… and so I get the room next to his, and I… slide the script under his door. And I wait there in the hallway of the Chateau Marmont, and pretty soon I see the script slide the rest of the way, and I hear the envelope being ripped open.

Next day I see Sam and he says, “Ya wanna grab a bite to eat?”

So we go next door to the Imperial Gardens, back then in the early days of sushi, to that same restaurant where Henry Miller used to hang out when he was looking for Hoki or Brenda Venus, and… but that’s all another movie… and so anyway Sam says, “OK.”

And I say, “OK? By OK you mean ‘yeah’?”

And Sam nods. “I’m your man… Maybe.”

So anyway I tell all the people Down There, and they say, “We’ll never go with him.”

And I say, but he was so great in Days of Heaven.

And they say, “So what? It didn’t perform.”

And I say, “Whaddya mean? It performed fine for me.”

And they say, “We’re talkin’ profits.”

And I say, “Profits? We’re talking about The Right Stuff here.”

And they say, “You wanna go into turnaround!?”

“Turnaround” is a word they use Down There. I been in Turnaround plenty, and the feeling you get in turnaround is the feeling that Lot or Orpheus musta had when they got put in turnaround… Down There.

But I said, “Unh unh. I don’t want turnaround… But I want Sam. Sam’s my man.”

Well, miraculously, they folded. They said, “You gotta get him for a price.” I said, “I’ll get him for a price.” I felt kinda like a bounty hunter. But I’d always seen The Right Stuff as a kind of Western. As I was leaving, I overheard someone saying, “If it doesn’t work we’ll get that putz later”… But that’s another story.

So I rush to tell Sam he’s my man and even before I can get him for a price, he says, “Well y’know, I been thinkin’ it over…” And there’s just this long pause.

And I say, “Aaahmm? What does that mean, you been thinkin’ it over, Sam? Does that mean you don’t want to do it?”

And Sam says, “I didn’t say that. But maybe I ain’t this guy.”

“Sam! You’re this guy! You’re my man!”


Next thing I arrange a meeting with Chuck Yeager, “the Ace of Aces,” the only man who truly has the Right Stuff. General Chuck Yeager is, as Tom Wolfe describes him, “a short, wiry, but muscular little guy… with a tough looking face that seemed (to strangers) to be saying ‘You best not be lookin’ me in the eye, you peckerwood, or I’ll put four more holes in your nose.’”

Now apparently Yeager had not taken too kindly to Tom Wolfe’s description of him… and he’s adopted a kind of wait-and-f—-n’-see attitude. We’re in a loft South of Market where the models are being made and the storyboards are all up on the walls. Sam doesn’t show up. General Yeager arrives right on time, but Sam’s nowhere to be seen. Yeager’s pacing around, giving me his famed peckerwood glare when finally Sam arrives and says he musta overslept… Or somethin’… Which I guess is why Sam didn’t get to comb his hair… or shave… or anything like that.

“Sam, meet General Chuck Yeager.” Sam towers over Yeager and I get the feeling that Sam doesn’t particularly like the part about the General, as he looks down and says, “How’reya doin’?”

Sam’s got his snaky-eyed look and Yeager’s got his peckerwood-glare.

The General pulls me off to the side and says, “You Hollywood guys.”

“Whaddya mean, ‘You Hollywood guys,’ General?”

“Jus’ like I figgered. This guy ain’t me. He ain’t even close.”

“He’ll become you, General. This guy’s a… a great writer… You oughta read his stuff.”

“I tried ta… not my cup a tea.”

“But he’s an actor. He’s gonna become you, General…”

“… Chuck”

“… General Chuck, but he’s gonna become you in a… sorta Gary Cooper kinda way.”

I can tell Gary Cooper strikes a soft spot with Yeager; and while he’s digesting that I drag him over to Sam, who’s gotten absorbed in the storyboard pictures. And I say…

“Right here, this is where he… you, Sam… Yeager breaks the sound barrier and he… you… Yeager says: “Say Ridley… make another note, will ya? There’s something wrong with this ol’ machometer… it’s gone kinda screwy on me.”

Sam’s perkin’ up a little bit. He doesn’t have that mean, snaky look anymore. He’s got a kind of… bemused… snaky look and he says, “That really how it was, Chuck?”

And Yeager says, “That’s kinda how it was.” And then he adds, “These Hollywood boys always gotta take a few liberties here and there.”

And Sam says, “Yeah, they do.”

And I’m kinda quiet, thinking I really don’t need all this s–t. When suddenly Yeager opens up, “But y’know I understand all that. They gotta sell their product.”

I never suspected back then that the Ace of Aces, the unsung hero, was gonna be all over the TV selling Delco batteries and other products after the film came out… But that’s another story… In this story, right then Yeager said, “Y’see Sam, this here’s how it really happened…”

And Sam leaned in, and right then and there something clicked. And pretty soon the two of them were talking away with one another, going from picture to picture. If I were Tom Wolfe I mighta said what was going on here was “ancient, primordial… irresistible…” But truth to tell, I was just feelin’ kinda relieved that they were hitting it off. But… more truth to tell…I was also feeling kinda… left out.

So that’s pretty much the way it was between Sam and Chuck from then on. Best of friends, mutual respect. It was like Sam had found a father to go along with the other one that was out there somewhere in the Southwest. The elusive one.

So it seems like everything’s going along great, and I’m concentrating on getting the other 134 speaking parts cast, trying to work out special effects that have never been done before in film, flying around finding locations, dealing with one disaster after another, working on a very tight budget with constant enormous pressures from Down There. And we begin in San Francisco and shoot for months (working with all sorts of San Francisco people, many who’d worked at the Magic Theatre, I might add: Ed Harris, Fred Ward, Kathy Baker, to name a few). Shooting out of sequence, doing the later parts of the film first. And then we move down to Edwards Air Force Base, and we’re all set up out in Pancho’s Fly Inn, that godforsaken rat shack in the high desert where the test pilots hung out, shooting the scene where Yeager gets recruited to break the sound barrier. We’re shooting with John Lion, and Tom Dahlgren, and Jim Haney, some more of our Magic Theatre ensemble, and we come to Sam’s first lines… Suddenly I sense something’s wrong.

And I go over to Sam and I say—off to the side and softly—“The voice, Sam.”

And Sam says, “What voice?”

“You know, the voice with the accent, Yeager’s accent, the centerpiece of Tom Wolfe’s book, the one Tom says every pilot has, that “poker-hollow West Virginia drawl, the drawl of the most RIGHTEOUS OF ALL THE POSSESSORS OF THE RIGHT STUFF”… That voice!”

And Sam says, “Naw. I ain’t doin’ that.”

“How come, Sam?”

“That’s just actor stuff.”

“Whaddya mean?”

“I mean it don’t necessarily have anything to do with the rightness of things.” And Sam’s looking at me with those snaky eyes.

There’s hundreds of people waiting around. I had counted something like 130 Teamsters alone that had been carted up to the high desert. The sun’s burning away outside, the other actors are sliding slowly away, the clock is ticking.

I decide to do another rehearsal.

And then, as Sam gets to that line where he says, “I’ll be there,” it comes to me. It’s not the voice… maybe it’s because Sam’s got a great EAR. The Ear is in all his work. It’s in his poetry. It’s in his plays. It’s in his music. It’s not about voice or accent… it’s about Ear… and… attitude… Or something more elusive. Whatever it is, Sam’s got it. And now that I’m hearing it, he’s right… it sounds right!!! Sam’s doing this like Gary Cooper! After all, did Gary Cooper ever use an accent?

That’s what I said to Sam afterwards, and Sam said: “Gary Cooper? He’s just some kinda cowboy actor.” It turns out Sam really didn’t have Gary Cooper in mind at all. He didn’t even think much of him as an actor. I think Sam always secretly wanted to play Chester in Gunsmoke.

But I stayed with Gary Cooper. Anthony Mann had told me many years earlier: “You know what a scene in a movie is? Gary Cooper on horseback, that’s a scene.”

And that’s what I had in mind when Sam/Yeager rides across the high desert and looks down at that little orange X-1 plane steaming on the desert floor like the bronc that can’t be broken, and Sam looks back with those eyes, those snaky, bronc-breaker eyes, and you know that a showdown is at hand. And when Tom Wolfe saw it, I’m told he jumped out of his seat, because there it was: the meeting of past and future, of horse and machine, of Western and space… And I was feeling good about all that when in the next scene Sam and I had our first real confrontation.

He’s headed over to Pancho’s for a drink. And I’ve got the camera set up and about a quarter mile down the road is Pancho’s.

“Sam, I’d like you to ride fast down to there.”

Sam looked down the road and his eyes got snaky. “How fast?”

“Pretty fast.”

“You sayin’ like a gallop?”

“Yeah, gallop’d be good. Even a fast trot.”

“Well, which is it?”


“I’d never gallop my horse there. You know anything about horses, you know you don’t ever gallop your horse home.”

“Well, you got me there, Sam. I don’t know much about horses, but I do know somethin’ about film and about how this film’s going to be edited, and a quarter mile’s a lot of screen time, and I want you to do it as quickly as you can… as you reasonably can, Sam.”


“Just ride the f—–g horse fast, Sam!”

As we stood there, the blazing sun began to set. The other actors were sliding away. The clocks were still ticking. And then it came to me.

“Hold on, Sam. You say you’d never gallop your horse home.”

“Damn right.”

“But that ain’t home. That’s Pancho’s. That’s where you drink. Home’s someplace else.”


Sam thought about that for a moment, then he said, “Well, let’s shoot the damn thing.” And I said “action” and he set out for Pancho’s at a pretty good clip. In the editing we put some Bob Wills music over it and it came out fine. Sam just had to feel the rightness of things.

That same sense of rightness… or righteousness, in Sam came out a few days later when some guys in suits showed up on the set and started putting the squeeze on me. Now these were a pretty tough and determined group of guys, and I was getting pretty dangerously steamed up with them when Sam appeared. He had his shirt off, a lasso in his hands—I think he was writing for Fool for Love or Motel Chronicles—and he had been interrupted by our shouting. He walked right up to the head guy and said right into his face like he was gonna put four more holes in his nose: “These guys givin’ you any trouble, Phil?”

There was a long pause and then the guy said meekly, “No, we’re not.” And the problems were resolved right then and there.

That same side of Sam revealed itself sometime later in the Tosca Cafe. Jeannette Etheredge, its proprietor, had been the real-life Pancho Barnes of the film. And to this day, a figure from Pancho’s bar stands behind Tosca’s bar and the secret backroom is lined with pictures of us all from those days. Tom Wolfe said Pancho Barnes was tough, “but she was anything but Low Rent.” Everybody respected Jeannette… except one guy late one night who was treating her like she was low-rent. And Sam said, “This guy givin’ you any trouble, Jeannette?” Only this guy said, “Who the f–k are you, cowboy?” So… Sam decked him with a punch and on his way down, Ed Harris happened to light fire to the guy’s hair. And that’s how come there’s no more smoking in the Tosca Cafe.

You want to know the one other time Sam and I disagreed? It was in his last scene in the film where Yeager tries to break the Russian altitude record and his plane freezes up and he has to eject and we don’t see his parachute open and we’re pretty sure he’s bought the farm. And the lone ambulance makes its way across the high desert toward the black smoke when suddenly the distant figure of Sam/Yeager emerges from the heatwaves of the desert carrying his parachute. And the ambulance driver says: “Over there. Is that a man?” And Levon Helm says, “You bet it is!”

And we move in to do the close-up. Sam/Yeager’s face is bleeding, his skin is charred black and still smoking. He’s like an apparition, a ghost. And as we do the first take… I see Sam is chewing gum. “Sam, the gum!”

“What about it?

“Sam, you just fell from 26,000 feet. You ejected, you broke your helmet on the canopy, you’re burnt, bleeding, barely alive and you’re still smoking. If you chew gum, people’re gonna laugh.”

And Sam said: “No they ain’t.”

I stood there for a moment in the blazing sun, the clock was ticking, everyone was sliding away, Sam was putting in a fresh stick of Beemans; and then it came to me. He was Icarus, and he was Yeager, and he wasn’t Gerald Ford. This guy could fall out of the sky and chew his Beemans at the same time; because he… had that certain quality. In fact it kinda visualized that quality Tom Wolfe had been talking about: that Elusive quality. And so I said, “Action.”

At the end of the shooting I saw a big envelope slide under my door. I thought I could hear him waiting out there in the hallway as I ripped it open. It was a manuscript of that book he’d been writing during shooting—Motel Chronicles. On the title page Sam had written: “Phil, It’s been Righteous, brother. Sam, Sept. 1982.”

When I opened the door, he was gone.


Screenwriter must-read: William Goldman (the uncredited first draft) & Philip Kaufman’s screenplay for The Right Stuff [PDF1, PDF2, PDF3]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff. Photographed by Ron Grover © The Ladd Company, Warner Bros. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


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