“I Felt Like It Was Ridiculous to Play a Living Person.”
“Our characters had no written lines,” Harry Shearer says of the recruiters he and Jeff Goldblum played in the movie. “Phil said, ‘You and Jeff improvised. Hopefully it will be funny.”
Ladd gave Kaufman a modest budget to make the film, which meant it would have to be made without any bankable stars and with salary caps.
ED HARRIS (JOHN GLENN): I read for Phil Kaufman and wasn't very happy about how it went. Walking out, I hit the wall pretty hard. Phil saw me do that and said, “Oh, the guy's got spunk.”
CHARTOFF: Ed Harris walked into the office, and we looked at him and couldn’t believe that such a person existed. He was not only a wonderful actor but looked so much like John Glenn. And of course we looked at each other and said, “Oh my God, this is the guy we want.” I said to Phil, “Please, don’t let this guy get hit by a car. At least, not until after the picture is made.”
HARRY SHEARER (RECRUITER): I don’t believe there was an audition, because Jeff Goldblum’s and my characters had no lines written for them. Phil Kaufman conceived them, they were not representative of anybody that was in the book, but they were a plot device to move things forward. Phil basically just said, “You and Jeff improvise. Hopefully it’ll be a little funny.”
JEFF GOLDBLUM (RECRUITER): Mr. Philip Kaufman had me in Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1978. I'd do anything with him.
PHILIP KAUFMAN: There were 134 speaking parts. Every day somebody new would show up on the set. I had my mission of what I wanted to do, but I also wanted to be entertained. I had Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum; life could not have been better.
CALEB DESCHANEL (CINEMATOGRAPHER): Phil and I had mutual friends in San Francisco. I’d gone to school with George Lucas. I knew Walter Murch. They were all part of the same small group of San Francisco filmmakers, with Francis Ford Coppola. Phil sent me the script. I loved it, it’s the kind of thing I grew up loving. My father was an engineer for Martin, who built Titan rockets. When I was a kid I’d build rockets. My dad helped me until I tried to build a liquid fuel rocket using nitric acid and alcohol. He was afraid I was going to blow myself up.
MARY JO DESCHANEL (ANNIE GLENN): Annie Glenn was already cast, and I just had an appointment to meet the casting director and read. I hadn’t been acting because I was having kids. I felt out of practice. Overnight, the actress who had the part asked for more money and fell out. So I didn’t know it when I went in, but they were looking for someone. The casting director said, “Do you know how to stutter?” And I said, “No, but I can try.”
“Mr. Philip Kaufman had me in Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Jeff Goldblum says. “I’d do anything with him.”
PHILIP KAUFMAN: Dennis had done some movies, but his brother Randy was better known. I was alone when Dennis came in. I was doing the camera work as well as reading off camera, but I didn’t really know how the camera worked. Dennis said, “I know that camera. I’ve got exactly this kind of camera.” I pressed the button. “It’s red and flashing, does that mean it’s on?” He said, “Yeah, that’s it.” So then Dennis did a reading that was phenomenal. A couple hours later Chartoff and Winkler came in and I said, “Let’s check it out.” Of course Dennis was wrong. The camera was off, and lost to history was one of the greatest auditions I’d ever seen.
TOM WOLFE (AUTHOR): Having Dennis Quaid play Gordon Cooper was a good stroke. Cooper, as a pilot, didn’t have much of a background. He was an OK military pilot. They chose him because he was so cool. He fell asleep on the launchpad. These holds would go on for hours. He also fell asleep during a spaceflight. He was an absolutely cool human being.
FRED WARD (GUS GRISSOM): I was asked to play another astronaut at first. But then Phil asked me to read for Gus Grissom. That was exciting because I really liked the character. What he had to go through, his so-called blowing a hatch. I’d been in the Air Force when I was young, not as a pilot, but as an airborne radar technician in Goose Bay, Labrador, during the cold war. We were one of the first lines of defense. We’d work on the ground, meet with the aircraft, speak to the pilots, see what was going on with the equipment, pull it into the shop. Then we’d have these alerts; we’d have to go out at night and load missiles. These astronauts were big people at the time.
YEAGER: Some of my friends played extras, such as Korky Kevorkian, a pilot and fruit farmer from Reedley, California. I played a bartender.
PHILIP KAUFMAN: We started looking around for someone who could play Yeager. Then my wife, Rose, and I went to a poetry reading in San Francisco and Sam Shepard was reading. Rose poked me and said, “There's your guy.” I said, “For what?” She said, “Yeager.” Sam had a cowboy quality to him. He was Gary Cooper.
SAM SHEPARD (CHUCK YEAGER): Phil offered the part to me a few times, and I refused. I felt like it was ridiculous to play a living person. I knew Chuck and I didn't feel like I was him at all.
PHILIP KAUFMAN: I tracked Sam down at the Chateau Marmont in LA and slid the script under his door.
SHEPARD: He kept hounding me about it. And I did like Phil a lot, and I liked a lot of the actors I'd known through theater and stuff, like Ed Harris and Freddie Ward. So I thought, well, maybe it wouldn't hurt to do it.
Books are not stable substances: their tone, flavour and entire angle of attack can be altered by the passage of time. The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe is only 30 years old - a mere baby in the hallowed world of classic literature. But it has dated faster than anyone could have expected, and certainly no longer feels like the bright comet that appeared in a shower of sparks in 1979. At the time, Wolfe seemed in love with his jet-propelled subject, but now we can see that nothing ages faster than the new thing. The world tilts differently now, and its shifting axis has cast shadows over Wolfe's still-dazzling sentences. As recent pictures of India and China's space missions showed, the time when America's lunar landings spoke of a nation inspired by progress and adventure - reaching for the stars - may be over.
The novel tells the story of America's shaky first steps into space, and as soon as Wolfe embarked on the conversations that would fuel his verbal aerobatics, he saw that he had strolled into an unexplored area. Hardly anyone had written with gusto about fighter pilots, so Wolfe found himself alone, he wrote later, in a "rich and fabulous terrain" which up till then was "as dark as the far side of the moon". There was, he suggested, an alluring explanation for this. The horrors of the first world war had inspired an austere orthodoxy to the effect that war was hell, and that the only virtuous way to depict it was to present the mortal trials of some dumb bloody footslogger (officers all being callous buffoons). "The old-fashioned tale of prowess and heroism was relegated to second- and third-rate forms," wrote Wolfe. And hardly anyone cared about the lethal mid-air novelty of high-performance flight.
This was a perfect subject for Wolfe. He was already famous for slapping vivid rhetoric around subjects previously thought too frivolous for literature: stock car racing, scandal magazines, race riots, party girls, art critics, student rebels, sex evangelists and so on. Demotic America, he noticed, now had the wealth to create its own institutions. He called this "the incredible postwar American electro-pastel surge into the suburbs", and he became its first and most articulate chronicler.
The Right Stuff flowed straight from these preoccupations. It presented the psychodrama behind America's first blasts into space by introducing us to the seven top-of-the-range pilots selected (in a top-secret series of X-Factor-like auditions) to form the first cadre of astronauts. It described the sapping impositions that fell on their wives, and lampooned the media fabrications that drilled their heroics into the public mind. Most of all, it captured flying-ace culture. These unknown men, it said, are modern heroes; while music and sports stars rule the roost, these forgotten military guys, climbing into their primitive, unreliable rockets and soaring up to the stars, are the truly righteous single-combat warriors of the modern era.
The book hummed with great set pieces: aghast wives leaned on to provide "solid backing on the home front", looking at the plume of smoke over the airbase and wondering which of their husbands had "bought the farm"; the unflustered, supercool voice of the cockpit, laconic even as he corkscrewed through the sound barrier in a flaming tailspin; the dumb reflexes of the news beast, the "Victorian gent", with its tweedy insistence that the pilots be "served up inside the biggest slice of Mom's pie you could imagine"; the huckster politics and cold-war fearmongering. The book was a ticker-tape parade of giddy episodes.
Much of it was sarcastic, because Wolfe found himself with not just a great subject, but a marvellous story, too. It turned out that the astronauts, hand-picked, buffed up and offered to the world as the bravest pilots in America, were not really pilots at all, but military test subjects. They didn't control their space flights; they endured them. The real aces, who were still breaking speed records on unknown airbases under the inspiring wing of their leader, Chuck Yeager, would snigger into their beers when they heard that the first spaceman was to be a chimpanzee. "A monkey's gonna make the first flight," they would laugh. It was clear to them that the chosen ones were mere passengers in this silly enterprise - "Perhaps the ape would go to the White House and get a medal."
But the world was not disposed, or permitted, to laugh. Nothing would be allowed to spoil the patriotic melodrama surrounding the astronauts. If anything, people said: "My God, do you mean there are men brave enough to try what that ape has just gone through?" Scenes like this gave the book a suave, satirical edge. The best and bravest did not even fly their rockets, but ... so what? No one seemed to care.
Yet even as he mocked the glib sentimentality of American life, Wolfe hoisted his pilots on to a plinth. They faced awful odds (one in four career fliers got killed) every time they strapped themselves into a rocket, and they possessed a rare quality of nonchalant bravery. This was the right stuff, and you either had it or you didn't. "It was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life," wrote Wolfe. "Any fool could do that. No, the idea seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment - and then go up again the next day ..." Whatever it was, this righteous stuff was the essence of American manliness, as precious as gold dust.
The book launch went smoothly - better than the clumsy misfires in the story itself. The New York Times said that it was "accurate, learned, cheeky, risky, touching, tough, compassionate, nostalgic, worshipful, jingoistic . . . superb". So I wondered, when I threw a copy into my luggage earlier this year, whether it could survive a visit to modern Florida.
We went, en famille, to the Kennedy Space Center, the swampy bulge of nether land on the Atlantic coast formerly known as Cape Canaveral. We traced the footsteps of the pioneers who had wedged themselves into these turrets of high explosive. The rockets had epic names - Redstone, Mercury, Atlas. When we peered into the tiny lunar capsule we recalled that scene in The Right Stuff where Al Shepard, the first American in space, had to relieve himself in his pants during his historic but delayed countdown (the boffins had forgotten to devise relief for a bursting astronaut).
For the most part, however, the Space Center brought home how sharply things have changed. In Wolfe's book, Florida is like the wild west - "a poor godforsaken afterthought in the march of terrestrial evolution" - which turns out to be an ideal military testing ground, and perfect for fighter jocks. It is miles from anywhere: "a paradise of Flying and Drinking and Drinking and Driving". It is not rocket science to point out that those days are long gone. Today's Florida is condominiums, swimming pools and golf courses as far as the eye can see. The training arena for America's most radiant gladiators has become a world leader in developer-sleaze and environmental corruption.
On the coach trip round the launch-sites, our guide seemed world-weary. He didn't even glance at the rocket pads; his patter was synchronised with the view. But he was scornful of inattention. "For those of you who've just been to Disneyland," he said, "it's Tuesday." He glared down the bus. The tone was unmistakable: pure weapons-grade Nasa-sponsored pique. The man was bitter that this fabled wilderness, where men once fired themselves up to the heavens, was now just the second, perhaps third, biggest theme park in Florida. "We still could go to the moon," he kept saying. "But the government won't give us the money. Fuel's too expensive or some damned thing."
The Right Stuff may be comic, but in the end it applauds an inspiring mission. Those first orbits, from the incendiary lift-offs to the calm ocean splashdowns, were a miracle of engineering expertise and can-do zeal, the work of a nation that aspired to great things and was eager to show the world its devotion to new frontiers. Where is that country now, that was once the hope of the free world? Squatting in Iraq, hunched against enemies it cannot see, reviled and resented for its cultural and financial heavy-handedness. It is not easy, now, to swallow such an innocent vision of American prowess. Interestingly, Wolfe's other notorious subject - the Wall Street excess pilloried in The Bonfire of the Vanities - has also been wrenched out of shape. If Wolfe were to revisit the bonfire now, it would not be to hoot at its silly extravagance, but to poke around in the ashes. One of the high points of The Right Stuff comes when one of the astronauts, Gordo Cooper, awaits lift-off. As the scientists run their final checks, they are bemused by the slowing of his vital signs. While the fuel - 200,000 pounds of liquid oxygen - begins to glow white, and the world holds its breath, the pilot simply dozes off. "Throughout America," wrote Wolfe, "untold millions of people were wondering, My God, what goes through a man's mind at a time like this! Scarcely able to believe it themselves, Nasa never supplied the answer."
This remains an entertaining scene, but now it is shot through with wistfulness, like a tattered flag. American politics and culture have changed since the naive time when astronauts, through their press spokesman Loudon Wainwright, could appear in Life magazine as 100% God-fearing Huck Finn patriots. These days, if an astronaut gets drunk, it makes the papers, and the only boom area is in infantile conspiracy theories: did they really walk on the moon? It would not be possible, now, for a rocket man to bust a rib falling from a horse and still have a crack at the sound barrier the next day - as Yeager (later General Yeager) does, in the third chapter of the book.
The result is that The Right Stuff is now best read as an elegy - a remembrance of vanished times. It describes a place and a mood that have crashed and burned. The seeds of this melancholy may already have been in place when the book was published - Wolfe was describing the early 60s from the vantage point of the late 70s, after all. But he was still able to work in an optimistic, fizzing spirit that has now quite dissolved: no one writes pop songs about astronauts the way that Bowie/Elton John/Pink Floyd and company once did. A book that once juddered with thoughts of the future now comes suffused with the past. Nostalgia for the 60s usually involves thoughts of free love, raw music and ditzy drugs, not the panic attacks inspired by Sputnik and the missile testing in Arizona and Florida. Wolfe was thrilled to find such subjects, and had superb, pyrotechnic fun with them. Who would have thought, only a generation later, that his eager, loop-the-loop prose would seem so sad?