YEAR: 1983

ROLE:  Chuck Yeager (Oscar nomination)

DIRECTOR: Philip Kaufman

US Theatrical Release:  October 21, 1983

Plot Summary

Funny, trenchant account, based on Tom Wolfe's book, of the dawn of the space age, seen as both a shameless piece of media mythmaking, and as an act of genuine courage on the part of the first astronauts. The movie spans about 15 years, beginning with Chuck Yeager breaking Mach 1, and concluding with a huge barbecue at the Astrodome at which President Johnson hosts the astronauts. In between, it depicts their arduous training and complex personal lives, and the absurd lengths to which they have to go to satisfy the public's demand for real-life heroes.

Film Details
Sam SHEPARD...........Chuck Yeager
Scott GLENN...............Alan Shepard
Ed HARRIS.....................John Glenn
Dennis QUAID..........Gordon Cooper
Fred WARD..................Gus Grissom
Barbara HERSHE.....Glennis Yeager
Kim STANLEY..........Pancho Barnes

Oscar-nominated performance for Best Supporting Actor
Production Notes

Shot between March and October 1982, with additional filming continuing into January 1983, most of the film was shot in and around San Francisco, where a waterfront warehouse was transformed into a studio. Location shooting took place primarily at the abandoned Hamilton Air Force Base north of San Francisco which was converted into a sound stage for the numerous interior sets. No location could substitute for the distinctive Edwards Air Force Base landscape which necessitated the entire production crew move to the Mojave Desert for the opening sequences that framed the story of the test pilots at Edwards.

Kaufman was hired on the basis of his 1974 film, "The White Dawn", which takes place in the Arctic. The producers figured that any man who could tough it out like that could handle Tom Wolfe's massive, sprawling book.

ChuckYeager was hired as a technical consultant on the film. He took the actors flying, studied the storyboards and special effects, and pointed out the errors. To prepare for their roles, Kaufman gave the actors playing the seven astronauts an extensive videotape collection to study.

The toughest role to fill was that of Chuck Yeager, the test pilot whose story anchors the film.  Sam had the Gary Cooper looks that the director wanted, but the producers had doubts about his acting. Kaufman rewrote the script to minimize Sam's dialogue and to maximize his physical presence. The actor received an Oscar nomination.

Director Philip Kaufman discusses Sam:

Seeing Sam Shepard in that leather jacket created in my mind that sense of American Adventurer - a kind of Gary Cooper which is how I saw Sam. I think "The Right Stuff" helped kick that off again, that certain 'hipster' style with the collars up. When the film opened in France (it played for about five years in Paris), I remember they just loved Sam in those jackets.

The first time Chuck Yeager met Sam was up at our special effects house where we were doing storyboards on the film. Of course, Sam showed up late and the General didn't like that. Sam was this big, tall rangy guy and Chuck is this compact, tough guy and they sort of looked at each other and I would say that first meeting was not the most successful I'd ever seen. Chuck expected promptness and Sam's hair was kind of messed up. Then we started going through the storyboards, and as they started talking, I could just feel the two of them getting together. They even started talking about the pick-up trucks they both were driving.

Sam, as you may know, doesn't fly. The only time I know he's flown is when Yeager took him up at Edwards once, and they just started hitting it off. Sam's plays are often written about this theme of Sam missing his father who had been in the Air Force. His parents were separated, and a lot of Sam's writing is about that. In the course of their relationship Chuck became like a father to Sam or a father figure even though they hung out and spent a lot of time at the Tosca bar playing pool until the wee hours of the morning.

Movie Stills
Blu-ray 30th Anniversary Edition - November 5, 2013

Praise from the Critics

Film Critic Steve Rhodes:
"Shepard, in perhaps the best performance of his career, plays Yeager as daring and yet humble, as quiet but assured, and overall he gives one of the most complex and compelling performances I have seen of a character who is a recluse."

Vincent Canby, NY Times:
"Both as the character he plays and as an ironic screen presence, Mr. Shepard gives the film much well-needed heft. He is its center of gravity."

Brian Webster, Apollo Guide:
Combining impressive (for 1983) special effects, excellent cinematography by Caleb Deschanel, and well-integrated archival footage, the film looks great. And the performances, especially those of Harris and Shepard, lift the movie from ‘important’ to ‘important and highly entertaining.’"

Bill Cosford, Miami Herald:
"In Yeager he has a figure out of movie lore, the lone man on the bucking bronco, and in Sam Shepard, the actor/playwright who fills the role, he has an immensely appealing performance."

Gary Arnold, Washington Post:
"Sam Shepard's beautifully lean, rawboned presence has encouraged the director to lean a bit heavily on pictorial associations with classic Western heroes, especially Gary Cooper, during the Yeager sequences."

Film critic Judy Stone:
"Just as Chuck Yeager seized Tom Wolfe's imagination as the man with the real right stuff, so Sam Shepard outshines them all, even though it's a first-rate cast all the way down the line. As Yeager, the first pilot to break the sound barrier, Shepard has a special laid-back charm, comprising a quietly secure daredevil spirit and a strength of character that is irresistible. Whether sardonic about the astronauts who won't really be in control of those space capsules, sympathetic toward one flier's bad luck or sharing a flirtatious moment with his wife (Barbara Hershey), Shepard is terrific. If he keeps on acting like this, Shepard, a Pulitizer Prize-winning playwright, may not get back to his typewriter."

Joe Baltake, Philadelphia Daily News:
"The most accomplished impersonations are Scott Glenn's Alan Shepard, Fred Ward's Gus Grissom and Sam Shepard's memorable Chuck Yeager. He provides the continuity of presence that holds the film together."

Cineman Syndicate:
"Most prominently portrayed are Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) and John Glenn (Ed Harris), with Shepard turning in his best performance ever."

Yvette Huddleston, The Daily Mail:
"Shepard is perfect in the role; his taciturn, charismatic presence suggesting exactly the right mix of pride, courage and self-deprecating charm."

Antagony & Ecstacy:
"The film mainly rests on four men: Scott Glenn, Fred Ward, Ed Harris, and especially Sam Shepard, noted playwright & deconstructor of American iconography, in what is still perhaps the most prominent of his film performances, and certainly the one that makes the best use of his granite features and his scruffy voice. He embodies the exact breed of rugged, weary American mythological masculinity at the center of Kaufman's concept of the material, looking every bit the Outcast Hero who knows more and can do more than anyone else, but is too certain of his own skills to go looking for validation in the way that the Mercury Seven did - and he does this without ever sacrificing the specificity of who Yeager was as a man."

Charles Wiebe, Movie FanFare:
"'The Right Stuff' is fashioned around the story of legendary WW II ace, Chuck Yeager, he who truly possessed 'The right stuff;' the intangible that all great pilots possessed; who systematically tests himself as well as his aircraft, continually 'pushing the outside of the envelope.' He is brilliantly played in a taciturn, Gary Cooper-like manner by lanky actor/playwright Sam Shepard; capturing Yaeger’s West Virginia accent perfectly."

Michael Bowen, Boston Globe:
"Playwright-actor Sam Shepard plays Yeager as the total personification of grace under pressure. He stands alone at the top of the pyramid. Shepard's rugged good looks and clipped expressions suggest the mythic qualities that we haven't seen since John Wayne led 'The Searchers'."

Blake Goble, The Michigan Daily:
"The narrator forewarns the viewer: 'There was a demon that lived in the air. They called it the sound barrier.' Enter Chuck Yeager, never cocky, anxious or attention-seeking like some modern 'heroes.' Sam Shepard brilliantly channels the mysticism, fear and respect that surrounded Yeager."

Dragan Antulov,
"Sam Shepard is great as Yeager, war hero whose greatest achievement - breech of the sound barrier - remained obscured in history books, probably due to his own modesty. On the surface, he lacks personality compared with his hyped and more fortunate astronaut colleagues, but Shepard gives texture to this character with subtle gestures and phrases."

People Magazine:
"Test pilot Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier, is played with the right John Wayne touches by playwright-actor Sam Shepard."

Desmond Ryan, Philadelphia Inquirer:
"Kaufman provides a historical and spiritual context in the person of Chuck Yeager, the legendary test pilot who first broke the sound barrier. Sam Shepard plays him with an almost symbolic force as the man who defines an almost indefinable quality."

Mike Lorefice, Metal Asylum:
"The acting, featuring few performers that were names at the time, is excellent. Shepard is the biggest standout. Not surprisingly, he's the silent type, but Yeager is a character of great subtlety complexity."

Rita Kempley, The Washington Post:
"There's Sam Shepard, swaggering with country confidence and sex appeal, as Yeager, first man to break the sound barrier and then some."

Damien Cannon,
"Inevitably some roles hog the show with Shepard excellent as the talented loner Yeager and Harris charming as the popular Glenn."