In Shepard, who rose to prominence as an off-off-Broadway innovator, Kaufman saw echoes of the real-life Yeager’s swagger. Shepard, on the other hand, was not easily convinced. From Wired:

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.

As a playwright, Shepard was one of the most influential pioneers of the American alternative theater of the 1960s and 1970s. In 1979, his Buried Child won the Pulitzer Prize, part of what would be an acclaimed trilogy with Curse of the Starving Class and True West. His plays often presented a hard-bitten and fantastical vision of the American West. Shepard also acted in Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven and Daniel Petrie’s Resurrection.

Once he became part of Kaufman’s script, Yeager—the first pilot to break the sound barrier—would become an important part of the making of the movie, as a technical consultant. (Yeager also played a bartender at a high-desert saloon frequented by the test-pilot corps, and came to be a fan of Shepard’s myth-making, Oscar-nominated portrayal.)

Shepard embodied Yeager from the opening scene, as John Noble Wilford wrote in the Times in 1983:

There, at the movie’s beginning, is Chuck Yeager on horseback out on the desert, alone on the crest of a hill, an evocation of the classic Western hero, and then he comes upon his destiny, the X-1 rocket plane that he must ride alone up to meet the demons in the sky. He was the solitary, unsung hero.

That such an iconic moment of American cinema almost never came to be seems unthinkable now. Just as indelible is the vision of a burned and battered Shepard, as Yeager, walking from the charred wreckage of his Lockheed F-104 Starfighter.

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