Sam Shepard, who died July 27 at age 73, will be forever linked with the role that transformed him from a boundary-breaking playwright into a movie star, that of the legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff.
Shepard’s star turn wasn’t always part of the script for his life—nor part of the script for the 1983 movie that made him film-famous.
Chuck Yeager was the daring hero of Tom Wolfe’s book, the nonfiction narrative of the founding of the US space program. Independent producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler had bought the film rights in 1979. When the big-time screenwriter they hired, William Goldman, took on the movie-adaptation job, he didn’t include Yeager in the story at all. Goldman’s script focusing on the first astronauts to go into space did get the movie green-lighted.
When Philip Kaufman was brought on to direct, as recounted in the excellent oral history Alex French and Howie Kahn collected for Wired in 2014, things changed. Kaufman thought the movie story should begin where Wolfe had started his book, with the adventures of the swashbucklers who flew the space-scraping missions of the 1950s that blazed the way for the rocket launches of the NASA program.
”If you’re tracing how the future began, the future in space travel, it began really with Yeager and the world of the test pilots,” Kaufman told the New York Times (paywall). “The astronauts descended from them.”
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.