THE BLOG
11/12/2013 04:18 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Right Stuff Is Still Thrilling After 30 Years!

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Nancy Pelosi flew into Los Angeles for a screening on Wednesday evening. The House Minority Speaker arrived at the Landmark Theatres about 7 p.m. and she and her bodyguards were whisked up to the main theatre there, the one with the big screen. I was seated a few rows in front of her and joined in the applause when she entered. The occasion was a celebratory screening with a new print of the epic landmark film, The Right Stuff, which had its moment (or two) of fame 30 years ago. Its director, Phil Kaufman, had told me a few minutes earlier that she was coming, since her daughter is married to Phil's son. I have known Kaufman for a very long time. We were both officed at Universal Studios decades ago, just after he finished a Western film, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, and I was producing the W.C. Fields movie there. (Phil went on to direct a raft of remarkable films, from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Henry and June, to Quills.)

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Director Phil Kaufman and Producer Irwin Winkler on stage, photo by my I-Phone.

Also at the screening was Irwin Winker who, with his partner Bob Chartoff, had produced the film in 1982. I had a long history with Irwin: It was the late 60s, and I was the production head of a new film company called Palomar/ABC Pictures. The first property I bought was a short story by Horace McCoy called "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" A screenwriter I knew had written on spec a film version of that depression-era drama about a dance marathon and the desperate people who inhabited it. He wanted to direct it and we agreed... for under a million dollars in one large set in an abandoned gym. That was, until Jane Fonda agreed to star in it. And then it became a different, more costly ballgame... and the original screenwriter/director was lost in the process. We brought in two young producers to shepherd the project, Irwin and Bob, before they had done the iconic Rocky picture, which established their fame and fortune. (You'll remember 'Horses' featured Gig Young, who was nominated and won an Oscar, Michael Sarrazin and Red Buttons. Director was Sydney Pollack, a former actor doing his first directing stint.)

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The actors portraying the seven astronauts. photo by me from the screen.

Also present on Wednesday at the screening was Dennis Quaid, who played astronaut Gordon Cooper in the drama, as well as many of the above-and-below-the-line people who had helped create the masterpiece. Several of the women who played the wives of the astronauts were there, and received hearty applause. In the pre-screening Q&A session, Winkler detailed how he and his partner beat out Universal Pictures for the film rights to Tom Wolfe's best-selling 1979 book called The Right Stuff, about the Navy, Marine and Air Force test pilots who were involved in aeronautical research at Edwards Air Force Base in the California desert, as well as detailing the seven military pilots who were selected to be the astronauts in the first attempt at manned space flight by the U.S. I made a note of narrator Levon Helm's comment at the opening of the film: "There's a demon...that lives in the air. And they say whoever challenges him....would die." As I watched it again, I remembered how much I had been fascinated by the tale of intrepid rocket-powered aircraft test pilot Chuck Yeager and his lovely wife Glennis. Despite the fact that he was never selected as an astronaut because "he did not have a college degree," he was certainly the best test pilot ever... the first man to fly at supersonic speed, defeating "the demon in the air." The film ends on a high note of heroism when he succeeds in returning after an accident on a space flight and is ejected. Sam Shephard as Yeager steals the picture for me, and I am struck by what a magnificent movie star he could and should have been, in the ilk of Gary Cooper and John Wayne. His wife was played by the wonderful Barbara Hershey.

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Astronaut returns from space flight. photo from screen

You may recall the picture shows the selection and training of the seven original astronauts of the Project Mercury space program. Fresh in my mind was the new film Gravity, and I was struck by the way it had been preceded by this picture of 30 years ago when special effects and CGI were not the norm. Kaufman retained much of Wolfe's irreverent humor (did he ever!) and pushed the envelope with a filmmaking bravado to match the soaring tale of training and heroism. We see the sudden fame which envelops the seven guys, who were unprepared for it. Nominated for 8 Academy Awards, it won four. The cast of the film included Ed Harris, who got to play the straight-arrow John Glenn after two auditions, and I remembered that Ed was the narrator of some of the NASA dialogue in Gravity. We see Scott Glenn, so good as Gus Grissom, Fred Ward, Kim Stanley, Veronica Cartwright (present, who played Betty Grissom), Mary Jo Deschanel, Kathy Baker and Pamela Reed, several of whom were on stage this night. Oscar-nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel was there with his wife, who got her role of Annie Glenn by chance. Phil said, "I couldn't cast the role, and then one day I looked around at the camera crew... and she was there and she was 'it.'"

The film details how the launch of the Russian Sputnick satellite in 1957 alarmed the U.S. Government and especially Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, who comes off in the picture as an arrogant and uncaring bully. We see how Shepard is the first American to reach space, Grissom's ill-fated flight, and Glenn becomes the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962. The film was financed by Alan Ladd's "The Ladd Company" at Fox after UA and several others pulled out. Originally harnessed by an "R" rating because of five uses of the "f" word and one implied masturbation scene, it was later revised to a PG on appeal. Roger Ebert called it "one of the best films of the decade," and it was critically well-received and did a substantial amount of business. Only this week a new 30th anniversary Blu-ray edition has been released by Warners, and it includes three documentaries on the making of the film, a feature-length PBS documentary on John Glenn, and a 40-page bookbinding case. The extras are in standard DVD format. I strongly urge you to get a copy for those of your friends and family who never saw the original. You and they will be stunned by this intimate three-hour epic.

I must close on a note of nostalgia... about the men we hailed as heroes in the early days of space travel. In the mad merciless world of today, we often lose sight of selfless acts of heroism by average people stretched to amazing lengths. They had and still have "the right stuff".... and set an example for all of us to follow.

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