Before Tom Cruise soared into the danger zone with Top Gun, Sam Shepard, who died Thursday, brought a true American pilot hero to the screen in immortal style.
Shepard’s breakout Oscar-nominated performance as pioneering test pilot Chuck Yeager was the soul of writer/director Philip Kaufman’s 1984 classic The Right Stuff.
The actor effortlessly captured Yeager’s laconic charm, magnetism and quiet confidence while bringing long-overdue popular recognition to Yeager’s accomplishments.
“What’s amazing about that performance is that it doesn’t seem to be a performance at all. Sam Shepard just is Chuck Yeager. He never breaks a sweat,” says film historian Leonard Maltin. “It’s his presence and that effortless charisma that bowls you over. You could say Sam Shepard had the right stuff.”
Adapted from Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book, The Right Stuff follows Shepard as the unflappable pilot who shatters the once seemingly unbreakable sound barrier at Edwards Air Force Base in 1947.
Kaufman was stuck casting the role until he attended a Shepard poetry reading with his wife Rose.
“Rose poked me and said, ‘There’s your guy.’ I said, ‘For what?’ She said, ‘Yeager,’ ” Kaufman told Wired magazine in 2014. “Sam had a cowboy quality to him. He was Gary Cooper.”
Shepard had reservations about taking the role. But once in, he showed Yeager’s courage under fire in the cockpit.
“Sam Shepard’s performance was the very essence of cool,” Top Gun producer Jerry Bruckheimer tells USA TODAY, adding that his “calm, heroic professionalism” was incorporated in the Top Gun pilots.
Tom Hardy’s powerful near-wordless performance as a Spitfire pilot in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk also gives a nod to Shepard’s Yeager, who says, “It’s getting kind of wobbly here,” as his X-1 rumbles to either air explosion or history.
“Chuck Yeager is one of those guys who didn’t have to talk about what he did. He just did it,” says Maltin. “There was no need to boast or brag. And that’s how Shepard approached his acting.”
The Right Stuff contrasts the ultimate pilot with the Life magazine stars — and less-skilled aviators — who were the Mercury 7 astronauts flying into space in America’s first manned spaceflight: John Glenn (Ed Harris), Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) and Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid).
What makes Shepard’s Yeager role especially resonant in a world where people feel increasingly disposable is how the top pilot eventually handles being overlooked for the ultimate assignment.
Rather than live in memories, Yeager attempts to break a high-altitude record. His engine fails, the plane crashes and burns.
But Yeager ejects to safety and emerges from the smoke-filled runway, his burnt head unbowed, with his balled-up parachute in his arm.
“Sir, over there, is that a man?” an ambulance driver asks pulling up.
“Yeah,” the officer replies. “You’re damn right it is.”
Yeager never lost that right stuff. Neither did Shepard.