'The Right Stuff' Filmmaker Remembers Sam Shepard: He Was "Born With the Gift of a Golden Ear"

Kevin Winter/Getty Images (Kaufman); TriStar Pictures/Photofest (Shepard)
Sam Shepard, a Pulitzer-winning playwright, died July 27 of ALS. (Inset: Philip Kaufman)

Philip Kaufman recalls the playwright and actor, who received an Oscar nomination for playing legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager.

In the early '80s, writer/director Philip Kaufman (The Wanderers) took on the task of adapting Tom Wolfe's 1979 nonfiction best-seller The Right Stuff, which documents the Project Mercury space program. A central character is U.S. Air Force General Chuck Yeager, who in 1947 became the first man to break the sound barrier. While shut out of the space program, Yeager exemplified an earlier generation of test pilots against which the Mercury Seven measured their own accomplishments, and Kaufman knew casting the right actor to play Yeager would be crucial to the success of the movie. Kaufman spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about casting Sam Shepard, who died Thursday, in the role that would earn him an Oscar nomination.

Sam was doing a poetry reading at the Intersection Theater in San Francisco. My wife, Rose, and I went to catch it. I had written the screenplay for The Right Stuff but didn't know who was going to play Yeager. Rose said, "That's your guy." I said, "Who're talking about?"

Yeager was a stalky, military general, sort of a Robert Duvall type, but Duvall was a little bit older than I wanted to cast. But listening to Sam read, I got what she was talking about, because even though Sam was this tall, gangly guy who looked nothing like Yeager, he had that quality, a certain truth, a sort of cowboy feeling. It was a good starting point for a story about a guy named Yeager and astronauts and test pilots, but also about a quality called "the right stuff."

Sam didn't want to do the role at first. He didn't think he was right for it, but the more he read the script and thought about it, it began to dawn on him that he might be right.

He and Yeager didn't hit it off right away. Yeager was a conservative general, and Sam was a freewheeling, progressive-thinking guy, but in the course of their first meeting, somehow I got them talking and sharing things about each other. And they realized that even though they were different in many ways, there were certain things that they didn't really talk about, and that was the quality — called "the right stuff" — that they each understood the other had.

In the course of the movie, they became great friends. Yeager was sort of like Sam's father, that mysterious figure in his plays who hovers around like a ghost, the father figure that separates the various sons who are in conflict.

Sam was born with the gift of a golden ear. He had perfect pitch in some ways. Most of the lines in the script passed his test, but occasionally he would bend a line, give it some other rhythm or would just throw in a line. When he's picking up Barbara Hershey in the bar — we don't know yet she's his wife — Sam threw in, "I'm half jackrabbit," just perfect for somebody hopping through the desert. 

Just thinking about Sam, I've been saying that guy you're writing about in the obituaries is not Sam. That's a guy who died. Sam's still there. He's now like that ghostly figure of his own father who's inside the characters in his plays because he lived a life of such intensity. His voice got inside of me. And that makes him still alive for me."

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.