“Do not eat the meat!”
Veronica Cartwright says that while filming the huge Houston barbeque scene in The Right Stuff, a booming voice shouted over and over again with a reminder to not eat the steak served on all of the plates. Indeed, in the film, plates and plates of food are shown, and Dennis Quaid and Fred Ward are even seen eating baked beans, but never does anyone take a bite of meat. (The cast and extras didn’t go hungry. Cartwright says after the scene was over, they were each handed a bag of McDonald’s food.)
Cartwright played Betty Grissom, wife of Ward’s astronaut character Gus Grissom, in The Right Stuff. She and Mary Jo Deschanel, who played John Glenn’s wife Annie, discussed the making of the film with Ben Mankiewicz at the 2018 Turner Classic Film Festival.
The Right Stuff tells the story of the beginnings of the U.S. space program through the eyes of the astronauts that risked it all to go into space and their wives.
The two credited writer-director Philip Kaufmann for creating an environment where the actresses playing the wives could bond, and therefore, quickly create the familiarity that developed over time amongst the wives of America’s first astronauts. “They stuck us in honey wagons. I [shared] with Pamela Reed,” says Cartwright. “We had big dresses so one person would have to stand on the toilet to get dressed, it was so small!”
Deschanel adds, “Phil told me, ‘I think the women are much more fascinating characters.’ And, he set up an atmosphere that supported the women.”
Both actresses were unable to meet their real-life counterparts. Gus Grissom’s portrayal in The Right Stuff is based on the scandal that unfolded but the portrayal is ultimately unfair, leaving the audience to question if Gus Grissom did indeed “blow the hatch” of the Liberty Bell 7 capsule after splashdown (this accusation had been debunked long before the film was made). Therefore, Betty Grissom was not supportive of the film. As for the Annie Glenn, John Glenn was running for president of the United States during the production of The Right Stuff, and Deschanel says the Glenns “didn’t want to have anything to do with the film.”
The actresses were still able to research their roles as Kaufmann provided each of the actors “huge packets of film footage” of the real people they would be portraying. One thing Cartwright saw in the footage stuck in her mind as a key to understanding Betty Grissom: her unusual straw purse she carried to a ceremony where she believed she was going to meet First Lady Jackie Kennedy. “I had to find that bag!” says Cartwright, “It said so much about her!”
Another fond memory the actresses shared was of the actors playing the press. Unlike in the film, the actors playing the reporters enhanced – not hounded – the lives of “the wives.” “The ‘press corps’ were all part of a theater company [San Francisco’s improv comedy troupe Fratelli Bologna],” says Cartwright. “They would sing and always be entertaining for us! It was a fun atmosphere.”
The actresses took the note. Deschanel and Cartwright say by movie’s end, “the wives” had become a clique and spent time together outside of their shooting days. The women choreographed a song and dance number that they performed at the wrap party.
This year marks the 35th Anniversary of the release of The Right Stuff. This article was written the day it was announced that Tom Wolfe, the author of the novel in which the film is based on, passed away.