When he wrote his 1979 book about the original seven U.S. astronauts, Tom Wolfe turned his stirring narrative into a best-seller—and coined a new catchword for the American language. Today The Right Stuff is not only the title of his book, as well as the just released movie version, but is the best description available of the young couple now blasting off professionally in Wolfe’s wake. He is actor Scott Glenn, 44, who portrays astronaut Alan Shepard to boisterous perfection onscreen. She is Carol Schwartz Glenn, 39, a ceramist, fledgling painter and mother of their daughters, Dakota, 12, and Rio, 10.
Glenn (no relation to Senator John) landed the choice part when director Phil Kaufman, whom he has known since 1973, sent him the script and an invitation to choose which of the seven astronauts he wanted to portray. “I fell in love with Alan Shepard,” says Scott. “He was the icy Navy commander, the king of the Cape [Canaveral]. Also, he’s comedic in his relationship with the other astronauts. I hadn’t read the book by Tom Wolfe before I took the part,” Glenn continues. “I wasn’t interested in astronauts. My vision was that they were squeaky clean, fairly dull, nothing-to-write-home-about guys. Now I feel they were freakier than Frank Zappa. When you think what type of personality wants to go into outer space, it’s not someone who wants to toe the line.”
Glenn prepared himself for the role with almost exasperating thoroughness. “Preparation, for me, is the whole thing,” he explains. “That’s when the hard work comes in. I’m sure one reason I became an actor is my basic unwillingness to live one life. Acting gives you cosmic permission to take a trip in movies that lasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until the film is finished.”
Getting ready for the Shepard role, he watched thousands of feet of NASA videotapes for as much as four hours a day for a month and even forced himself to turn right-handed for the part, though he is a southpaw. He talked to people who knew Shepard, though not, it happens, to Shepard himself. Glenn didn’t want to be a carbon copy; he wanted to create his own character.
Glenn has no idea how Shepard will react to his characterization, but he suspects he may have made the commander seem crazier than he actually was. Still, the tales about “Smilin’ Al” Shepard abound. “I loved it when I heard from NASA guys how he would wail through Cape Canaveral in a silver Corvette, with cops following him in hot pursuit. He’d scream onto the base, and it was off-limits to the Florida police. Every time he’d outrun one, he’d put a picture of a cop car on the side of his own car.”
The Right Stuff caused a temporary disruption in the Glenns’ marriage. “Scott was great when he was Alan Shepard,” Carol exclaims. “There was only one problem. When he went to San Francisco to shoot some sequences, he moved into a bachelor apartment and became very military. There wasn’t room for me.” The separation, however, was only physical; they kept in touch with daily telephone calls.
Most of Scott’s assignments have been able to accommodate his family, and Carol and the girls have accompanied him on location to London, Tokyo and Durango, Mexico, among other places.
The Glenns live in a two-story condominium overlooking the spectacular Sawtooth mountains in Ketchum, Idaho, where Ernest Hemingway lived and died. In season, they ski across their backyard to the nearby lift chairs. Both Scott and Carol are athletic, outdoor types, though Carol was not always that way. It was Scott’s role in Personal Best, as the coach of Olympic pentathlete Mariel Hemingway (a friend and Ketchum neighbor), that aroused her interest. “Now I run and train with weights,” she says. “Scott and I do things together like hiking and climbing, and when we get to the top of the mountain, we’ll have a picnic.”
Carol and Scott felt an attraction to each other from the moment they met, on a blind date in New York. He was an aspiring actor, the son of a Pittsburgh traveling salesman; she was a lissome model from Queens. “We went to the movies,” Scott recalls. “The theater was dark, but she has an electricity. She’s such a beautiful, sexy woman, without realizing it.” Carol was modeling for Glamour and Mademoiselle, and Scott, who had majored in English at William and Mary and done a hitch in the Marines, was hoping for a Broadway break. They became sweethearts, and when Carol went off to France on a modeling assignment, the lovelorn Scott followed her and persuaded her to return to New York early. They were married, but not until he had converted from Catholicism to her Jewish faith. They settled into a Greenwich Village apartment. Scott got a lucrative job as “summer villain” in the soap opera, The Edge of Night, and Carol went to pot, taking a ceramics course at Cooper Art School. She has spun her potter’s wheel ever since and now has a carriage-trade clientele that includes such celebrities as Herve Villechaize and Burt Lancaster, who recently commissioned a $750 ceramic dinner service for 12 from her.
After his stint on Edge of Night, Scott decided that he was meant for the big screen. The Glenns moved West, but acting jobs in Hollywood were harder to come by than in New York. More than once in the next few years, he was on unemployment, and Carol sometimes had to help support the family, working in the kitchen and serving for a caterer. The babies were born (Scott, a Lamaze graduate, delivered Rio himself, then carried her around to meet the family cats and dogs). In 1975 Scott’s luck changed when he got a small role as Pfc. Glenn Kelly in Robert Altman’s Nashville. Three years later the Glenns decided they no longer needed to stay in Hollywood to make it in pictures and moved to Ketchum, where she wanted to potter around in her own studio and he wanted to breathe the air. He has averaged a film a year since, including, in 1980, his most acclaimed role to date, as the bad guy in John Travolta’s Urban Cowboy. The next stop, with The Right Stuff in the can, is outer space.