Ed Harris’ first attempt at playing astronaut John Glenn didn’t go particularly well. “I read for [The Right Stuff] director Phil Kaufman and wasn’t very happy about how it went,” the actor told WIRED a few years ago. “Walking out, I hit the wall pretty hard. Phil saw me do that and said, ‘Oh, the guy’s got spunk.’”
That’s one word that comes to mind when re-watching Harris’ performance in the 1983 classic, in which the then-33-year-old actor depicts Glenn as a wide-eyed, steel-nerved, and generally good-humored American icon. Of course, no performance could ever truly capture the innate can-do-ness of Glenn, who died today at the age of 95. But to younger viewers who had missed out on the space race, Harris’ depiction helped transform Glenn from a history-book figure into a likable, thoroughly adoration-worthy Hollywood hero. He helped bring John Glenn down to earth.
Harris’ best-remembered moments as Glenn, not surprisingly, take place during flight. There’s the capsule lift-off, in which Harris-as-Glenn cycles through an understandably erratic string of emotions—from wide-eyed anticipation to quiet-smile awe to, finally, cheery glee as he reaches the upper atmosphere. “There’s a full moon rising—I can almost touch it,” Harris says, almost-child like, as we spin through orbit alongside him, equally enthused:
Then there’s the re-entry scene, in which Glenn starts humming “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as his capsule makes a fiery descent toward earth. Even as the sparks burn outside his window, and his face starts to contort under the strain, Glenn’s song never stops. It’s one of the most heart-stopping scenes in the movie, with Harris capturing all of Glenn’s toughness and tenacity with minimal dialogue and barely any physical movement:
Yet not all of Glenn’s feats in The Right Stuff were so obviously super-heroic. At one point, after a failed launch attempt, Glenn’s wife, played by Mary Jo Deschanel, is being badgered by Lyndon Johnson’s people, who want her to open her house to the veep—and to the cameras following him around. When she calls up John to let him know what’s happening, he backs her up, essentially telling the big guy to go to hell:
Glenn’s decision, and his rage, are non-negotiable—points that are underlined by Harris, whose no-BS demeanor and calm reaffirmations make it clear that no bureaucrat is going to bully the love of his life. There are countless moments of derring-do in The Right Stuff, but it was scenes like this one that forever burned Harris’ performance into our memories, turning Glenn into a big-screen icon for millions of ’80s kids. Like all heroes—whether they’re in real life, or in the movies—he had integrity, courage, and a deeply ingrained compassion for others. And, when he needed it, he had a little bit of spunk, too.