Patrick J. Adams did his fair share of research to prepare for his starring role as John Glenn in “The Right Stuff.”
But he already had a head-start on Glenn and his fellow Mercury 7 astronauts, whose complicated, competitive — and, at times, antagonistic — relationships with each other are laid bare in the Disney+ series, adapted from Tom Wolfe’s bestseller and the 1983 big-screen movie (starring Ed Harris as Glenn).
“I was lucky in that I was very familiar with the source material,” says Adams, 39, who filmed “The Right Stuff” premiere while wrapping up “Suits” on USA. “I think, in a lot of ways, [‘The Right Stuff’] was the first book I consciously fell in love with. My father is a journalist and a big fan of Tom Wolfe; he gave me the book when I was around 14 or 15 and I just devoured it.
“It really fed my fascination with the space program, test pilots, aviation — the whole thing,” he says. “I dove in head-first and never stopped swimming in that pool.”
The eight-episode series, premiering Friday, offers a gritty, unvarnished look at Glenn, Alan Shepard, Gordon Cooper, Gus Grissom, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra and Deke Slayton — the first astronauts chosen by NASA for “Project Mercury,” America’s “space race” answer to Russia during the Cold War. In February 1962, Glenn became the first American in orbit.
The seven men were the creme de la creme of America’s jet pilots: whip-smart, supremely confident, fearless and swaggering, with egos to match their extraordinary abilities and All-American images fed to an adoring public. “It was part of the deal in order to keep the attention of the American people and keep the [Congressional] funding flowing,” Adams says. “It was not a time where we saw people in a warts-and-all kind of way. They had to have a very particular version of their lives.”
But behind the bravado they were also human, with everyday frailties including broken marriages, infidelity, petty jealousies and insecurities — all laid bare in “The Right Stuff.”
“These were immensely complicated guys,” Adams says. “Their relationships [with each other] were fractured and there was a lot of manipulation and competition on who was going to be first [in space], particularly between Glenn and Shepard, who had completely different ways of living their lives and were very different personalities. They were also considered the top two contenders for that prestigious first flight — so their competition was very fiery with a lot of conflict.
“It’s fascinating for a space nerd like me to think how their flights were almost extensions of their personalities.”
Glenn was already a semi-celebrity, having appeared on a 1957 episode of game show “Name That Tune” on CBS. He was extremely shrewd and image-conscious vis a vis the press, which helped build his Mercury 7 mythology but didn’t sit particularly well with his fellow astronauts — or his bosses at NASA.
“From the very early stage he understood that being at the top of that food chain in terms of media and culture was going to be a huge part of this,” Adams says. “He was very savvy in that sense, sometimes to his detriment, because it separated him from the group. He wasn’t just a fighter pilot getting this opportunity based solely on his skill, which was enormous, but it was also his maneuvering, his social climbing and cozying up to the president and being very close to the Kennedys … he saw an opportunity and took it, which created a bit of conflict for him and these other guys who just considered themselves good-old-boy jet fighter pilots.
“He was the master maneuverer who was steps ahead of everyone else,” Adams says. “He didn’t mind jumping through hoops. He was known as ‘The Boy Scout,’ the evolved astronaut … but when you got down to it, he was the most disliked among the [Mercury 7] group and the higher-ups at NASA. He was a bit of an oddball.”
Adams read biographies of Glenn, but says he learned even more about him by reading the other Mercury 7 astronauts’ biographies and accounts, including “Light this Candle” (about Alan Shepard).
He also spent time at the John Glenn Archives at Ohio State University. “It’s filled with ephemera, journals, private stuff, not what he was presenting to the world but how he was talking to people in private and communicating with his wife,” he says. “It’s about who he was in the quiet moments, behind closed doors when the cameras were off.
“That, for me, brought him to life.”
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