John Glenn, who died today at the age of 95, had a long career in the public eye, which gave him the superlatives of “first American to orbit the Earth” and “oldest man in space,” alongside a tenure as Democratic Senator from Ohio. In death, Glenn has naturally been lauded as a true hero—and that’s how Hollywood always portrayed him as well, right up through the forthcoming Hidden Figures. There Glenn is a secondary character in the story of the black female mathematicians who made unsung contributions to the space program, but Glen Powell plays him as honorable, charming, and unprejudiced. Today Powell tweeted a tribute to Glenn, saying, “Now THAT is how you live a life! Godspeed, John Glenn. A true gentleman who humbly touched the stars and made us believe in the impossible.”
Powell’s portrayal follows in the footsteps of pop culture’s defining take on Glenn (sorry, Sam Reid in The Astronaut Wives Club). Ed Harris played Glenn in The Right Stuff, Philip Kaufman‘s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s book about the Mercury Seven astronauts—a movie of which Glenn was not a fan. “I don’t think any of us cared for the movie The Right Stuff. I know I didn’t,” he once said, according to his Associated Press obituary. Still, it was a favorable portrait, painting Glenn as an upstanding family man who’s devoted to his wife, Annie (Mary Jo Deschanel).
Though Glenn never indulged in jokey television cameos the way, say, Buzz Aldrin did, he did once poke fun at himself in a 2001 episode of Frasier, where Kelsey Grammer’s Frasier and Roz (Peri Gilpin) bicker while ignoring Glenn as he tells a goofy story about seeing aliens.
Outside his fictional portrayals, Glenn was a frequent guest on late-night talk shows, chatting with David Frost, Merv Griffin, and Johnny Carson about his experiences in space and—during his history-making second trip into orbit in 1998—talking to Jay Leno from aboard the space shuttle Discovery. More than a decade later, Leno cited his interviews with Glenn as among the greatest things he’d ever done, saying, “It’s almost hard for people now to understand how big the astronauts were in the early ‘60s. They were like rock stars.”
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