A reluctant movie star who was always suspicious of celebrity’s luster, he was more at home as one of the theater’s most original and prolific portraitists of what was once the American frontier.
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Sam Shepard, Pulitzer-Winning
Playwright and Actor, Is Dead at 73
According to The New York Times:
Sam Shepard, whose hallucinatory plays redefined the landscape of the American West and its inhabitants, died on Thursday at his home in Kentucky of complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a spokesman for the Shepard family announced on Monday. He was 73.
Possessed of a stoically handsome face and a rangy frame, Mr. Shepard became a familiar presence as an actor in films that included “Days of Heaven” (1978), “The Right Stuff” (1983) and “Baby Boom” (1987). He bore a passing resemblance to that laconic idol of Hollywood’s golden era, Gary Cooper, and in an earlier age, Mr. Shepard could have made a career as a leading man of Westerns.
According to Wikipedia:
Samuel Shepard Rogers III (November 5, 1943 – July 27, 2017), known professionally as Sam Shepard, was an American playwright, actor, author, screenwriter, and director whose body of work spanned over half a century. He was the author of forty-four plays as well as several books of short stories, essays, and memoirs. Shepard received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979 for his play Buried Child. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (1983). Shepard received the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award as a master American dramatist in 2009. New York described him as “the greatest American playwright of his generation.”
Shepard’s plays are chiefly known for their bleak, poetic, often surrealist elements, black humor, and rootless characters living on the outskirts of American society. His style evolved over the years, from the “absurdism” of his early Off-Off-Broadway work to the realism of Buried Child and Curse of the Starving Class (both 1978).
Shepard was born November 5, 1943, in Fort Sheridan, Illinois. He was named Samuel Shepard Rogers III after his father, Samuel Shepard Rogers, Jr., but his nickname was “Steve Rogers”. His father was a teacher and farmer who served in the United States Army Air Forces as a bomber pilot during World War II; Shepard has characterized him as “a drinking man, a dedicated alcoholic”. His mother, Jane Elaine (née Schook), was a teacher and a native of Chicago.
Shepard worked on a ranch as a teenager. After graduating from Duarte High School in Los Angeles County in 1961, he briefly studied agriculture at nearby Mt. San Antonio College, where he became enamored of Samuel Beckett, jazz, and abstract expressionism. Shepard soon dropped out to join a touring repertory group, the Bishop’s Company.
Writing and acting
Shepard at the age of 21
After securing a position as a busboy at The Village Gate upon arriving in New York City, Shepard became involved in the Off-Off-Broadway theatre scene in 1962 through Ralph Cook, the club’s head waiter. At this time Samuel “Steve” Rogers adopted the professional name Sam Shepard. Although his plays would go on to be staged at several Off-Off-Broadway venues, he was most closely connected with Cook’s Theatre Genesis, housed at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery in Manhattan’s East Village. Most of his initial writing was for the stage; after winning six Obie Awards between 1966 and 1968, Shepard emerged as a viable screenwriter with Robert Frank’s Me and My Brother (1968) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970). Several of Shepard’s early plays, including Red Cross (1966) and La Turista (1967), were directed by Jacques Levy. A habitué of the Chelsea Hotel scene of the era, he also contributed to Kenneth Tynan’s ribald Oh! Calcutta! (1969) and drummed sporadically from 1967 through 1971 with psychedelic folk band The Holy Modal Rounders, appearing on Indian War Whoop (1967) and The Moray Eels Eat The Holy Modal Rounders (1968).
Shepard’s early science fiction play The Unseen Hand (1969) would influence Richard O’Brien’s stage musical The Rocky Horror Show. Shepard’s Cowboy Mouth—a collaboration with his then-lover Patti Smith—was staged at The American Place Theater in April 1971, providing early exposure for the future punk rock singer. The story and characters were loosely inspired by their relationship, and after opening night, he abandoned the production and fled to New England without a word to anyone involved. He wrote plays out of his house and served for a semester as Regents’ Professor of Drama at the University of California, Davis. Shepard accompanied Bob Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Revue of 1975 as the ostensible screenwriter of the surrealist Renaldo and Clara (1978) that emerged from the tour; because much of the film was improvised, Shepard’s services were seldom utilized. His diary of the tour (Rolling Thunder Logbook) was published by Penguin Books in 1978. A decade later, Dylan and Shepard co-wrote the 11-minute “Brownsville Girl”, included on Dylan’s Knocked Out Loaded (1986) album and later compilations.
In 1975, he was named playwright-in-residence at the Magic Theatre, where he created many of his notable works, including his Family Trilogy. One of the plays in the trilogy, Buried Child (1978), was the play that won him a Pulitzer Prize and marked a major turning point in his career, heralding some of his best-known work, including True West (1980), Fool for Love (1983), and A Lie of the Mind (1985). A darkly comic tale of abortive reunion, in which a young man drops in on his grandfather’s Illinois farmstead only to be greeted with devastating indifference by his relations, Buried Child saw Shepard stake a claim to the psychological terrain of classic American theatre. Curse of the Starving Class(1978) and True West (1980), the other two plays of the trilogy, received their premier productions. Some critics have expanded this trio to a quintet, including Fool for Love (1983) and A Lie of the Mind (1985).
Shepard began his acting career in earnest when he was cast as the handsome land baron in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), opposite Richard Gere and Brooke Adams. This led to other important film roles, including that of Cal, Ellen Burstyn’s love interest, in the film Resurrection (1980), and most notably his portrayal of Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (1983). The latter performance earned Shepard an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. By 1986, his play Fool for Love was getting a film adaptation directed by Robert Altman, in which Shepard played the lead role; his play A Lie of the Mind was being performed Off-Broadway with an all-star cast (including Harvey Keitel and Geraldine Page); and Shepard was subsequently working steadily as a film actor – all of these achievements put him on the cover of Newsweek.
Throughout the years, Shepard has done a considerable amount of teaching on writing plays and other aspects of theatre. His classes and seminars have occurred at various theatre workshops, festivals, and universities. Shepard was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1986. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1986. In 2000, Shepard decided to repay a debt of gratitude to the Magic Theatre by staging his play The Late Henry Moss as a benefit in San Francisco. The cast included Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, and Cheech Marin. The limited, three-month run was sold out. In 2001, Shepard had a notable role as General William F. Garrison in the box office hit Black Hawk Down. Although he was cast in a supporting role, it reinvigorated interest in Shepard as an actor among the public and critics alike.
Shepard performed Spalding Gray’s final monologue Life Interrupted for its audio release through Macmillan Audio in 2006. In 2007, he contributed banjo to Patti Smith’s cover of Nirvana’s song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on her album Twelve. Although many artists have had an influence on Shepard’s work, one of the most significant has been actor-director Joseph Chaikin, a veteran of the Living Theatre and founder of a group called the Open Theatre. The two have often worked together on various projects, and Shepard acknowledges that Chaikin has been a valuable mentor.
In 2010, a revival of A Lie of the Mind was staged in New York at the same time as Shepard’s play Ages of the Moon (2010) opened there. Reflecting on the two plays, Shepard said that, to him, the older play felt “awkward”, adding, “All of the characters are in a fractured place, broken into pieces, and the pieces don’t really fit together,” while the newer play “is like a Porsche. It’s sleek, it does exactly what you want it to do, and it can speed up but also shows off great brakes.” The revival and new play also coincided with the publication of Shepard’s collection Day out of Days: Stories (the title echoes a filmmaking term). The book includes “short stories, poems and narrative sketches… that developed from dozens of leather-bound notebooks [Shepard] has carried with him over the years.” In 2011, Shepard starred in the film Blackthorn.
He will be missed.