Sam Shepard, the experimentalist cowboy-style poet who became one of the most significant American playwrights of the 20th century, honored with the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for drama for his play “Buried Child” and with an Oscar nomination for his acting role as aviator Chuck Yeager in the 1983 film “The Right Stuff,” died July 27 at his farm in Kentucky. He was 73.
A family spokesman, Chris Boneau, confirmed his death and said the cause was complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Mr. Shepard came of age in the 1960s, as alternative experimentation transformed the theater scene. In his theatrical works both poetic and mythical, he explored the intersections of an unruly American West and the deep complexities of the fracturing American family.
His best-known plays — including “True West” (1980, about two warring brothers), “Fool for Love” (1983, about a tortured romance) and “A Lie of the Mind” (1985, about a battered woman psychologically tethered to a man) — were packed with physical fights and lyrical, sometimes inscrutable monologues. The visceral power and intriguing subtext of his plays made him a staple on the country’s stages through the 1970s and well into the 1990s.
Mr. Shepard’s output, and his standing as a pivotal theatrical force, declined in the new century, though he continued to act, direct and write. His 2004 “The God of Hell” directly took aim at U.S. policy on torture, with a mysterious governmental agent sending electric current through a suspect as American flags proliferated on the stage.
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Theater critic Michael Feingold once remarked that the paradox of Sam Shepard consisted in his having “the mind of a Kafka trapped in the body of a Jimmy Stewart.”
It was Franz Kafka who wrote that “a book must be the ax for the frozen sea in us.” And in the more than 40 plays that Sam Shepard has written since 1964, this American playwright has been breaking open that frozen sea with an originality of vision, a jolting intermingling of humor and grief, a profound examination of the hopes and failures of the American family and an astonishing ear for the cadences of the American idiom. With plays like The Unseen Hand, Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child (for which he won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize), True West, Fool for Love and the recent A Lie of the Mind, Shepard has cloaked himself in the mantle once worn by Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams.
This Franz Kafka with a lariat, this desert-haunted cowboy-stranger, has also, as an actor, attained the popularity of matinee idols such as Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper. With his lean, Sam Shepard lanky, cleft-chinned, high-cheekboned, snaggletoothed, blue-eyed good looks, Sam Shepard has been a magnetic presence in films such as Days of Heaven, Resurrection, Frances, The Right Stuff, Country and Fool for Love.In the words of The Right Stuff‘s director, Phil Kaufman, “[Shepard] has a quality that is so rare now – you don’t see it in the streets much, let alone in the movies – a kind of bygone quality of the Forties, when guys could wear leather jackets and be laconic and still say a lot without verbally saying anything.”
Born Samuel Shepard Rogers III on November 5th, 1943, in Fort Sheridan, Illinois, Shepard was an Army brat whose family was stationed for various periods in South Dakota, Utah, Florida and Guam and finally settled down on an avocado ranch in Duarte, California – an end-of-the-road valley town east of Los Angeles. At 19, he left his family and came to New York City as an aspiring actor and musician, started writing his superenergized, music-driven early plays, eventually moved to London with his actress-wife, O-Lan, and son, Jesse, then returned to northern California. He now lives on a farm in Virginia with actress Jessica Lange (with whom he appears in the film version of Beth Henley’s play Crimes of the Heart, directed by Bruce Beresford) and their daughter, Hannah, and Jessica’s daughter, Alexandra. Like Bob Dylan, whom he resembles in many ways, Sam Shepard is an intensely private person who shies away from journalists, preferring to allow transformed glimpses of himself to appear in his plays and in books like Hawk Moon and the wonderful Motel Chronicles – collections of poems-meditations-dreams-journals-visions. (Don Shewey’s recent biography, Sam Shepard, gives an insightful view of the playwright’s life and particularly of his complicated, shattered relationship with his alcoholic father.)
In conversation, Sam Shepard is happy to speak directly about things that concern him and indirectly about issues of superficial or only “personal” importance. With an undeniably engaging blue-eyed squint and a kind of Western-swing twang to his voice, he continually displays an unnerving, surprising and charmingly boyish sense of humor. But most disarming of all is the way he unhesitatingly confronts, explores and clarifies the most painful and sorrowful of matters – loss, separation, disillusionment, powerlessness, weakness, fear, lies.
In his most recent play, A Lie of the Mind, Sam Shepard has made his most fearless, controlled and deep penetration into the realm of the American psyche. For in this story of two American families – with its revelations and reconciliations of the relationships between and among a violent son, his battered wife and his angelic brother – the playwright shows how personal and social dreams and lies are one and the same, creating, as he once said Bob Dylan created, “a mythic atmosphere out of the land around us. The land we walk on every day and never see until someone shows it to us.”
It was in an old-fashioned, unassuming drugstore on Carton Drive in Beverly Hills, California – one of Shepard’s favorite “reading” haunts – and in the tearoom of the Chateau Marmont Hotel, in Hollywood, that the following interview took place earlier this year.
He would call me late in the night from somewhere on the road, a ghost town in Texas, a rest stop near Pittsburgh, or from Santa Fe, where he was parked in the desert, listening to the coyotes howling. But most often he would call from his place in Kentucky, on a cold, still night, when one could hear the stars breathing. Just a late-night phone call out of a blue, as startling as a canvas by Yves Klein; a blue to get lost in, a blue that might lead anywhere. I’d happily awake, stir up some Nescafé and we’d talk about anything. About the emeralds of Cortez, or the white crosses in Flanders Fields, about our kids, or the history of the Kentucky Derby. But mostly we talked about writers and their books. Latin writers. Rudy Wurlitzer. Nabokov. Bruno Schulz.
“Gogol was Ukrainian,” he once said, seemingly out of nowhere. Only not just any nowhere, but a sliver of a many-faceted nowhere that, when lifted in a certain light, became a somewhere. I’d pick up the thread, and we’d improvise into dawn, like two beat-up tenor saxophones, exchanging riffs.
He sent a message from the mountains of Bolivia, where Mateo Gil was shooting “Blackthorn.” The air was thin up there in the Andes, but he navigated it fine, outlasting, and surely outriding, the younger fellows, saddling up no fewer than five different horses. He said that he would bring me back a serape, a black one with rust-colored stripes. He sang in those mountains by a bonfire, old songs written by broken men in love with their own vanishing nature. Wrapped in blankets, he slept under the stars, adrift on Magellanic Clouds.
Sam liked being on the move. He’d throw a fishing rod or an old acoustic guitar in the back seat of his truck, maybe take a dog, but for sure a notebook, and a pen, and a pile of books. He liked packing up and leaving just like that, going west. He liked getting a role that would take him somewhere he really didn’t want to be, but where he would wind up taking in its strangeness; lonely fodder for future work.
In the winter of 2012, we met up in Dublin, where he received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Trinity College. He was often embarrassed by accolades but embraced this one, coming from the same institution where Samuel Beckett walked and studied. He loved Beckett, and had a few pieces of writing, in Beckett’s own hand, framed in the kitchen, along with pictures of his kids. That day, we saw the typewriter of John Millington Synge and James Joyce’s spectacles, and, in the night, we joined musicians at Sam’s favorite local pub, the Cobblestone, on the other side of the river. As we playfully staggered across the bridge, he recited reams of Beckett off the top of his head.
Sam promised me that one day he’d show me the landscape of the Southwest, for though well-travelled, I’d not seen much of our own country. But Sam was dealt a whole other hand, stricken with a debilitating affliction. He eventually stopped picking up and leaving. From then on, I visited him, and we read and talked, but mostly we worked. Laboring over his last manuscript, he courageously summoned a reservoir of mental stamina, facing each challenge that fate apportioned him. His hand, with a crescent moon tattooed between his thumb and forefinger, rested on the table before him. The tattoo was a souvenir from our younger days, mine a lightning bolt on the left knee.
Going over a passage describing the Western landscape, he suddenly looked up and said, “I’m sorry I can’t take you there.” I just smiled, for somehow he had already done just that. Without a word, eyes closed, we tramped through the American desert that rolled out a carpet of many colors—saffron dust, then russet, even the color of green glass, golden greens, and then, suddenly, an almost inhuman blue. Blue sand, I said, filled with wonder. Blue everything, he said, and the songs we sang had a color of their own.