Broadway World has broken the sad and startling news that “playwright, actor, author, screenwriter, and director Sam Shepard has passed away. Shepard, who had been ill with ALS for some time, died peacefully on July 27 at his home in Kentucky.” He was seventy-three.
“One of the most important and influential early writers in the Off Broadway movement, Mr. Shepard captured and chronicled the darker sides of American family life in plays like Buried Child, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1979, and Curse of the Starving Class, and A Lie of the Mind,” writes Sopan Deb for the New York Times. “He was widely regarded as one of the most original voices of his generation, winning praise from critics for his searing portraits of spouses, siblings and lovers struggling with issues of identity, failure and the fleeting nature of the American dream. He was nominated for two other Pulitzers, for True West and Fool for Love, which both received Broadway productions.”
“Shepard was already an established name in the theater when he began appearing in movies,” writes Kate Erbland, “and he first major credited role was as The Farmer in Terrence Malick’s 1978 opus Days of Heaven. While always remaining steadfast in his affection for the stage, he went on to star in such films as Resurrection, Country, Baby Boom, and Steel Magnolias.” Also for IndieWire, Michael Nordine gathers tweeted tributes from Ava DuVernay, Jeff Daniels, and many more.
“His name and image earned widespread recognition via film, including his Oscar-nominated turn as U.S. Air Force test pilot Chuck Yeager in 1983’s The Right Stuff, director Philip Kaufman’s acclaimed adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s book about the Mercury 7 astronaut program,” writes Andrew Husband for Uproxx.
“Shepard wrote the screenplays for Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas, and Robert Altman’s Fool For Love, a film version of his play of the same title,” writes Elbert Wyche for Screen. “As a writer-director, he filmed Far North and Silent Tongue in 1988 and 1992, respectively.
For Deadline, Jeremy Gerard writes that “Shepard, like Bob Dylan, a Midwest transplant to New York’s creatively roiling, devoutly anti-Establishment downtown scene of the 1960s, came of age in the anarchic, off-off-Broadway theaters—Theatre Genesis, Caffé Cino, Judson Poets’ Theatre and La Mama Experimental Theatre Club. His early plays grafted the energy and often the music of rock ‘n’ roll onto the free-wheeling open verse of protest and youth worship. His affair and collaboration with poet and rocker Patti Smith resulted in Cowboy Mouth, whose hero was described in semi-mythic terms (‘a rock-and-roll Jesus with a cowboy mouth’).”
Speaking of Dylan, though, Duane Byrge and Hilary Lewis note in the Hollywood Reporter that Shepard “made his screen acting debut in Bob Dylan's movie Renaldo and Clara. . . . Shepard also played drums in a band he formed called The Holy Modal Rounders, who were featured in Easy Rider, and he accompanied Bob Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour.”
Gordon Cox for Variety: “Born Samuel Shepard Rogers III, in Fort Sheridan, Ill., he worked on a ranch as a teen and discovered Samuel Beckett—as well as jazz and abstract expressionism—at Mt. San Antonio College before he dropped out to join a touring theater repertory troupe. Later in life, he had a nearly 30 year relationship with Jessica Lange, whom he met when he collaborated with her on 1982 movie Frances. They separated in 2009. Shepard is survived by his children, Jesse, Hannah, and Walker Shepard, and his sisters, Sandy and Roxanne Rogers.”
Updates: In a 2010 piece for the New Yorker, John Lahr wrote that “even as a new arrival in the city he seemed instinctively to understand the importance of image. ‘Use yer eyes like a weapon. Not defensive. Offensive,’ a character in his play The Tooth of Crime (1972) says, adding, ‘You can paralyze a mark with a good set of eyes.’ Shepard had such a pair. His almond-shaped blue eyes looked out at the world with wry detachment; they imposed on his passionate nature a mask of cool. . . . Years of living with invasive family aggression—‘The male influences around me were primarily alcoholics and extremely violent,’ he said—had taught Shepard to play things close to his chest: to look and to listen. ‘I listened like an animal. My listening was afraid,’ Wesley, the son in Shepard’s 1978 play Curse of the Starving Class, says, describing his method for coping with his drunken father. Shepard was a man of few words, many of them mumbled. Compelling to look at but hard to read—at once intellectually savvy and emotionally guarded—he exuded the solitude and the vagueness of the American West.”
Also via Movie City News is now-departing NYT book reviewer Michiko Kakutani’s 1984 interview with Shepard, in which she noted that he’d “created a fictional world populated by cowboys and gunslingers, ranchers and desperadoes, but these characters all find that the myths they were raised on somehow no longer apply. Eddie the wrangler-hero of Fool for Love . . . finds that he has nothing better to lasso than the bedposts in a squalid motel room. The Hollywood hustlers in Angel City look out their window and see not the fertile valleys of the Promised Land, but a smoggy city of used-car lots and shopping centers—a city waiting for apocalypse. And the old-time outlaws, who pay a visit to the present in The Unseen Hand, discover that there are no more trains to rob, that there is no place for heroics, that it is no longer even possible to tell the good guys from the bad.”
Writing for Cowboys & Indians, Joe Leydon reminds us that Shepard “couldn’t claim actual Western roots. But the minor detail of his being born (on November 5, 1943) in Sheridan, Illinois, mattered very little to his many fans and admirers. . . . Whether it was a frontier lawman who needs a shot at redemption in Purgatory (1999), a former Texas Ranger who reluctantly joins a manhunt in Streets of Laredo (1995), or a burnt-out western movie star who wants to repair frayed family ties in Wim Wenders’s Don’t Come Knocking (2005), Shepard effortlessly conveyed the authority and authenticity that audiences traditionally associate with the strong-and-silent icons who gallop through our collective pop culture consciousness. In recent years Shepard appeared in the Netflix series, Bloodline.”
“At the time of Shepard's death,” writes Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com, “Shepard was still a sought-after supporting actor, often in in folksy or grizzled roles: in the last five years, his matinee-idol handsomeness, tethered to the mundane real world only by the snaggly front teeth he refused to have fixed, finally gave way to a weathered grandfatherly look; he turned it to his advantage, displaying a versatility that wasn't obvious when he was younger. In August: Osage County, Killing Them Softly, Mud, Out of the Furnace, and Midnight Special, he showed signs of turning into the 21st century's closest equivalent to the character actor Ben Johnson, who served as the (sometimes bright, sometimes dark) heart of sixties and seventies films like The Wild Bunch and The Last Picture Show. All his life Shepard had been fascinated by idea of the frontier and the end of it, and at last we could see it in his face.”
“Film directors loved him,” writes Jim Windolf in the NYT. “Directors of photography probably loved him more. He was at the far edge of handsome, where it begins to tip over into pretty. Like Gary Cooper, to whom he was often compared, Mr. Shepard knew he didn’t have to do much to hold an audience’s attention. Hit the mark. Make the camera come to you. Don’t lard up a line of dialogue with a cheap display of emotion.”
And Joshua Barone gathers clippings from reviews of Shepard’s work as a playwright, author, and actor that have appeared in the NYT over the years.
“Shepard’s best film script was Paris, Texas (1984), a loose adaptation of his book Motel Chronicles that he developed with the director Wim Wenders and co-wrote with L. M. Kit Carson,” writes the Atlantic’s David Sims. “That was the movie that came closest to evoking the wild spirit of Shepard’s playwriting, following a mute amnesiac (Harry Dean Stanton) who wanders the South Texas desert and eventually reconnects with his estranged brother (Dean Stockwell), young son, and mysterious former love (Nastassja Kinski). It won the Palme D’Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival.”
Benjamin Ryder Howe, Jeanne McCulloch, and Mona Simpson interviewed Shepard in 1997 for the Paris Review: “The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap. Why not be more honest with the moment? The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning. That’s genius. Somebody told me once that fugue means to flee, so that Bach’s melody lines are like he’s running away.”
Updates, 8/1: “The few brief times I encountered him in this century,” writes Michael Feingold in the Village Voice, “I would always think for an instant that I was encountering an ambulatory myth—The American Cowboy—and not my longtime acquaintance, Sam Shepard, the playwright, that quirky constructor of hypnotically fascinating plays, who had really wanted to be a rock drummer and had somehow settled for being a world-class movie star instead, while continuing to turn out quirky, fascinating plays.”
Lara Zarum presents more from the Voice archives: “In a 1965 issue of the Voice, Edward Albee reviewed one of Shepard’s first plays, Icarus’s Mother; the following year, the paper gave Shepard his first formal prize, an Obie Award for Best Distinguished Plays. On October 27, 1975, the Voice published Shepard’s first major profile, in which Irene Oppenheim and Victor Fascio christen the then-31-year-old ‘the most promising playwright in America today.’”
“I've always felt a great affinity with music,” Shepard told Jonathan Cott in a 1986 Rolling Stone interview. “I’ve felt myself to be more of a musician than anything else . . . and writing seems to me to be a musical experience—rhythmically and in many other ways. But I don't think that that's so unusual. Most of the old guys had the same sense—Christopher Marlowe thought of himself as a musician. Just another musician killed at a bar [laughs] . . . and there's that theory that he was Shakespeare.” Do go on, Cott encourages. “I mean, look at the plays, the way they suddenly shift gears—from the earlier period to those later tragedies. Something happened that nobody knows about.”
“Eugene O’Neil brought gravitas to the American theater,” writes Charles McNulty in the Los Angeles Times. “Tennessee Williams allowed it to lyrically sing. Arthur Miller raised its political temperature. And Edward Albee infused it with an absurdist flair. But it took Sam Shepard, the greatest playwright to emerge from the economically strapped, artistically fertile off-off Broadway movement launched in the 1960s, to make the American theater finally seem cool.”
“I’ve never read a writer less afraid of risking embarrassment or self-parody,” writes Isaac Butler for Slate. “Take Shepard’s 1972 play The Tooth of Crime, a dystopian sci-fi almost-musical in which an aging rock star named Hoss attempts to consolidate and expand his power against a number of threats, including his old rival Mojo Root Force and a young up-and-comer named Crow. It culminates in what I can only describe as a rap battle, which Hoss loses. Crow ends the play sitting atop Hoss’s throne after Hoss kills himself. The Tooth of Crime is Shepard’s Zardoz, a work so totally original, and utterly bananas, that it transcends ideas of quality until you’re just grateful an artist singular enough to create it lived.”
For Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, the “supreme, and crowning, irony” is “that Shepard had found stardom and glory by portraying, in effect, the living incarnation of the core American values that his stage plays . . . said, in one way or another, had all gone up in smoke. He was playing the soul of an America that no longer existed. Yet he played it so slyly, with such stirring conviction and understatement, that it’s as if he marked the moment when the longing for those values—the ones shredded by the counterculture—began to make a comeback.”
In 2014, writing for Esquire, Nick Schager wrote that Shepard was “something like an archetypal personification of manliness: tall, rugged, handsome, and possessed with a mixture of take-no-shit candor, volatile tempestuousness, and disarming sincerity and compassion. All of those qualities come to the fore in Cold in July, a mesmerizing indie by the writing/directing duo of Nick Damici and Jim Mickle.”
“Though famously hesitant to give interviews, he has, over the years, spoken in a number of places about his writing practice, the books he loved and authors who changed him, the life of the writer, and his relationship with literary inspiration,” writes Emily Temple at the Literary Hub. And she’s “collected some of his wisest and funniest words on the craft.”
Updates, 8/2: When Shepard was stricken with ALS, “I visited him,” writes Patti Smith in the New Yorker, “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. . . . We knew each other for such a long time. Our ways could not be defined or dismissed with a few words describing a careless youth. We were friends; good or bad, we were just ourselves.”
“I first met Sam Shepard at a poetry reading when he was living here in the Bay Area,” writes director Philip Kaufman for Variety. “I was preparing The Right Stuff around then, and trying like hell to find someone who could play Chuck Yeager. Sam got up and read some of his poetry and my wife Rose said, ‘That’s your guy.’ . . . His dialogue was inhabitable. There was a sense of truth and veritas in the way characters spoke in his plays. He had this divining rod that he held over words and behavior, and if it quivered at a certain rare time, he knew it was right. He was the same way as an actor.”
“I did two of Sam’s early plays before I made movies,” writes Richard Gere for the Hollywood Reporter. “There was one in particular called Killer’s Head that was a monologue of a guy strapped into an electric chair and blindfolded. I had nothing to use. My body was strapped. It was all in my voice and my emotions. It certainly took me to another place as an actor. . . . The next time I spoke to him was when we were doing Days of Heaven together. . . . He had all the skills you would want as an actor. He wrote like an actor. He wrote monologues. He wrote the way people think and talk, on the same track.”
And for the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney, “the film role most emblematic of this taciturn neo-Gary Cooper was his first major screen appearance, as the wealthy Texas Panhandle farmer drawn into a deadly romantic triangle in Terrence Malick's haunting 1978 evocation of early 20th-century American life, Days of Heaven. . . . While the celebrated visuals of that film evoke the painters Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper, its magic-hour shots of Shepard amid sprawling wheat fields—a solitary figure with an unforgiving gaze—could just as well be lifted from the playwright's own singular body of work.”
“The effectiveness of Shepard’s performance is doubly impressive considering his near-total lack of dialogue,” writes Adam Nayman at the Ringer. “Although he was only six years older than Gere, Shepard evinces the fatigue and sadness of a man several decades his senior. His intertwining of decency, weakness, and rage gives Malick’s heartland melodrama its sense of tragedy, as well as its soul.”
Sara Holdren talks with director Robert Woodruff, whose “decade-long artistic partnership” with Shepard “would take them from the Eureka and the Magic Theatre in San Francisco to the Public in New York, redefining both their own careers and the face of the American theater. After news broke of Shepard’s death, Woodruff shared memories with Vulture of working with his old friend.”
“I’m struggling along with my play, which is very difficult to write because, finally, I’m beginning to see the absolute hopelessness of all forms of negativity.” The Literary Hub has posted excerpts from Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark.
Updates, 8/3: The Paris Review posts another letter from Two Prospectors.
For Hilton Als, writing for the New Yorker, “while he was associated in films and onstage with the West—or an Old West that his looks made one nostalgic for—his real terrain was black music. In Angel City, a saxophonist speaks through his horn. In a note to the actors, Shepard suggests that they skip character motivation and try to ‘create a kind of music or painting in space.’ In his legendary 1984 revival, the director George Ferencz used music by the jazz legend Max Roach, but if the play was put up today one would easily imagine using Madlib or Nas—hip-hop stars who have taken the genre to a new and personal and abstract level—to create sounds that support, obscure, or italicize Shepard’s stop-and-start speeches.”
At The Conversation, Andrew Dix suggests that “if Shepard’s version of America tends towards the pessimistic, several counter-impulses suggest his attachment still to utopia. One reason for cautious optimism lies in the very openness of those endings with which he struggled as a writer. Travis’s destination as he drives away from Houston at the end of Paris, Texas is unscripted and unmapped—termination is, if only for a while, deferred.”
The Right Stuff “extended the idea of the end of the West into the mid-20th century and showed it playing out through the space program, the media, and the characters’ personalities,” writes B. J. Bethel at RogerEbert.com. “Shepard’s Yeager was the heart of it all. The character didn’t change, but the world around him did.”
Updates, 8/4: Back in 2011, Michael Almereyda spoke with the late Sam Shepard for Interview. This is not a brief conversation. Among the figures they discuss are Eugene O’Neill, Amiri Baraka, Roberto Bolaño, Patti Smith, Samuel Beckett, and John Malkovich.
“Simply by showing up and inhabiting the frame for a few minutes, Shepard could inject a picture with some essential quality that it needed—gravitas, world-weary intelligence, the weight of lived experience.” Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times: “If a picture needed to assure you of its down-home roots or its western bonafides, there was no better resource than Shepard—even when he barely seemed to last beyond the opening credits, as when he played Jesse James’s older brother in the early train-robbery scenes of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). His marvelously boozy one-man prologue in the 2013 film adaptation of August: Osage County inevitably left you wanting more, though as fans of the Netflix series Bloodline know, it wasn’t the last time Shepard would play the patriarch of a large family with many deep, dark secrets.”
Film Comment’s posted the longer versions of The Right Stuff director Philip Kaufman’s stories about casting and working with Shepard.
“Ireland played a significant part in his later career,” writes Donald Clarke in the Irish Times. “Two plays by Shepard, Kicking a Dead Horse and Ages of the Moon, had their world premieres at The Abbey Theatre, and in 2012 he received an honorary doctorate from Trinity College Dublin. . . . In 2013, Shepard helped Derry celebrate its time as UK City of Culture by writing and appearing in a new play titled A Particle of Dread. His old friend, the Irish actor Stephen Rea, appeared in that production.”
Brian Cullman has a short but sweet story to tell for the Paris Review.
Update, 8/5: When Shepard arrived in New York at the age of nineteen, “he looked up a high school friend, Charles Mingus Jr., son of the jazz great, who got him a job at the Village Gate nightclub, ‘cleaning up dishes and bringing Nina Simone ice,’ as Mr. Shepard once described it.” John Leland for the New York Times: “The two friends shared a cold-water apartment on Avenue C and Ninth Street, paying $60 a month in rent. . . . Even then, Mr. Mingus said in an interview this week, ‘He could walk into a room with a typewriter and not leave until he finished a play. No revisions, just typing.’ When Ralph Cook, a waiter at the Village Gate, started the Theater Genesis at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery in 1964, he gave Mr. Shepard his first break — a pair of experimental one-acts that used disjointed dialogue to ‘change the audience’s cognition,’ Mr. Mingus said. The Village Voice loved it, and Mr. Shepard was off.”
NPR’s posted Terry Gross’s 1998 interview with Shepard for Fresh Air (17’12”).
Update, 8/6: “He was always looking for a fight and looking for a joke and looking for who loved him, who was going to ignite the longing and keep him warm for a while.” American Theatre posts an excerpt from O-Lan Jones’s forthcoming memoir, Fire Road. Jones was married to Shepard from 1969 to 1983.
The magazine’s also gathered tributes from Suzan-Lori Parks, Robert Woodruff, Jean-Claude van Itallie, and Loretta Greco.
Update, 8/7: “I was never the biggest fan of Paris, Texas, although it is a gorgeous and moving film,” writes Alex Carnevale at This Recording. “Wenders and Shepard finally reunited to atone for the sins of the past with 2005’s Don’t Come Knocking, which is substantially better in every way. Let me tell you why.”
Update, 8/12: “The longer I lived with Shepard’s plays, the more the archetype of the housewife—the great boogeyman of my youth—lost its power,” writes Sylvie McNamara for the Paris Review. “In the final scene of A Lie of the Mind, another put-upon wife and mother watches Lorraine’s house burning from her porch across the stage. Though she might have been alarmed, instead she is perplexed, even awed. That fire seems to be an inkling of another life, one that is undefined but urgent and possible, if only she can summon the courage and vision to create it. I relate to her now; Shepard’s plays were one such fire for me.”
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