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by Bamber Gascoigne

Sam Shepard (1943-2017) - in full Samuel Shepard Rogers


Playwright and actor, a major force in contemporary American theatre since his earliest work. Shepard's plays are not easy to categorize, but in general they blend images of the Old West, fascination with pop culture – rock and roll, drugs and television – and bizarre family problems. In 1971 Shepard stated that "I don't want to be a playwright, I want to be a rock and roll star..." Before he was thirty, Shepard had over thirty plays produced in New York. Shepard repeatedly examined the moral anomie and spiritual starvation that label the world of his drama.

LEE: I don't need toast. I need a woman.
AUSTIN: A woman isn't the answer. Never was.
LEE: I'm not talkin' about permanet. I'm talkin' about temporary.

(from True West, 1981)

Sam Shepard was born Samuel Shepard Rogers III in Fort Sheridan, Illinois, where the family had deep roots. "My name came down through seven generations of men with the same name each naming the first son the same name as the father," Shepard later wrote. His father, Samuel Shepard Rogers, was an Air Force man, who had been a bomber pilot in World War II. After the war he got a Fulbright fellowship, and taught high school Spanish.

Shepard's mother, Jane Elaine (Schook) Shepard, was born in Chicago. When Sam Rogers, Sr., was still in the army, she moved around between various army bases, until he got out of the service. The family eventually settled in California, where they raised sheep and grew avocados in their farm in Duarte. As a boy, Shepard imagined himself as a film star, often Gary Cooper or Burt Lancaster, whose smile he tried to imitate in front of a bedroom mirror. Shepard's youth was shadowed by his father's descent into alcoholism and the deterioration of the family. At high school, he took little interest in his classes, but read poetry and played drums in a garage band.  His discovery of his love of theatre was sparked by Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot, a revelation for him. Especially Shepard's early plays show absurdist influence.

Shepard studied agriculture at San Antonio Junior College, but after a year he joined a touring company of actors. Later he was appointed playwright-in-residence at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco. At the age of 19, he settled in New York, where he changed his name from Steve Rogers to Sam Shepard. He supported himself by serving tables at the Village Gate, and pursued his theatrical interests. His first complete play, Cowboys, was autobiographical, and received good review in The Village Voice. Shepard's reputation was built with a series of one act-plays, produced in off-off Broadway theatres. He worked at experimental spots like La Mama, Cafe Cino, the Open Theatre, and the American Place Theatre. In the mid-1960s, he also played drums in the Holy Modal Rounders. After receiving a Rockefeller Foundation grant and a Guggenheim grant, Shepard become a full-time writer.

In the 1965-66 season, Shepard won Village Voice newspaper's Obie awards for his plays Chicago, Icarus's Mother, and Red Cross. The works were written hastily. His bizarre comedy, La Turista, was produced in 1967 in New York and two years later in London. In the New York Review of Books, Shepard was called "one of the three or four most gifted playwrights alive." During these years Shepard met the writer-director Joseph Chaikin, with whom he would collaborate in the seventies and eighties. Also European drama in the sixties influenced deeply Shepard's work, especially Beckett.

With the rock singer Patti Smith he collaborated on the rock opera Cowboy Mouth (1971), which was premiered in Edinburgh, Scotland. Though Shepard was married at the time, they began a love affair. "Sam is reallt the most true American man I've ever met," she once recalled, "in as far as he's also hero-orientated. He has a completely western-romance mind. He loves gangsters, he loves cowboys. He's totally physical." (from Patti Smith: An Unauthorized Biography by Victor Bockris and Roberta Bayley, 1999, p. 69)

Shepard's first wife O-Lan Johnson was an actress. They were married from November 1969 until their divorce in July 1984. In 1983, Shepard began a relationship with the actress-producer Jessica Lange, with whom he had acted in the 1982 film Frances. Shepard starred with Lange in Richard Pearce's Country (1984), and in Wim Wenders's Don't Come Knocking (2005).

Despite the critical acclaim of Mad Dog Blues (1971), Shepard left New York, its drug scene, and moved with his wife and son to England, where he lived until 1974. He wrote several medium-length plays, that were success on both sides of the Atlantic, among others The Tooth of Crime (1972), a musical-fantasy about an outlaw-rock star which was staged at the Open Space Theatre in New York, and Geography of a Horse Dreamer  (1974), a mystery about a young cowboy, produced at the Royal Court and directed by Shepard. Not feeling at home in London, he said in a letter to his friend Johnny Dark that "[t]hen we get snubbed all these stoney faced English twerps who're all taking themselves so seriously it's hard to imagine how they get out of bed in the morning."

In the mid-1970s, Shepard wrote in California the plays that secured his reputation – Curse of the Starving Class (1976), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child (1979), a story of incest and murder. The play opened at the Magic Theater in San Francisco on June 27, 1978. It was later produced in New York City at the Theater for New York City, from where it moved to Off-Broadway Theater de Lys in Greenwich Village. On one level the story deals with the passing of the family farm from Dodge, representing the older generation, to Vince, his grandson. On the other level the play is a mythical story of a family curse. Dodge dies unnoticed after saying: "When the blaze is at its highest, preferably on a cold, windless night, my body is to be pitched into the middle of it and burned til nothing remains but ash." He apparently has committed infanticide and his son Tilde brings the buried child out of his grave, Shelley, Vince's girlfriend, leaves him. "Just as Shepard's success in the Off-Broadway theater helped to pave the way for greater recognition for other avant-garde playwrights such as David Mamet make similar translations. Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago (pr. 1974) was made into the film About Last Night (1986), and he has since become one of the film industry's most respected writers and directors, achieving a critical as well as popular acclaim for films including House of Games (1987)." (from Chronology of Twentieth-Century History: Arts & Culture, volume II, ed. by Frank N. Magill, 1998)

Often Shepard's characters are deprived of their dreams and sense of continuity. Motel Chronicles (1984), a semiautobiographical work, ends with a poem about Shepard's mother-in-law Scarlett Johnson, who had suffered in 1979 a cerebral hemorrhage that resulted in aphasia. His plays express a sense of loss, nostalgia for the original rural world and the national myths, destroyed by pragmatism, money and power. In the modern world, the connection between myth, land, community, and a feeling of purpose in life had been broken. All we have, Shepard said, is "ideas that don't speak to our inner self at all..."

A Lie of the Mind (1986), a poetic look at the American West, won New York Drama Critics Circle Award. In 1986 Shepard was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. One of Shepard's trademarks, breathtaking monologues, were according to the author mixed up with the idea of an aria. "But then I realized that what I'd written was extremely difficult for actors. I mean, I was writing monologues that were three or four pages long. Now it's more about elimination, but the character still sometimes move into other states of mind, you know, without any excuses. Something lights up and the expression expands." (from Playwrights at Work, ed. by George Plimpton, 2000)

As a film actor and scriptwriter Shepard started his career in the 1960s. With the director Michelangelo Antonioni and Tonino Guerra and Clare Peploe, he co-wrote the script for Zabriskie Point (1970), but was not happy with Antonioni's Marxist overtones. He appeared as the doomed farmer in Terence Malick's Days of Heaven (1978), acted in Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff (1983), and was nominated for an Oscar for his role as the test pilot Chuck Yeager. In the mid-1980s, Shepard's stature in the American theatre had reached its apogee.

Fool for Love, Shepard's one-act play published in 1983 and filmed in 1985, reaffirmed his place in the front rank of  traditional leading men in Hollywood. Shepard  played in the screen adaptation with Kim Basinger, and began to take roles in several other movies. Originally the play was produced in New York by Shepard himself and the Magic Theatre of San Francisco, with Ed Harris and Kathy Baker in the central roles. Robert Altman's film version was shot in Santa Fe, where Shepard was living at that time. When the play was staged in a single room, Altman broke the stage confinement by shots of the New Mexico desert, flashbacks, and shots through  windows. Shepard himself performed the role of Eddie, an ageing rodeo rider.

In 1988, Shepard made his debut as a director with Far North, starring Jessica Lange; his attempt at directing received lukewarm responses. Also Silent Tongue  (1994), which he wrote and directed, was a critical and popular failure, but the these disappointments with the world of cinema did not end his career as playwright. He turned back to the theatre, and wrote the expressionistic States of Shock (1991), a response to the first Gulf War. Both Simpatico (1994), which he started to write while he was driving to Los Angeles, and Eyes for Consuela, which premiered in 1998 at the Manhattan Theater Club, were considered failed attempts. The latter was based on Octavio Paz's short story 'The Blue Bouquet.' "What is less expected is how tame and conventional this talky, discursive work turns out to be," said Ben Brantley in his review (the New York Times, Feb. 11. 1998). Crusing Paradise (1996) contained 40 short stories exploring the themes of solitude and loss of angry and anguished men. After a long pause as a theater director, Shepard directed his new play, The Late Haenry Moss (2000) in San Francisco at the Magic Theatre, starring Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, and James Gammon.

With his family Shepard lived from the mid-1990s in Stillwater, Minnesota; they sold their Victorian house in for $1.825 million in 2008. Shepard and Lange already had moved to New York City, where they had purchased an apartment at One Fifth Avenue near Washington Square Park. In an interview he revealed that he don't own a computer ("I don't have any of that shit").

During his late period, Shepard worked in various media. As an actor, he portrayed calm and fatherly men of power and responsibility – in Black Hawk Down (2001) he was Major General William F. Garrison, and in The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford (2010) he played Frank James, the older brother of Jesse James (Brad Pitt). "The gang members are like sidemen for Elvis, standing by in subservience, keeping the beat, all except for Frank, who Sam Shepard plays as the insider who understands it all." (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times, October 4, 2007)

Shepard confessed that he has struggled with alcohol since he was in high school, but he has never seen alcohol or drugs as a partner to writing. In the 1990s, he started going to AA. Reportedly his favorite drink was Woodford Reserve Bourbon. Shepard was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving in Santa Fe, N.M., in May 2015. He told police he had two tequila drinks. Sam Shepard died of ALS at his home in Kentucky, on July 27, 2017. 

For further reading: Sam Shepard: A Life by John J. Winters (2017); The Late Work of Sam Shepard by Shannon Blake Skelton (2016); Sam Shepard and the Aesthetics of Performance by Emma Creedon (2015); Understanding Sam Shepard by James A. Crank (2012); World Authors 1995-2000, ed. by Clifford Thompson and Mari Rich (2003); The Cambridge Companion to Sam Shepard by Matthew Roudané (2002); Playwrights at Work, ed. by George Plimpton (2000); A Body Across the Map by Michael Taav (1999); The Theatre of Sam Shepard, ed. by Stephen J. Bottoms (1998); Sam Shepard by Carol Rosen (1998); Sam Shepard and the American Theatre by Leslie A. Wade (1997); Sam Shepard by Don Shewey (1997); Sam Shepard by Laura J. Graham (1995); Sam Shepard on the German Stage by Carol Benet (1993); True Lies by Jim McGhee (1993); A Reconstruction-Analysis of 'Buried Child' by Playwright Sam Shepard by Frederick J. Perry (1992); Rereading Shepard, ed. by Leonard Wilcox (1992); Sam Shepard: A Casebook, ed. by Kimball King (1989); Sam Shepard's Metaphorical Stages by Lynda Hart (1987); American Dreams, ed. by Bonnie Maranca (1981)

Selected works:

  • Cowboys, 1964
  • The Rock Garden, 1964
  • La Turista, 1966
  • Five Plays, 1967
  • Operation Sidewinder, 1970 (Chigaco, Icarus's Mother, Red Cross, Forteen Hundred Thousand, Melodrama Play)
  • The Unseen Hand and Other Plays, 1970  (The Holy Ghostly, Back Bog Beast Bait, Forensic and the Navigator)
  • The Tooth of Crime, 1972
  • Mad Dog Blues and Other Plays, 1972 (Cowboy Mouth, Rock Garden, Cowboys Nr. 2.)
  • Geography of a Horse Dreamer, 1974
  • Killer's Head, 1975
  • Angel City, 1976
  • Suicide in B Flat, 1976
  • Curse of the Starving Class, 1978
    - Kuin yö lankeaa kirous (suom. Lauri Sipari, 1986)
  • Seduced, 1979
  • Buried Child, 1979 (Pulitzer Prize)
    - Haudattu lapsi (suom. Lauri Sipari, 1983)
  • Seven Plays, 1981 (Buried Child, Curse of the Starvig Class, The Tooth of the Crime, La Turist, True West, Tongues, Savage/Love)
  • True West, 1981
    - Tosi länsi (suom. Rauno Ekholm, 1982)
  • Fool for Love, 1983
    - Ikuisesti sinun (suom. Rauno Ekholm, 1984)
  • Paris, Texas, 1984
  • Motel Chronicles, 1984
    - Motellin aikakirjat (suom. Jorma Moilanen, 1985)
  • A Lie of the Mind, 1986 (New York Drama Critics Circle Award)
  • The Unseen Hand and Other Plays, 1986
  • States of Shock, 1991
  • Simpatico, 1994
    - Simpatico (suom. Juha Rosma, 1997)
  • Cruising Paradise, 1996
  • Eyes for Consuela, 1999 (based on a story by Octavio Paz)
  • The Late Henry Moss, 2001
  • Great Dream Of Heaven, 2002
  • The God of Hell, 2005
  • Kicking a Dead Horse, 2007
  • Day out of Days: Stories, 2010
  • Ages of the Moon, 2010
  • Fifteen One-act Plays, 2012
  • Heartless: A Play, 2013
  • 2 Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark, 2013 (edited by Chad Hammett)
  • The One Inside, 2017 (foreword by Patti Smith)

Films (as actor, scriptwriter or director):

  • Me and My Brother, 1969 (doc. drama, co-script)
  • Brand X, 1969 (dir. and written by Win Chamberlain)
  • Easy Rider, 1969 (voice only, dir. Dennis Hopper, starring Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson)
  • Zabriskie Point, 1970 (dir. Michelangelo Antonioni)
  • Bronco Bulfrog, 1970
  • Oh Calcutta!, 1972 (co-script)
  • Renaldo and Clara, 1978 (co-script with Bob Dylan, dir. Bob Dylan)
  • Days of Heaven, 1978 (dir. Terrence Malick, starring Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard)
  • Resurrection, 1980 (dir. Daniel Petrie, starring Ellen Burstyn, Sam Shepard)
  • Raggedy Man, 1981 (dir. Jack Fish, starring Sissy Spacek, Eric Roberts)
  • Frances, 1982 (dir. Graeme Clifford, starring Jessica Lange, Kim Stanley, Sam Shepard)
  • The Right Stuff, 1983 (as Col. Chuck Yeager, Academy Award nomination, dir. Philip Kaufman, starring Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward)
  • Paris, Texas, 1984 (co-script from Sam Shepard's story Motel Chronicles, dir. Wim Wenders, screenplay Sam Shepard, adapted by L.M. 'Kit' Carson, music by Ry Cooder, starring Harry Fean Stanton, Dean Stockwell, Aurore Clement, Hunyter Carson, Nastassja Kinski. - Travis Anderson walks through the Texas desert and comes to a small border town. He has been away four years, his mind gone from the break-up of his marriage. He tells his brother Walt his story on the drive back to Los Angeles. Walt and Ann have taken care of Travis's young son Hunter. Travis starts to search his wife Jane with Hunter. Travis meets her in a sex-fantasy booth, but do not reveal his identity until their second meeting. Hunter stays with Jane, it is Travis's desire to reunite mother and son. Travis returns to the road alone. The key scene is the confrontation between Travis and Jane through the peepshow mirror. - Paris, Texas is a plot of land. Travis has bought it with the dream of settling there with his family.)
  • Country, 1984 (co-starring with Jessica Lange, dir. Richard Pearce)
  • Fool for Love, 1985 (also script, from his own play, starring Kim Basinger, Sam Shepard, Randy Quaid)
  • Crimes of the Heart, 1985 (dir.Bruce Beresford, starring Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, Sissy Spacek)
  • Baby Boom, 1987 (dir. Charles Shyer, starring Diane Keaton, Harold Ramis, Sam Wanamaker)
  • Far North, 1988 (dir., script)
  • Steel Magnolias, 1989 (dir. Herbert Ross, starring Sally Field, Dolly Parton, play by Robert Harling)
  • Bright Angel, 1990 (actor, dir. Michael Fields)
  • Passagier Faber/Voyager, 1990 (dir. Volker Schlöndorff, based on Max Frisch's novel Homo Faber)
  • Defenseless, 1991 (actor, dir. Martin Campbell)
  • Thunderheart, 1992 (dir. Michael Apted, starring Val Kilmer, Sam Shepard)
  • The Pelican Brief, 1993 (dir. Alan J. Pakula, based on John Grisham's novel, starring Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, Sam Shepard)
  • Silent Tongue, 1994 (dir., script)
  • Safe Passage, 1994 (dir. Robert Allan Ackerman, starring Susan Sarandon, Sam Shepard, based on the novel by Ellyn Bache)
  • The Good Old Boys, 1995 (actor, TV film dir. Tommy Lee Jones)
  • Lily Dale, 1996 (TV drama, dir. Peter Masterson, screenplay by Horton Foote)
  • Simpatico, 1999 (dir. Matthew Warchus, starring Nick Nolte, Jeff Bridges, Sharon Stone, Catherine Keener, Albert Finney, based on a play by Shepard)
  • Purgatory, 1999 (actor, TV film dir. Uli Edel)
  • Dash and Lilly, 1999 (actor, TV film dir. Kathy Bates)
  • Curtain Call, 1999 (actor, dir. Peter Yates)
  • Snow Falling on Cedars, 1999 (dir. Scott Hicks, starring Ethan Hawke, James Cromwell)
  • All the Pretty Horses, 2000 (dir. Billy Bob Thornton, starring Matt Damon, Henry Thomas, based on Cormac McCarthy's novel)
  • The Pledge, 2001 (actor, dir. Sean Penn, starring Jack Nicholson, based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt's novel)
  • Swordfish, 2001 (dir. Dominic Sena, starring John Travolta, Halle Berry, Hugh Jackman)
  • Black Hawk Down, 2002 (actor, film dir. Ridley Scott)
  • True West, 2002 (TV film, dir. Graeme Clifford, based on Shepard's play)
  • See You in My Dreams, 2004 (TV film, dir. Graeme Clifford, based on Cruising Paradise and Motel Chronicles)
  • Don't Come Knocking, 2005 (actor, script, dir. Wim Wenders, also starring Jessica Lange, Tim Roth)
  • Stealth, 2005 (actor, dir. Rob Cohen)
  • Bandidas, 2006 (actor, dir. Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg)
  • Walker Payne, 2006 (actor, dir. Matt Williams)
  • The Return, 2006 (actor, dir. Asif Kapadia)
  • Charlotte's Web, 2006 (voice, dir. Gary Winick)
  • Ruffian, 2007 (actor, TV film dir. Yves Simoneau)
  • The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 2007 (actor, dir. Andrew Dominik)
  • The Accidental Husband, 2008 (actor, dir. Griffin Dunne)
  • Felon, 2008 (actor, dir. Ric Roman Waugh)
  • Brothers, 2009 (actor, dir. Jim Sheridan)
  • Border Crosses, 2010 (actor, dir. Gary Lankford)
  • Tough Trade, 2010 (actor, dir. Gavin Hood)
  • Inhale, 2010 (actor, dir. Baltasar Kormákur)
  • Blackthorn, 2011 (actor, dir. Mateo Gil)
  • Darling Companion, 2012 (actor, dir. Lawrence Kasdan)
  • Safe House, 2012 (actor, dir. Daniel Espinosa)
  • Savannah, 2012 (actor, dir. Annette Haywood-Carter)
  • Killing Them Softly, 2012 (actor, dir. Andrew Dominik, based on George V. Higgins's novel Cogan's Trade)
  • Mud, 2013 (actor, dir. Jeff Nichols)
  • Savannah, 2013 (actor, dir. Annette Haywood-Carter)
  • Out of the Furnace, 2013 (actor, dir. Scott Cooper)
  • August: Osage County, 2013 (actor, dir. John Wells)
  • Cold in July, 2014 (actor, dir. Jim Mickle)
  • Klondike, 2014 (actor, TV-Mini-Series)
  • Ithaca, 2015 (actor, dir. Meg Ryan; based on The Human Comedy by William Saroyan)
  • Midnight Special, 2015 (actor, dir. Jeff Nichols)
  • Bloodline, 2015-2017 (actor, TV series) 
  • In Dubious Battle, 2016 (actor, dir. James Franco, based on a novel by John Steinbeck)
  • Never Here, 2017 (actor, dir. Camille Thoman)

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