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Sam Shepard (1943-2017)

by Eric Blume

Sam Shepard in the early days of fame

Although it’s been well over a decade since we’ve had a major contribution from Sam Shepard, his death yesterday at age 73 feels momentous.  He’s our only American playwright to have won a Pulizer Prize as a writer and then gone on to an Oscar nomination for his acting.  He was a symbol of masculinity and a man of great mystery...   

Shepard wrote several provocative plays in the early 1970s but then became the great new hope of American theater when he won that Pulitzer for his stunning 1978 play "Buried Child".  Shepard’s shattering family saga about disillusionment and a vanishing American Dream was written in a poetic language that dipped in and out of naturalism.  It was a work of pure theatrical imagination, harkening back to classic family dramas like "Death of a Salesman" and "Long Day’s Journey into Night," but Shepard had a dreaminess, a distance, and a darkness all his own.  While the play didn’t actually reach Broadway until an excellent 1996 revival (with killer Tony-nominated performances from Lois Smith and James Gammon), the play made a huge impact on the theater after its initial production.  If you took an acting class in the 1980s, you were plunging into scenes from "Buried Child," and the pressure on Shepard to save the theater was enormous.

While Shepard went on to write over fifteen plays in the ensuing years, he never achieved commercial success in the theater.  But at least three of his other plays:  1980’s "True West", 1983’s "Fool for Love", and 1985’s "A Lie of the Mind" are considered major works and receive continual revivals.  Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman and Oscar nominee John C Reilly both received Tony nominations for a 2000 revival of "True West" where they swapped roles now and again, and Sam Rockwell and Nina Arianda gave wonderful performances in the "Fool" revival three years ago.

Shepard’s plays worked against huge canvasses and tackled big themes.  They were messy and difficult, and it’s no surprise that he wasn’t able to find mainstream fame in the theater.  His transition to being an actor was unsurprising, as Shepard had rugged good looks and worked his cowboy archetype to strong effect.  One wonders if Shepard’s heart was ever fully into the acting, but his low-key onscreen energy was a counterpoint to the pained intellectual nature of his writing, and it gave us a chance to witness the complexity of this artist.  

He famously met Jessica Lange on the set of Frances in 1982, and they remained a couple for 27 years until their breakup in 2009.  They were rarely seen together publicly, and in fact the news of their breakup didn’t make proper headlines until two years after they’d parted.  They had two children together, and one can only imagine what their dinner conversations were like.  There’s a fun mystery there:  you could believe they had a volatile, combative, intense relationship or at the same time imagine that they were strikingly ordinary and maybe a little everyday boring.  They never collaborated onscreen after Crimes of the Heart in 1986, and surely that was no mistake on their part. 

Oscar nominated for THE RIGHT STUFF (1983)

Shepard delivered lovely performances over the decades.  He was a perfect visual inspiration for Terrence Malick in 1978’s Days of Heaven; a willowy wonder opposite Sissy Spacek in 1981’s Raggedy Man; a charmer who brought out the sexy in Diane Keaton in 1987’s Baby Boom.  He even made a tiny late-career appearance in August: Osage County a few years ago.  But without question, his acting hit its height in his Oscar-nominated work as Chuck Yaeger in Philip Kaufman’s 1983 film The Right Stuff.  It’s not a big part, but his laconic confidence is at its zenith, and again his acting holds a mystery.  While his iconography as a symbol for the American West and the Lost America is front-loaded, he doesn’t play a symbol.  He keeps Yaeger in a human place, while somehow never fully connecting him to the audience.  He lends the film a potent authenticity, and never felt more right in a movie.

Sam Shepard’s career was unorthodox and more than a little confusing.  He didn’t seem concerned with traditional success and never kowtowed to the lowest common denominator.  It seemed like he was always seeking, and his raw talent was overwhelming.  He’ll be missed.

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Reader Comments (18)

His acting height was his tiny role in Brothers,I have a thing for misunderstood/could been there a bit more Dad roles.

July 31, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I had no idea he had ALS. He was a great playwright and is featured in one my favorite movies, Days of Heaven. Even August: Osage County looks better to me now with some distance, so that is a long and fruitful career for both stage and film. RIP.

July 31, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ford

I used to have a crush on him back in the 80s but over the years have sublimated that crush into respect and awe, witnessing his work as an actor and playwright. The last I watched him was on TV (Bloodline) and I must admit he has more chemistry with Sissy Spacek than with any women he has acted with including his ex (Lange). RIP.

July 31, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJans

He was dreamy in Days of Heaven. I also remember his supporting roles in Crimes of the Heart and Steel Magnolias and his romantic turn in Baby Boom. Those were favorites of mine in the 80s. Now I feel like watching The Right Stuff again. It's been a while. Not that I don't like it, it's just too long.

I love theatre, but I'm not familiar with most of his plays. Maybe not they will get staged more often overseas.

July 31, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Great obit, although my favourite work of his was as the writer of PARIS, TEXAS, one of my top ten films.

July 31, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

True West is a theatre major staple. I went to an arts high school and studied theatre in college and that play was implemented into the curriculum of a class in both places. RIP

July 31, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

His script for Paris, Texas and his performances in Days of Heaven and The Right Stuff are his best work. Truly one of the great icons in American theater and cinema.

It should also be noted that Jeanne Moreau died today at 89.

July 31, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

Jeanne Moreau also died

July 31, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

Actually, Lange and Shepard costarred in 2005's Don't Come Knocking.

July 31, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJake


July 31, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

He had an interesting, beautiful face.

August 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNorman

Sam Shepard has always been a solid presence. When I think of him, the films that come to mind right away are his laconic, possibly corrupt lawman Cooch Coutelle in Michael Apted's Thunderheart opposite Val Kilmer. Shepard was also memorable as an unhinged romantic interest to Ellen Burstyn in Daniel Petrie's rarely-seen/discussed Resurrection also with Eva Le Gallienne.

August 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterOwl

I'm pretty sure that Nathaniel will feed us with a Moreau obit considering he's an actressexual and a francophile.

August 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I thought he did really great in Black Hawk Down. Supposedly, he wrote most of his own lines. Gone too soon.

August 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBen

I recently rewatched The Right Stuff (one of my Top Ten of the 80s) as well as Baby Boom, so Sam Shepard has been right there in front of m eyes recently. He played "regular" guys so well it's strange to always remember he's such an accomplished writer.

August 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Hollywood

Apparently he secretly retired to a farm fifteen minutes from my childhood home. Small world!

August 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

So sad about this loss. But it must be noted that Jason Miller, also a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright for his play That Championship Season, was also nominated for an acting Oscar for his work in The Exorcist 10 years before Shepard

August 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPat

Lange & Shepard worked together again in Wim Wenders' Don't Come Knocking like ten years ago...

August 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterClement_Paris

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