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.”
Mr. Shepard brought a singular dramatic voice to the creation of a world that literary critic Walter Kirn once described as “Grass-Roots Gothic, infused . . . with a sense of folksy madness and populist brutality.’’
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.”
Born Samuel Shepard Rogers III on Nov. 5, 1943, he came naturally by his Strindbergian view of love, marriage and family. The father for whom he was named was an alcoholic, nomadic man, and he haunts Mr. Shepard’s work.
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.
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.”
Sam Shepard, second from left, at his wedding to the actress O-Lan Jones at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery in 1969. Credit Michael Evans/The New York Times
“He was blessed with good fortune, always in the right place at the right time,” said Peter Stampfel, who met Mr. Shepard in a pawnshop in the East Village where Mr. Stampfel was retrieving a violin he had pawned to buy amphetamines.
Off Off Broadway in the mid-1960s was wide open. An actor in one theater might be designing costumes in a second, then rushing to see a new play in a third.
It was an incredibly exciting time,” said Tony Barsha, a playwright and director who worked with Mr. Shepard at Theater Genesis. “We thumbed our noses at Broadway and Off Broadway because they were so slick and commercial, and what we were doing was just off the wall stuff,’’ he added. “Nobody was thinking of art for the ages. Sam was just dashing this stuff off. His early work was just what came out of his head. It had nothing to do with dramatic construction or form or history. I think he was using a lot of drugs at the time, speed mainly. I did the same thing.”
The front cover of “Indian War Whoop,” an LP by The Holy Modal Rounders. The band featured Sam Shepard on drums. CreditJ.P. Roth Collection
Mr. Stampfel invited him to play drums in his band, the Holy Modal Rounders, a psychedelic folk group that went on to open for the Velvet Underground, Ike and Tina Turner, Pink Floyd and others. The two shared a taste for drugs and a preference for energy over musical finesse, Mr. Stampfel said this week.
“When we started, he never mentioned writing plays or that he got a grant,’’ Mr. Stampfel said. “We’d mention his name to other people and they’d say, you mean the guy who writes plays?”
With the war raging in Vietnam, and F.B.I. agents storming the apartment on Avenue C looking for subversives, Mr. Shepard avoided the draft by feigning a heroin habit.
When Mr. Shepard married O-Lan Jones, an actress who appeared in some of his plays, in 1969, Mr. Stampfel and the other Rounders performed and handed purple hits of LSD to guests as they entered.
A year later, shortly after the couple had their first child, Mr. Shepard was playing drums with the band on Bleecker Street, when a journalist came backstage to interview them. The journalist was Patti Smith. “She went straight to Sam, and they went straight to the Chelsea,” Mr. Stampfel said.
Their public affair, loosely echoed in a play they wrote together, “Cowboy Mouth,” lasted until Mr. Shepard and his wife reconciled and before long left New York for London and Nova Scotia.
Michael Feingold in the Village Voice, “…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.”
His name and image earned widespread recognition via film, including his Oscar-nominated turn as U.S. Air Force test pilot Chuck Yeager, pictured together, in 1983’s The Right Stuff.
[The movie]“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.”
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.
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.”
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.
Sam Shepard adjusts his sunglasses as he arrives for the screening of the movie The Assasination of Jessie James by the coward Robert Ford during the 64th Venice International Film Festival in September 2007.
“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).
“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.
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.
Black Hawk Down (2004)
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… 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.”
In Michiko Kakutani’s 1984 interview with Shepard, 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.”