Sam Shepard: The playwright and actor's greatest roles

The late star's early works baffled critics but he went on to win the Pulitzer

Sam Shepard
(Image credit: Amy Sussman/Getty Images for World Science Festival)

Multiaward-winning playwright and actor Sam Shepard, who died yesterday at the age of 73, began his artistic career with work that "baffled critics".

Despite earning acclaim for the likes of True West, Fool for Love and Buried Child, for which he won the Pultizer Prize, his first plays were more like "drug-fuelled visions, incomplete and frequently incomprehensible", says The Guardian, "but always with an undertow of brilliance".

According to Libby Hill in the Los Angeles Times, he was the "paragon playwright of the American West".

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Shepard spent his childhood "bouncing around the heartland" of the US before dropping out of college and travelling to New York with a repertory company.

He fell in love with rock musician Patti Smith in 1971, reports The Independent, and "as legend has it", together they wrote the play Cowboy Mouth over a "few insomniac, hallucinatory nights". They starred together in the first US production, but while the show lasted a few performances, their relationship didn't and the play soon disappeared.

Shepard went on to become "one of one of the most important and influential writers of his generation" with work focusing on "the darker sides of American family life", says Ben Brantley in the New York Times.

Despite his "stoically handsome face", he was a "reluctant movie star who was always suspicious of celebrity’s lustre". Nevertheless, he appeared in a series of critically acclaimed films and television shows.

Here are five of his most iconic moments.

Days of Heaven

Shepard's first major acting role was in Terrence Malik's Days of Heaven in 1978. He plays The Farmer, a wealthy, dying man who employs two drifters, Abby and Bill (Brooke Adams and Richard Gere), who he thinks are brother and sister but are in fact lovers. After marrying Abby, The Farmer discovers she is continuing her affair with Bill and seeks revenge. Despite his hard role, Shepard adds a sympathetic edge to the violent rage that overtakes his character.

The Right Stuff

Shepard earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as Chuck Yeager, a cocky, driven pilot determined to break his own speed records. He gives the competitive character a noble side, with the pilot hoping his work will benefit his country and humanity. Thanks to Shepard, Yeager’s story becomes an emotional and inspiring tale of a man who transcends his humble beginnings and personal suffering to travel into space.

Paris, Texas

Shepard was behind the camera on this one, co-writing the script with German director Wim Wenders. Paris, Texas, a lyrical tale of a road trip that becomes an existential journey, features one of films great monologues as a haunted Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) is reunited with his long-lost lover Jane (Nastassja Kinski) at a peep show and retells the story of their tragic relationship. Like many of Shepard's best plays and roles, the film captures a sense of intimacy, regret and longing emerging stemming from broken relationships and families.

Black Hawk Down

Shepard stands out in Ridley Scott's harrowing and visceral 2001 war film featuring an ensemble cast including Ewan McGregor, Josh Hartnett and Tom Sizemore. He lends his steely and rugged qualities to the role of the beleaguered but determined Major General William F Garrison, the real-life commander of a fraught military operation launched in 1993 to capture a Somali warlord. Shepard also wrote some of his own dialogue.



One of Shepard's last roles was in this southern gothic original Netflix series. He plays Robert, the brooding patriarch of the Rayburn family, who runs a luxurious Florida hotel resort but holds his son Danny responsible for a tragic incident many years before. Robert's inability to forgive becomes one of the catalysts for the series of increasingly desperate actions undertaken by the Rayburns to maintain their hard-won facade as happy and successful family.

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