The playwright who became a reluctant star
Sam Shepard 1943–2017
With his rugged good looks, gravelly voice, and understated magnetism, Sam Shepard was an actor in the classic Hollywood mold. Moviegoers knew Shepard as the haunted, dying farmer in Days of Heaven (1978); the unflappably cool test pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (1983); and the general whose mission goes badly wrong in Black Hawk Down (2002). Many critics said that Shepard, who died last week of complications from ALS, could have been his generation’s Gary Cooper—but he didn’t want the role. Shepard was more at home in the theater, writing more than 50 poetic plays, including True West (1980), Fool for Love (1983), and the Pulitzer Prize–winning Buried Child (1978), that examined the fading American West and the darker sides of family life. “It’s one of the great tragedies of our contemporary life in America that families fall apart,” he said. “Almost everybody has that in common.”
Samuel Shepard Rogers III was born in Fort Sheridan, Ill., but “grew up on his family’s avocado farm in Duarte, Calif.,” said The New York Times. He repeatedly clashed with his alcoholic father, a former U.S. Army pilot, and at 19, Shepard left home to join a traveling theater troupe. “Ending up in New York City, he worked as a waiter and started knocking out one-act plays for the off-off-Broadway circuit,” said The Guardian (U.K.). The profane language and hallucinatory nature of his early works outraged some theatergoers, but critics lavished praise on the young playwright. As he began to focus on acting in the late ’70s, Shepard wrote his crowning achievement, Buried Child. The play revolved around a dysfunctional Midwestern family dominated by a “gone-to-seed patriarch marinated in booze.” Shepard’s father turned up at one performance and drunkenly berated the cast. “He took it personally,” said the playwright.
Shepard’s subsequent plays—including Pulitzer finalist True West, “about two brothers who thrash each other and trash their mother’s house”—were often violent, physical affairs, said The Washington Post. His output and his standing as a theatrical force declined in the new century, but Shepard continued to act and write, driven by his desire to explore humanity’s contradictions and complications. “There are these territories inside all of us, like a child or a father or the whole man,” he said. “That’s what interests me more than anything: where those territories lie.”