Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Oscar-nominated actor Sam Shepard died at his Kentucky home Thursday, although media outlets were only informed of the death Monday. He died at age 73.
The celebrated actor and author, whose plays chronicled the explosive fault lines of family and masculinity in the American West, died from complications related to Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis).
Shepard, who grew up on a California ranch, was a respectable man who produced 44 plays and numerous books, memoirs and short stories. Some laud him as one of the most influential playwrights of his generation.
In his 1971 one-act “Cowboy Mouth, which he wrote with his then girlfriend, musician and poet Patti Smith, one character says, “People want a street angel. They want a saint but with a cowboy mouth” — a role the tall and handsome Shepard fulfilled for many.
Shepard told The Associated Press in a 2011 interview:
“I was writing basically for actors. And actors immediately seemed to have a handle on it, on the rhythm of it, the sound of it, the characters. I started to understand there was this possibility of conversation between actors and that’s how it all started.
I always felt like playwriting was the thread through all of it. Theater really when you think about it contains everything. It can contain film. Film can’t contain theater. Music. Dance. Painting. Acting. It’s the whole deal. And it’s the most ancient. It goes back to the Druids. It was way pre-Christ. It’s the form that I feel most at home in, because of that, because of its ability to usurp everything.”
Shepard’s Western drawl and laconic presence made him a reluctant movie star, too. He appeared in dozens of films — many of them Westerns — including Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven,” ”Steel Magnolias,” ”The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and 2012’s “Mud.”
He was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as pilot Chuck Yeager in 1983’s “The Right Stuff.” Among his most recent roles was a Florida Keys patriarch in the Netflix series “Bloodline.”
Shepard was notably known for his influential plays and his prominent role in the off-Broadway movement. His 1979 play, “Buried Child,” won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Two other plays — “True West” and “Fool for Love” — were nominated for Pulitzers, as well.
Samuel Shepard Rogers VII was born in Fort Sheridan, Illinois, in 1943. He grew up on an avocado ranch in Duarte, California. His father was an alcoholic schoolteacher and former Army pilot. Shepard would later write frequently of the damage done by drunks.
Shepard arrived in New York in 1963 with no connections, little money and vague aspirations to act, write or make music. In a 2010 interview with The New Yorker, he recalled, “I just dropped in out of nowhere.”
His early plays portrayed the fractured 1960s in the United States. A drummer himself, Shepard found his own rock ‘n roll rhythm. Seeking spontaneity, he initially refused to rewrite his plays, a strategy he later dismissed as “just plain stupid.”
As Shepard grew as a playwright, he returned again and again to meditations on violence. His collection, “Seven Plays,” which includes many of his best plays, such as “Buried Child” and “The Tooth of Crime,” was dedicated to his father.
In a 1984 interview, Shepard said:
“There’s some hidden, deeply rooted thing in the Anglo-male American that has to do with inferiority, that has to do with not being a man, and, always, continually having to act out some idea of manhood that invariably is violent. This sense of failure runs very deep — maybe it has to do with the frontier being systematically taken away, with the guilt of having gotten this country by wiping out a native race of people, with the whole Protestant work ethic. I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s the source of a lot of intrigue for me.”
In addition to plays, Shepard wrote short stories He also wrote a full-length work of fiction, “The One Inside,” a highly personal narrative about a man looking back on his life and taking in what has been lost, including control over his body as the symptoms of ALS advance, this year.
“Something in the body refuses to get up. Something in the lower back. He stares at the walls. The appendages don’t seem connected to the motor — whatever that is — driving this thing. They won’t take direction — won’t be dictated to — the arms, legs, feet, hands. Nothing moves. Nothing even wants to.”
Shepard’s longtime editor at Alfred A. Knopf, LuAnn Walther, said Shepard’s language was “quite poetic, and very intimate, but also very direct and plainspoken.” She said that when people asked her what Shepard was really like, she would respond, “Just read the fiction.”
Shepard was the longtime partner of acress Jessica Lange.
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