Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Sam Shepard R.I.P.

Playwright, screenwriter, and actor Sam Shepard died on July 27  2017 at the age of 73. The cause was complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Sam Shepard was born Samuel Shepard Rogers III on November 5 1943 in Fort Sheridan, Illinois. He grew up on the family avocado farm near Duarte, California. As a young man he worked a variety of jobs, including work as a stablehand, an orange picker, and a sheep shearer. He briefly studied agriculture at  Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, California, but dropped in 1962 to move to New York City.  There he became involved in Off-Broadway theatre.

It was not long before Mr. Shepard began writing plays. His first was Cowboys in 1964. During the Sixties he wrote several more plays, including Chicago (1965), La Turista (1967), The Unseen Hand (1969), and The Holy Ghostly (1969), among others. The Seventies would see Sam Shepard come into his own as a playwright. He wrote and performed Cowboy Mouth (1971) with Patti Smith. His 1978 play Curse of the Starving Class would later be adapted as the 1994 film of the same name. His 1979 play Buried Child  won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. His 1980 play True West was a finalist for the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Drama In the Seventies he also wrote such plays as The Tooth of the Crime (1972), Action (1975), Angel City (1976), and Suicide in B Flat (1976), among others.

The Eighties saw Mr. Shepard's 1983 play Fool for Love be a finalist for the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. His 1985 play A Lie of the Mind won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play, and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Play. In the Nineties Mr. Shepard wrote the plays States of Shock (1991),  Simpatico (1993), :Eyes for Consuela (1998), and The Late Henry Moss (2000). In 1996 he revised his play The Tooth of the Crime as Tooth of Crime: Second Dance. From the Naughts into the Teens he wrote the plays The God of Hell (2004), Kicking a Dead Horse (2007), Agnes of the Moon (2009), Heatless (2012), and A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations) (2014).

Sam Shepard was also a screenwriter. His first writing credit was on Me and My Brother (1969). It was followed by Zabriskie Point (1970). Over the years he wrote screenplays for such films as Renaldo and Clara (1978), Savage/Love (1981), Paris, Texas (1984), Fool for Love (1985--based on his play of the same name), Far North (1988), Silent Tongue (1993), and Don't Come Knocking (2005).

In addition to his careers as a playwright and screenwriter, Mr. Shepard also had a very successful acting career. According to IMDB, his film debut was in the rather obscure film Brand X in 1970. In the late Seventies he appeared in the films Renaldo and Clara (1978), Days of Heaven (1978), and Resurrection (1980).  In the Eighties he played Chuck Yeager in the movie The Right Stuff (1983), for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He also appeared in the films Raggedy Man (1981), Frances (1982), Country (1984), Fool for Love (1985), Crimes of the Heart (1986), Baby Boom (1987), Steel Magnolias (1989), and Bright Angel (1990).

In the Nineties Sam Shepard appeared in the films Homo Faber (1991), Defenceless (1991), Thunderheart (1992), The Pelican Brief (1993), Safe Passage (1994), The Only Thrill (1997), Curtain Call (1998), Snow Falling on Cedars (1999), Hamlet (2000), and All the Pretty Horses (2000). He also appeared on television. He appeared in the TV movies The Good Old Boys (1995), Purgatory (1999), and Dash and Lilly (1999). He appeared in the mini-series Streets of Laredo and in the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation Lily Dale.

In the Naughts Sam Shepard appeared in such films as Swordfish (2001), Black Hawk Down (2001), Blind Horizon (2003), The Notebook (2004), Walker Payne (2006), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), The Accidental Husband (2008), Brothers (2009), and Fair Game (2010).  In the Teens Mr. Shepard had roles in the TV shows Klondike and Bloodline. He appeared in such films as Blackthorn (2011), Savannah (2013), August: Osage County (2013), Ithaca (2015), and Midnight Special (2016). His last appearance was in Never Here, set to be released later this year.

Arguably, Sam Shepard was one of the greatest playwrights of the late 20th Century. His plays were simultaneously a deconstruction of the mythology of the Old West and a tribute to it. Mr. Shepard's West was one where there was no such thing as certainty and family relations could be complicated at best. His characters were three-dimensional while at the same time drawing upon archetypes common to American Western iconography. Of course, he was also a great screenwriter and his films had a lot in common with his plays.

While he was a great playwright and screenwriter, I rather suspect Sam Shepard is most familiar to audiences for his acting career. And he was a great actor. He was well suited to playing legendary, American icons, and he played several of them throughout his career, including Chuck Yeager, Wild Bill Hickcock, Dashiell Hammett, and Frank James. Sam Shepard was very versatile, and played a number of different sorts of characters in his career. He played farmer and devoted husband Pea Eye Parker in the mini-series Streets of Laredo. In Baby Boom he was the love interest, veterinarian Dr. Jeff Cooper. In Steel Magnolias he was the work-shy Spud Jones. He played a wide variety of characters throughout his career, and played all of them well. In the end Mr. Shepard was one of those rare multi-talents: a great playwright, a great screenwriter, and a great actor.

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