We can’t tell you as much about the personal Sam Shepard as did ex-lover and lifelong friend Patti Smith in a greatly recommended New Yorker remembrance after his death – or perhaps as could Jessica Lange, who lived with him for 30 years – but we can tell you about the Shepard we knew from a journalistic distance, and who on his death was hailed as one of the most influential writers of his generation. He had long been on our list to profile even before his death at 73 from complications of Lou Gehrigs disease on July 17.
Born Samuel Shepard Rogers III on November 5, 1943, he would become one of America’s most accomplished writers, playwrights (he wrote nearly 50 plays), actors, and television and film directors, but he was in truth impossible to categorize. He authored several books of short stories, essays, and memoirs, and received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979 for his play, Buried Child. But that Sam Shepard was the same person nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of test pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, as well as winner of the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award as a master American dramatist in 2009. Not to mention playing banjo for Patti Smith.
Shepard once told the New York Times that “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.”
As a teenager, Shepard worked on a ranch and, after briefly studying agriculture at Mt. San Antonio College, became enamored with Samuel Beckett, jazz, and abstract expressionism, and soon dropped out to join the Bishop’s Company, a touring repertory group. He became involved in New York’s Off-Off Broadway scene and most of his initial writing was for the stage; after winning six Obie Awards between 1966-1968, Shepard emerged as a viable screenwriter with Robert Frank’s Me and My Brother (1968) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. Shepard’s early science fiction play The Unseen Hand would influence Richard O’Brien’s stage musical The Rocky Horror Show.
After ending his relationship with Smith, Shepard relocated to London with his first wife and son in the early 1970s, but returned to the United States in 1975, moving to the 20-acre Flying Y Ranch in California’s Mill Valley where he wrote plays and served for a semester as Regents’ Professor of Drama at the University of California, Davis. Shepard accompanied Bob Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Revue of 1975 as the ostensible screenwriter of the surrealist film Renaldo and Clara that emerged from the tour. A decade later, Dylan and Shepard co-wrote the 11-minute Brownsville Girl included on Dylan’s Knocked Out Loaded album.
Shepard began his acting career in earnest when cast as the handsome land baron in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, opposite Richard Gere and Brooke Adams. This led to other important roles, including Ellen Burstyn’s love interest in Resurrection, and most notably The Right Stuff. By 1986, one of his plays, Fool for Love, was being made into a film directed by Robert Altman, in which Shepard played the lead role; his play A Lie of the Mind was Off-Broadway with an all-star cast including Harvey Keitel and Geraldine Page; he by then was living with Jessica Lange; and he was working steadily as a film actor—all of which put him on the cover of Newsweek. He was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1986 and made a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1986.
In 2000, Shepard decided to repay a debt of gratitude to the Magic Theatre by staging his play The Late Henry Moss as a benefit in San Francisco. The cast included Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, and Cheech Marin. The limited, three-month run was sold out. In 2001, Shepard had a notable role of General William F. Garrison in the box office hit movie Black Hawk Down. In 2007, Shepard contributed banjo to Patti Smith’s cover of Nirvana’s song Smells Like Teen Spirit on her album Twelve.
When Shepard first arrived in New York, he lived with actress Joyce Aaron. From 1969 to 1984, he was married to actress O-Lan Jones, with whom he had one son. In 1970-71 there began the affair with Smith, who recalls that “Me and his wife even liked each other. I mean, it wasn’t like committing adultery in the suburbs or something.” Shepard met Academy-Award-winning actress Lange on the set of the film Frances. He moved in with her in 1983; they were together for nearly 30 years and had two children.