Sam Shep­ard dead at 73

Pulitzer win­ning play­wright suf­fered from Lou Gehrig’s dis­ease

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - ENTERTAINMENT - BY JAKE COYLE

Sam Shep­ard, the Pulitzer Prize-win­ning play­wright, Os­car-nom­i­nated ac­tor and cel­e­brated au­thor whose plays chron­i­cled the ex­plo­sive fault lines of fam­ily and mas­culin­ity in the Amer­i­can West, has died. He was 73.

Fam­ily spokesman Chris Boneau said Mon­day that Shep­ard died Thurs­day at his home in Ken­tucky from com­pli­ca­tions re­lated to Lou Gehrig’s dis­ease, or amy­otrophic lat­eral scle­ro­sis.

The tac­i­turn Shep­ard, who grew up on a Cal­i­for­nia ranch, was a man of few words who nev­er­the­less pro­duced 44 plays and nu­mer­ous books, mem­oirs and short sto­ries. He was one of the most in­flu­en­tial play­wrights of his gen­er­a­tion: a plain-spo­ken poet of the mod­ern fron­tier, both lyri­cal and rugged.

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.

“I was writ­ing ba­si­cally for ac­tors,’’ Shep­ard told The Associated Press in a 2011 in­ter­view. “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.’’

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 the Florida Keys pa­tri­arch of the Net­flix se­ries ‘’Blood­line.”

But Shep­ard was best re­mem­bered for his in­flu­en­tial plays and his prom­i­nent role in the off-Broad­way move­ment. His 1979 play “Buried Child’’ won the Pulitzer for drama. Two other plays — “True West’’ and “Fool for Love’’ — were nom­i­nated for the Pulitzers as well, and are fre­quently re­vived.

“I al­ways felt like play­writ­ing was the thread through all of it,’’ Shep­ard said in 2011. “The­ater re­ally when you think about it con­tains ev­ery­thing. It can con­tain film. Film can’t con­tain the­atre. 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.’’

Sa­muel Shep­ard Rogers VII was born in Fort Sheri­dan, Ill., in 1943. He grew up on an av­o­cado ranch in Duarte, Calif. His father was an al­co­holic school­teacher and for­mer Army pi­lot. Shep­ard would later write fre­quently of the dam­age done by drunks. He had his own strug­gles, too, and was ar­rested in 2015 for drunk driv­ing.

Shep­ard ar­rived in New York in 1963 with no con­nec­tions, lit­tle money and vague as­pi­ra­tions to act, write or make mu­sic.

“I just dropped in out of nowhere,’’ he told the New Yorker in 2010. But Shep­ard quickly be­came part of the off-of­fBroad­way move­ment at down­town hang­outs like Caffe Cino and La MaMa.

“As far as I’m con­cerned, Broad­way just does not ex­ist,’’ Shep­ard told Play­boy in 1970 — though many of his later plays would end up there.


In this Sept. 29, 2011 file photo, ac­tor Sam Shep­ard poses for a por­trait in New York.

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