‘When I think of Sam, I see a man on a horse, always moving on’
As Sam Shepard’s best-loved play is staged, famous fans tell Dominic Cavendish why he was ‘a true one-off ’
How do we get the measure of the late Sam Shepard? He wrote more than 40 plays, many of which refused to yield neat and tidy explanations. He appeared in around 50 major films, following his 1983 breakthrough role as fearless test pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. Yet, despite a string of entanglements with famous women – among them Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, the actress O-Lan Jones (his wife of 15 years) and Jessica Lange (his partner of nearly 30) – he stayed outside the fray of Hollywood gossip. What’s more, his dislike of flying meant that, aside from a period in the early Seventies when he pitched camp in London, this chiselled, cowboy-esque figure was seldom seen in the flesh on our side of the pond.
This month, more than a year after his death at the age of 73 as a result of motor neurone disease, there’ll be a celebration held in Shepard’s honour at the Royal Court, the London theatre that gave him artistic shelter between 1971 and 1974. It’s reasonable to assume he would have shied away from such a spotlight event in his lifetime. Nor is it likely, even if his health had remained good, that an imminent West End revival of one of his best-loved plays, True West (1980), would have lured him to London. After all, even during one of the most celebrated productions of True West, a 1982 New York staging that ran for more than a year and starred John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, Shepard was nowhere to be seen.
“I don’t know if he saw the whole thing,” Malkovich tells me. “It was at a lovely little theatre in New York, Cherry Lane, and there would be Antonioni or Kurt Vonnegut or Jacqueline Onassis or Bowie – kind of everybody came. But I don’t believe I met Sam during the run.” Wasn’t it odd to have no contact with the author? Malkovich thinks not. “Sam wasn’t a conventional movie star, he wasn’t a conventional anything. He was a real one-off.”
Juliette Lewis, the American actress and singer who made her West End debut in Shepard’s Fool for Love in 2006, tells me that during the publicity tour for the 2013 film August: Osage County, in which she appeared alongside Shepard, “they couldn’t corral him to do the expected thing, hang at tables and schmooze. He was disruptive in the most charming way. Halfway in he was, like, ‘I’ll be at the bar’ and disappeared. When I think of him, I see a man on his horse, always on to the next town.”
Restlessness, rootlessness, a sensation of not belonging and straining to be somewhere else – even if that somewhere is only to be found at the bottom of the bottle – these aspects of Shepard’s personality are manifest in his works, which abound with contrary impulses, melancholy, volatility and violence. Whereas David Mamet has carved out as his terrain the extreme financial and psychological pressure that the American capitalist system places on people, especially men, Shepard’s sense of the fissures that run through individuals and families seems to reach further – into the strangeness of being human.
In his final work of prose, Spy of the First Person, completed in his dying days and published posthumously last year, Shepard’s autobiographical-seeming narrator, who sits outside, almost immobilised, watching nature go by, asks: “Where exactly do we come from? That’s one question. Was it a desert? Was it a forest?
Was it a mountain? Was it the prairie? Where do we actually come from?”
The American actor Michael Shannon – an habitué of Shepard’s work, who also appeared in a handful of films alongside him
(and can now be seen in the BBC’s The Little Drummer Girl) – voiced the audio recording of that last book. “I think chief among his