He had ‘The Right Stuff ’

SAM SHEP­ARD, 1943 - 2017

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Libby Hill

Sam Shep­ard, paragon play­wright of the Amer­i­can West, was born to roam. With a father who was an Army of­fi­cer and some­time farmer and a mother who was a teacher, Shep­ard — born in 1943, the old­est of three — spent his child­hood bounc­ing around the heartland. This would later in­form his writ­ing, which of­ten ex­plored the fringes of so­ci­ety and the fail­ure of the nu­clear fam­ily.

Shep­ard even­tu­ally found a home in Cal­i­for­nia — in Duarte, where he grad­u­ated from high school, and in Chico, where he worked as a sta­ble hand. Even­tu­ally his roam­ing would take him east, to New York City and the stage that would make him a leg­end.

Shep­ard died Thurs­day, sur­rounded by fam­ily at his home in Ken­tucky, of com­pli­ca­tions from amy­otrophic lat­eral scle­ro­sis, of­ten called Lou Gehrig’s dis­ease. He was 73.

Chris Boneau, a spokesman for Shep­ard’s fam­ily, con­firmed Shep­ard’s death to The Times in a state­ment. “The fam­ily re­quests pri­vacy at this dif­fi­cult time,” he said.

Shep­ard made his ear­li­est im­pres­sion on the New York the­ater scene in 1966, when he took home Obie Awards for three plays: “Chicago,” “Red Cross” and “Icarus’

Mother.” He would go on to win 10 more Obie Awards in his dis­tin­guished ca­reer.

In 1969, Shep­ard mar­ried ac­tress O-Lan Jones, with whom he had a son, Jesse Mojo Shep­ard, in 1970. As Shep­ard con­tin­ued to write, he be­gan act­ing, ap­pear­ing as the charm­ing land baron known only as “The Farmer” in Ter­rence Mal­ick’s clas­sic 1978 film “Days of Heaven.”

That same year, Shep­ard wrote his crown­ing achievement, “Buried Child.”

Cen­ter­ing around a fam­ily haunted by the past as it comes to­gether in an ag­ing Illi­nois farm­house, the play re­flects shades of Shep­ard’s own re­la­tion­ship with his father, whom the play­wright de­scribed as an al­co­holic.

Al­though of­ten de­scribed as avant-garde, Shep­ard’s plays were de­fined by his re­la­tion­ship with the past as well.

“For Shep­ard, love is a rep­e­ti­tion of the past,” wrote Times the­ater critic Charles McNulty in a re­view of a 2015 re­vival of “Fool for Love,” “the fam­ily drama reen­acted against our will as we ric­o­chet be­tween the de­sire to be con­nected and the need to be au­tonomously alone.”

Shep­ard won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for “Buried Child.”

That year a Times re­view of a Los An­ge­les pro­duc­tion called the play “creepy and shad­owed,” not­ing that Shep­ard’s story un­spools like a dream meant to be di­vined, not parsed. The re­view for a South Coast Repertory pro­duc­tion in Costa Mesa seven years later noted just how vis­cer­ally the play ex­plored the wreck­age of an Amer­i­can fam­ily: “It’s up to the artist to put us face to face with the in­ex­pli­ca­ble, the fated, the curse signed into be­ing by one’s own hand.”

In 1982, Shep­ard starred in “Frances” along­side Jes­sica Lange and be­gan a decades-span­ning ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship. Af­ter di­vorc­ing Jones in 1984, Shep­ard had two chil­dren with Lange — Han­nah Jane Shep­ard in 1986 and Sa­muel Walker Shep­ard in 1987. The cou­ple stayed to­gether more than 20 years.

Shep­ard starred in his most cel­e­brated role in 1983, por­tray­ing pi­lot Chuck Yea­ger in “The Right Stuff.”

“The most right­eous right stuff is the pri­vate prop­erty of Air Force test pi­lot Chuck Yea­ger, played by Sam Shep­ard in a man­ner guar­an­teed to fill the gap cre­ated when Gary Cooper left us,” Times film critic Sheila Ben­son said of Shep­ard’s easy mas­culin­ity in her orig­i­nal re­view of the film.

Shep­ard’s per­for­mance earned him an Academy Award nom­i­na­tion for best sup­port­ing ac­tor.

This vac­il­la­tion be­tween artis­tic in­ter­ests and la­tent em­bod­i­ment of the long-lost cow­boy would come to de­fine Shep­ard through­out his ca­reer.

“No one knows bet­ter than Sam Shep­ard that the true Amer­i­can West is gone for­ever,” then-New York Times the­ater critic Frank Rich wrote of the 1983 de­but of “Fool for Love,” “but there may be no writer alive more gifted at rein­vent­ing it out of pure lit­er­ary air,” ad­ding a year later in a con­tem­pla­tion of “True West” that “Mr. Shep­ard, as much as any con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can play­wright, gives our the­ater its claim to se­ri­ous­ness and its con­nec­tion to other art.”

That abil­ity to con­jure a time or a mind­set long gone, if in­deed it had ever ex­isted, fu­eled his work both in front of the cam­era and be­hind it.

“I still think it all comes from the same place, but it’s great to be able to change it up,” Shep­ard told The Times in 2011. “It would be like rid­ing the same horse all the time.

“To sing a song is quite dif­fer­ent than to write a poem. I’m not and never will be a nov­el­ist, but to write a novel is not the same thing as writ­ing a play. There is a dif­fer­ence in form, but es­sen­tially what you’re af­ter is the same thing,” Shep­ard con­cluded.

That same in­ter­view with The Times, con­ducted by phone, had been de­layed when Shep­ard, quite lit­er­ally, had to see a man about a horse.

“I was at a horse sale yes­ter­day, and it was just all­con­sum­ing,” Shep­ard said.

He went on to ex­plain that he didn’t fly when trav­el­ing around the con­ti­nen­tal United States, pre­fer­ring in­stead to ex­plore the open road.

Though that may sound idyl­lic, Shep­ard was not an artist who shied from the ug­li­ness of the world.

In his 2004 play “The God of Hell,” Shep­ard tack­led a post-9/11 coun­try be­sieged in equal parts by pa­tri­o­tism and fas­cism, some­times dis­guised as the same thing.

“We’ve never known who we are as a coun­try, only how we’d like to de­fine our­selves: ide­al­is­tic, good, pos­i­tive, sav­ing the world for democ­racy, right?” Shep­ard told The Times in 2006 be­fore the show opened at the Gef­fen Play­house. “We have this in­abil­ity to face what has be­come of us, so all we get is this pro­pa­ganda ... the lies, the eva­sions, the re­fusal to tell the truth.”

But all hope was not lost, ac­cord­ing to Shep­ard.

“The hope­ful part is that at least they see things as they re­ally are and don’t at­tempt to dis­guise it in other forms. And the more peo­ple see things as they are, the more hope there may be to bring about some­thing dif­fer­ent,” he said.

Shep­ard was not with­out his own demons, how­ever.

Af­ter a 2009 drunk driv­ing ar­rest in Illi­nois, he was con­victed and sen­tenced to 24 months’ pro­ba­tion, al­co­hol ed­u­ca­tion classes and 100 hours of com­mu­nity ser­vice.

In 2015, he was ar­rested on sus­pi­cion of ag­gra­vated drunk driv­ing in New Mex­ico, though charges were later dis­missed, de­spite Shep­ard fail­ing a field so­bri­ety test.

Shep­ard re­mained ac­tive in the twi­light of his ca­reer, pub­lish­ing the play “A Par­ti­cle of Dread,” his take on Oedi­pus, in 2014, and ap­pear­ing in Net­flix’s “Blood­line” through­out the show’s three-sea­son run.

Sur­vivors in­clude his chil­dren, Jesse, Han­nah and Walker Shep­ard, and his sis­ters, Sandy and Rox­anne Rogers.

Funeral ar­range­ments re­main pri­vate. Plans for a pub­lic me­mo­rial have not been de­ter­mined.

Robert Durell Los An­ge­les Times

PARAGON OF THE AMER­I­CAN WEST Ac­tor and Pulitzer-win­ning play­wright Sam Shep­ard’s child­hood on the road in­formed many of his works.

The Ladd Co.

AN EASY MAS­CULIN­ITY Sam Shep­ard starred in his most cel­e­brated role in 1983 as pi­lot Chuck Yea­ger in “The Right Stuff,” land­ing an Academy nom­i­na­tion.

Jim Smeal WireImage

FOOLS FOR LOVE Shep­ard and Jes­sica Lange in 1986. The “Frances” costars stayed to­gether more than 20 years.

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