He held the screen with his brood­ing ret­i­cence


On the page, Sam Shep­ard was sel­dom at a loss for words, but on the screen, he was a mas­ter of res­o­nant un­der­state­ment. The men he played over more than four decades on the screen have en­com­passed mul­ti­tudes — lovers, lon­ers, drifters, pro­fes­sion­als, au­thor­ity fig­ures, rebels and one very fa­mous test pi­lot — but they tend to be lumped to­gether with words like “la­conic” and “tac­i­turn,” per­fectly ac­cu­rate de­scrip­tors that can none­the­less seem in­ad­e­quate to the task of cap­tur­ing his pe­cu­liar ex­pres­sive­ness.

You could say that a face as beau­ti­fully sculpted as Shep­ard’s ren­dered speech more or less su­per­flu­ous: the flinty stare that was made for quiet brood­ing, the tight, dys­pep­tic frown, the prom­i­nent brow that be­came ever more ma­jes­ti­cally cross­hatched with age. But his lanky phys­i­cal­ity and crag­gily hand­some fea­tures ac­counted only partly for what made him, un­til his death Thurs­day at age 73, such an ex­tra­or­di­nary screen pres­ence — one that never got old for be­ing so re­li­ably ex­pres­sive.

His per­sona seemed etched in stone from the mo­ment he stepped onto the Texas plains of Ter­rence Mal­ick’s “Days of Heaven.” In the decades since that 1978 mas­ter­work, Mal­ick has filmed more than a few ac­tors gen­tly in­ter­act­ing with stalks of wheat, but few of them have done so as soul­fully as Shep­ard’s shy, doomed farmer, the aching cen­ter of the film’s Henry Jame­sian tragedy.

That gift for mag­netic ret­i­cence served Shep­ard bril­liantly when he played the sound bar­rier-break­ing test pi­lot Chuck Yea­ger in “The Right Stuff,” Philip Kauf­man’s richly en­ter­tain­ing 1983 film about Amer­ica’s first as­tro­nauts. Sur­rounded by all man­ner of bois­ter­ous, out­size comic per­for­mances, Shep­ard tellingly re­ceived the lone act­ing Os­car nom­i­na­tion for his work as Yea­ger, some­one who — from the mo­ment we see him pour­ing Jack Daniel’s and spit-shin­ing his flight hel­met — is the very em­bod­i­ment of the con­fi­dent, no-big-deal great­ness sug­gested by the ti­tle.

Few of Shep­ard’s sub­se­quent per­for­mances may have mea­sured up to that one in du­ra­tion or im­pact, though he held the screen more than ca­pa­bly in Robert Altman’s 1985 adap­ta­tion of Shep­ard’s own play “Fool for Love,” and made a nicely off­beat lead­ing man in Volker Sch­lön­dorff’s 1991 drama, “Voy­ager.” But the nu­mer­ous cameos and short, bril­liant char­ac­ter parts he took on were in some ways the nat­u­ral do­main of a sen­si­bil­ity that pre­ferred brevity to ex­cess. Sim­ply by show­ing up and in­hab­it­ing the frame for a few min­utes, Shep­ard could in­ject a pic­ture with some es­sen­tial qual­ity that it needed — grav­i­tas, world­weary in­tel­li­gence, the weight of lived ex­pe­ri­ence. In re­cent years, the gifted in­de­pen­dent Amer­i­can clas­si­cist Jeff Ni­chols has made par­tic­u­larly ex­cep­tional and var­ied use of this abil­ity, cast­ing Shep­ard first as a cryp­tic but de­pend­able father fig­ure in “Mud” (2012) and then as a dis­turbingly charis­matic cult leader in last year’s “Mid­night Special.”

If a pic­ture needed to as­sure you of its down-home roots or its western bonafides, there was no bet­ter re­source than Shep­ard — even when he barely seemed to last beyond the open­ing cred­its, as when he played Jesse James’ older brother in the early train-rob­bery scenes of “The As­sas­si­na­tion of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007). His mar­velously boozy one-man pro­logue in the 2013 film adap­ta­tion of “Au­gust: Osage County” inevitably left you want­ing more, though as fans of the Net­flix se­ries “Blood­line” know, it wasn’t the last time Shep­ard would play the pa­tri­arch of a large fam­ily with many deep, dark se­crets.

Shep­ard’s pres­ence could lend so­lid­ity and weight to an un­apolo­getic tear­jerker like “The Note­book,” in which he played Ryan Gosling’s gen­tle, Walt Whit­man-lov­ing father. Or it could catch you amus­ingly off-guard, as when he sur­faced as an im­prob­a­ble-yeto­b­vi­ous Mr. Right to Diane Keaton’s put-upon yup­pie in the 1987 com­edy “Baby Boom.” In­deed, Shep­ard’s nat­u­ral dis­in­cli­na­tion to hog the spot­light made him an ideal on-screen ro­man­tic part­ner for any num­ber of ac­tresses, in­clud­ing Ellen Burstyn (“Res­ur­rec­tion”), Jes­sica Lange (“Crimes of the Heart”) and Dolly Par­ton (“Steel Mag­no­lias”).

One of Shep­ard’s most strik­ing screen ap­pear­ances — and, maybe not coin­ci­den­tally, one of his most un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally talk­a­tive — came in Michael Almereyda’s deft and haunt­ing 2000 mod­ern­iza­tion of “Ham­let.” As the ghost of a king cry­ing out for blood beyond the grave, Shep­ard de­nounced mur­der most foul in a voice at once ex­plo­sive and soft­spo­ken, a whisper carved from gravel.

While I have lim­ited my ap­pre­ci­a­tion to just one facet of Shep­ard’s ex­traor­di­nar­ily wide-rang­ing artis­tic achievement, I would be re­miss not to men­tion his script for Wim Wen­ders’ 1984 road movie, “Paris, Texas,” the crown jewel in Shep­ard’s un­even but never-un­in­ter­est­ing ca­reer of writ­ing for the screen. He and Wen­ders would reteam more than 20 years later on “Don’t Come Knock­ing,” with Shep­ard tak­ing the reins as both screen­writer and star, but it couldn’t help but feel like a pal­lid at­tempt to re­cap­ture the magic of their ear­lier, su­pe­rior tale of a way­ward father adrift in the Amer­i­can West.

“Paris, Texas” was loosely in­spired by Shep­ard’s play “Mo­tel Chron­i­cles,” and while he didn’t fin­ish the script be­fore shoot­ing be­gan (that task fell to L.M. Kit Car­son, who re­ceived an adap­ta­tion credit), it un­folds as a mag­nif­i­cent dis­til­la­tion of all his ideas about Amer­i­can mas­culin­ity in cri­sis and the beau­ti­ful deso­la­tion of the open road. It may be his sin­gle great­est con­tri­bu­tion to the screen, Sam Shep­ard from rugged be­gin­ning to soul-pierc­ing end, even if you never hear the man him­self say a sin­gle word.

Ladd Co.

SAM SHEP­ARD, with Bar­bara Her­shey, em­bod­ied the no-big-deal great­ness sug­gested by the ti­tle in “The Right Stuff.” He re­ceived an Os­car nod for his work.

Saeed Adyani Netf lix

PA­TRI­ARCH of trou­bled fam­ily? Shep­ard, with Sissy Spacek, in “Blood­line.”

Ben Roth­stein Warner Bros.

THE AC­TOR, left, with Scott Haze, lent his skills to “Mid­night Special.”

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