Pulitzer-win­ning play­wright Shep­ard dies of ALS at age 73

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Jake Coyle Nick Ut, The Associated Press

The Associated Press

NEW YORK» 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, 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. But in soul-search­ing plays, his por­trait of the West was a dis­il­lu­sioned one, peo­pled by bro­ken char­ac­ters whose re­al­i­ties fell far short of the Amer­i­can Dream.

“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-Of­fBroad­way move­ment. His 1979 play “Buried Child,” about the break­ing down of an Illi­nois fam­ily, won the Pulitzer for drama. Two other plays — “True West,” about two war­ring broth­ers, and “Fool for Love,” about a man who fears he’s turn­ing into his father — were nom­i­nated for the Pulitzers as well. All 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 the­ater. 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.”

His early plays — fiery, sur­real ver­bal as­saults — pushed Amer­i­can the­ater in an en­er­gized, fren­zied di­rec­tion that matched the times. A drum­mer him­self, Shep­ard found his own rock ’n’ roll rhythm.

As Shep­ard ma­tured as a play­wright, he re­turned again and again to med­i­ta­tions on vi­o­lence, mas­culin­ity and fam­ily. His col­lec­tion “Seven Plays,” which in­cludes many of his best plays, in­clud­ing “Buried Child” and “The Tooth of Crime,” was ded­i­cated to his father.

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