Pulitzer-winning playwright Shepard dies of ALS at age 73
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.