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Remembering Sam Shepard, playwright who gave voice to drama of the heartland

July 31, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT
Sam Shepard, long considered one of America's great playwrights of the modern era, offered a powerfully American voice in works that portrayed the darker side of American family life. He was also a renowned actor, earning an Oscar nomination. Jeffrey Brown looks back at his life and work with playwright and actor Tracy Letts after Shepard’s death at age 73.
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WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Finally tonight: the legacy of Sam Shepard, one of America’s greatest playwrights of the modern era, who passed away today.

Jeffrey Brown has our remembrance.

JEFFREY BROWN: His was an original voice, a deeply American voice, offered most powerfully in a series of plays beginning in the 1970s and ’80s that portrayed the darker side of family life on the outskirts of American society.

ACTOR: So, why should I have worried about you?

ACTOR: Because I was by myself.

ACTOR: By yourself?

ACTOR: Yes. I was by myself more than I have ever been before.

ACTOR: And why was that?

ACTOR: Can I get some of that whiskey you have got?

JEFFREY BROWN: Among them, “Buried Child,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979, and “True West” and “Fool for Love” both nominated for Pulitzers.

Shepard appeared in a film version of “Fool for Love” in 1985.

SAM SHEPARD, Writer/Actor: I took her out to dinner once.

ACTRESS: You’re a liar.

SAM SHEPARD: OK, twice.

Born Steve Rogers in 1943, Shepard was the son of an Army officer who Sam later described as — quote — “a drinking man, a dedicated alcoholic.”

And many of Shepard’s characters are loners and drifters. In a 1998 documentary on “Great Performances,” Shepard spoke of his writing and coming to terms with his own family history.

SAM SHEPARD: It suddenly occurred to me that I was maybe avoiding a territory that I needed to investigate, which is the family. And I had avoided it for quite a while, because, to me, there was a danger in — I was a little afraid of it, you know, particularly my old man and all that emotional territory, you know?

I didn’t really want to tiptoe in there. And then I thought, well, maybe I better.

JEFFREY BROWN: Shepard was also a renowned actor appearing in the 1978 film “Days of Heaven.”

He reached Hollywood stardom and received an Oscar supporting actor nomination for his portrayal of pilot Chuck Yeager in “The Right Stuff” in 1983.

SAM SHEPARD: Takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially when it’s on TV.

JEFFREY BROWN: Many others would follow, including the recent Netflix series “Bloodline.”

A man of many roles and talents — he published a work of fiction earlier this year — Shepard wrote more than 45 plays in all. Many of them continue to be performed regularly around the country and abroad. Shepard had three children, two from his 30-year relationship with the actress Jessica Lange.

Sam Shepard died Thursday at his home in Kentucky of complications from ALS, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 73 years old.

And now to some thoughts from another leading playwright, screenwriter and actor, Tracy Letts. He won a Tony Award for his performance in a revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and the Pulitzer Prize for his drama “August: Osage County.” Sam Shepard appeared in the 2013 film version.

Tracy Letts, thanks for joining us.

What did Sam Shepard bring to American theater? How do you define that voice?

TRACY LETTS, Playwright: Sam’s voice was very singular. It was very distinctive, like all great writers.

And he synthesized a lot of different elements, European avant-garde, rock ‘n’ roll, cowboy movies, poetry, and a working-class sensibility. He synthesized all of that.

And when it came out in his writing, it was such a new and exciting and individual and true voice.

JEFFREY BROWN: I wonder what stands out to you in terms of the writing or structure of the plays?

I read an interview he did where he talked about, in the early ’70s, discovering the Greek tragedies and how really they were accessible and rather straightforward family dramas full of an idea of destiny. Does that sound right to you?

TRACY LETTS: Yes, I think the moment at which he started to become a more mainstream writer, or at least his avant-garde sensibilities started to include classic family drama, what American family drama is based on, of course, the Greeks, and at the point which he started to bring that into his work, that is the point at which he seemed to find greater success, though he never lost his avant-garde sensibilities and his poetic voice.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there a play that stands out for you, or is there a typical Sam Shepard character?

TRACY LETTS: Well, I love the early work.

I love some of the early rock ‘n’ roll work like “Tooth of Crime,” but “Buried Child” certainly seemed to be — really seemed to be what he was getting at. And a lot of the plays after “Buried Child” seemed to continue to explore some of the themes. “Buried child” is a great, great American play.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, a lot of his plays really sort of redefining perhaps the American West or looking at that landscape that perhaps wasn’t so much in American theater.

TRACY LETTS: Oh, certainly not.

I think it’s one of the — not only one of the reasons he was such a singular talent himself, but it speaks to the influence he had. Certainly, you know, I’m speaking to you from Chicago. This is home of Steppenwolf Theatre and Remains Theatre.

And so much of that theater, I mean, Sam Shepard was the perfect playwright. I think, to this day, he’s one or two on our list at Steppenwolf of most produced playwrights, because he was writing about people from the middle of the country, people we knew, that you could make great drama, and you didn’t have to do it on the East Coast, and you didn’t have to do it with an Ivy League education.

That meant the world to me and hordes of actors here in this part of the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what was it like for you personally having him act in your play, in “August: Osage County”?

TRACY LETTS: You know, the first time we got together to read the screenplay, there were some scary people around the table, but the only one I was scared of was Sam.

(LAUGHTER)

TRACY LETTS: He was — I was very intimidated by him. I really look up to him. He was an important figure in my life, very influential. And he was very generous with me. I will never forget it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the life and work of Sam Shepard by Tracy Letts.

Thank you very much.

TRACY LETTS: Thanks, Jeff.

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