Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Oscar-nominated actor Sam Shepard died in Kentucky last week following a battle with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a spokesperson for the family told news outlets. He was 73 years old.
Shepard’s acclaimed plays, known for their surrealist elements, dark humor and keen observations of the American family, include “True West,” “Fool for Love” and “Buried Child,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Shepard was also nominated for an Academy Award for his role as Chuck Yeager in the 1983 film “The Right Stuff,” the story of the astronauts who made the first manned spaceflight by the United States. His final film, “Never Here,” premiered in June at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Shepard, whose official name was Samuel Shepard Rogers IV, was born on November 5, 1943 in Fort Sheridan, Illinois. At the age of 19, he moved to New York City to pursue life as an artist, after having spent his early life moving from place to place with his military family.
“I just dropped out of nowhere. It was absolute luck that I happened to be [in New York] when the whole Off-Off Broadway movement was starting,” he told the New Yorker in a 2010 interview, referencing the trend toward plays and musicals unaffiliated with Broadway that are performed in smaller New York City venues.
“It was wide open,” Shepard added of his early life in Manhattan. “You were like a kid in a fun park.”
As a young artist in a big city, Shepard said he was willing “to be an actor, writer, musician, whatever happened.” Early on, though, he lacked connections and did not have a steady income; at one point, he even sold his blood to afford a cheeseburger. He eventually settled into a job as a waiter and wrote on the side.
By the 1960s, Shepard’s avant-garde writing began attracting attention after his one-act play “Icarus’s Mother” won a 1965 Obie Award, the off and off-off-broadway equivalent of a Tony. His chiseled good looks and charisma also got him gigs as an actor, starting with a role in Robert Frank’s 1969 drama “Me and my Brother.” His big breakout was in Terrence Malik’s 1978 romantic drama, “Days of Heaven.”
Still, Shepard maintained a love for off-off-broadway productions. He showed disdain toward the uptown theater scene, despite his increasingly complicated plays that required greater resources than small theaters could sometimes offer.
In 1970, Shepard told Playboy Magazine that “Broadway just does not exist,” meaning that he would stick to the off-off-broadway scene. But that same year he staged “Operation Sidewinder” at New York’s famed Broadway venue the Lincoln Center. John Lahr described the transition as “a move that in Off-Off Broadway circles was the equivalent of Dylan going electric.”
Over the course of his life, Shepard wrote more than 40 plays and published various short story and poetry collections, in addition to a few memoirs; he also acted in nearly 70 films.
Despite continuing to write deeply personal plays about family, Shepard was an exceptionally private person, giving his first on-camera interview in 1998 for the PBS documentary “Sam Shepard: Stalking Himself.”
The documentary emphasized Shepard’s identity as an “odd, contradictory presence on the American cultural scene.”
“He’s well-known but unknown, handsome and seductive but willfully remote,” Will Joyer wrote in a New York Times review of the film. “He’s almost too easily the archetype of the authentic American, at home in the wide open spaces but not really at home anywhere.”
In the documentary, Shepard also said he was uneasy about being too easily pinned down as a character he’d played on TV.
“I think we’re faced with a dilemma now that’s terrifying. You can just get rid of you altogether and make you an image,” he said. “In fact, we prefer the image to the human being. We’d rather watch you on television than talk to you.”
Shepard is survived by his three children and two sisters.