“Myth is a powerful medium because it talks to the emotions and not the head. It moves us into an area of mystery…” – Sam Shepard, 1975
Since I was a little boy I always believed that Sam Shepard embodied the American Dream. You could see it in his eyes – the rugged individualism of Western Manifest Destiny that made this nation great. Maybe that’s because I first glimpsed the man in Philip Kaufman’s ‘The Right Stuff’ (1983) as Chuck Yeager, the most famous of America’s test pilots. And to every kid that grew up watching ‘The Right Stuff’, test pilots were modern America’s cowboys – great adventurous men that lived and worked outside the normal bounds and rules of our conventional society.
The Right Stuff
In the ‘The Right Stuff’, Sam Shepard – tall, lanky, and blessed with those all-American looks that somehow always seem to skip the coasts – is introduced in the desert, silhouetted in front of a giant Western sun. He stands solemnly (do real heroes stand any other way?) in the back row of a small funeral for a nameless fallen test pilot.
After an establishing close-up of Yeager, we next see him on horseback, again first glimpsed in silhouette, watching Glamorous Glennis, bearing an expression that conveys fear, amusement, and a religious fascination with his craft, all hidden under a mask of placid calm. Sam Shepard’s Yeager is a man of preternatural calm. He speaks with that curt profane Western poetry that has all but disappeared from the States. Maybe it never left the desert.
The man is a myth; we never really learn that much about Yeager, we only learn the legend. Sometimes legends are enough. Shepard, like Yeager, is bigger than life, way bigger. No matter! In this case learning a few of the facts will do little to diminish the legend.
Sam Shepard was born in Fort Sheridan, Illinois in 1943. Fort Sheridan was a military outpost in the affluent North Shore suburbs of Chicago. His mother was a school teacher, a Chicagoan by birth. His father, a bomber pilot in the US military, was stationed in Italy when Shepard was born.
The family moved around constantly, finally finding a stable home in Duarte, California when Shepard was still young. At the time Duarte was a town of about 13,000 people. Although not far from Pasadena, Duarte was an agriculture town thick with avocado groves.
Shepard had a difficult relationship with his father, and described him as “a drinking man, a dedicated alcoholic”. (On a side note – Shepard’s description of his father is a great example of his poetic, near perfect, use of language in a concise and pithy manner that excises that loquacious East-Coast blather. Second side note, years later, Shepard would have his own troubles with drink, culminating in two well-publicized drunk driving arrests in 2009 and 2015.) I’ll allow Shepard to further describe his father thusly –
“He had a tough life – had to support his mother and brother at a very young age when his dad’s farm collapsed. You could see his suffering, his terrible suffering, living a life that was disappointing and looking for another one. My father was full of terrifying anger.”
From a young age, Shepard’s passions ran towards the outdoors. He excelled at rugged athletic pursuits that one would expect from such a prime example of square-jawed Americana. In 1961, he enrolled in Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, California to study agriculture. In an interview with The Guardian in 2003, Shepard described a life-changing moment in his college experience –
“I happened to get into a literature class, I don’t know how exactly, with a lot of guys from that area whom I had never had any contact with; for lack of a better word they were beatniks. They lived in this big old house and one of them was a painter and they were smoking a lot of dope out there, and they had stuff lying around like Beckett plays, Jackson Pollock reproductions, which I’d never heard of. That was the first encounter I had with Beckett, with jazz, abstract expressionism. And then I just left.”
Shortly after dropping out of college, Shepard joined Bishop’s Company Repertory Players, a small religiously oriented traveling theater company. They traveled the country by bus, mainly playing church groups. They performed Christopher Fry plays. Fry’s a great playwright, a favorite of Margaret Thatcher, but a far cry from Beckett and theatrical abstraction.
Shepard escaped the company during a stopover in New York City. The young performer was now alone in an unfamiliar and indifferent metropolis.
Portrait of an Artist
By happenstance, Charles Mingus III, the son of jazz bassist Charles Mingus, was living in Greenwich Village, and had attended Duarte High School with Shepard. Shepard crashed with Mingus, who got him a job as a busboy at the Village Gate, the famous nightclub.
Living and working in Greenwich Village, Shepard found himself in the center of the emerging experimental theater scene. Not surprisingly, the majority of the staff at the Village Gate were aspiring actors.
During his off-hours, Shepard watched plays at the newly opened Caffe Cino, the focal point for the off-off-Broadway movement, which was characterized by a complete rejection of the tenants of commercial theater.
Soon Sam Shepard began writing. His early plays fused the style of Becket with the Western-working-man mores that Shepard had absorbed.
Ralph Cook, the headwaiter at the Village Gate, who was attempting to open his own theater, managed to produce Shepard’s short play ‘The Cowboys’. Few attended and the critics were ruthless. Nonetheless, young Shepard kept writing.
By 1965 he caught the interest of Edward Albee, the writer of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf’. Albee called Shepard “…one of the most exciting individual talents”. His plays were interesting failures. Short, hip, and bizarre, written over the course of long drug-fuelled nights. He was not yet a fully formed talent, but there was clearly intelligence, wit, and more importantly originality in his writing.
This originality lead to six Obie Awards over the next three years. In 1967, he finally released his first full length play – ‘La Turista’. The play is mildly autobiographical; he explains to the Guardian, that it was based on a vacation to Mexico with his girlfriend,
“We were holed up in a tiny sweltering motel room in the Yucatan in a semi delirious state of severe dysentery.”
I Remember You Well in the Chelsea Hotel
1967 was a big year for Sam Shepard, for he also met his first wife, actress O-Lan Johnson. After getting her pregnant, he married her in 1969. Their son is named after Jesse James.
The late sixties were a whirlwind of action for the young writer. He hung out at the Chelsea Hotel, the archetypal rock+roll+drug+sex+anything living space of the era – a habitual hangout (hookup spot) for Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin, among others – basically the East Coast version of the Château Marmont.
He drummed in the rock band The Holy Modal Rounders, had an affair with rock legend Patti Smith, who performed with him in a play they co-authored called ‘Cowboy Mouth‘ which they wrote over the course of two nights shoving the typewriter back and forth between them.
They were both known as hellraisers who had seriously self-destructive impulses, and inflicted quite a bit of abuse on one another. Shepard was quite open with his wife about the affair, as he said, “it wasn’t like committing adultery in the suburbs”.
Quick story: Shepard and Smith decided to get a self-proclaimed gypsy and professional muse named Vali Myers to tattoo them, as they were being filmed by experimental filmmaker Sandy Daley. Vali gave him a crescent moon between his thumb and index finger, Smith was left with a lightening bolt on her knee.
As destructive as their relation was, Shepard and Smith remained close friends for the rest of his life. She wrote a touching and lyrical encomium for him in The New Yorker. Her piece is entitled ‘My Buddy‘. Shepherd also wrote for Kenneth Tynan’s (the mostly eminent critic and William F. Buckley JR adversary) sex play ‘Oh! Calcutta!’
Cinema of Dislocation
During this time, Sam Shepard was approached by film director Michelangelo Antonioni (one of the three gods of European art cinema, along with Igmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. Antonioni directed ‘La Notte’ which starred Jeanne Moraeu who died on the same day as Shepard, which may be a cosmic coincidence of sorts, but I digress…) to write ‘Zabriskie Point’ which was to become Antonioni’s first American film. The maestro was struggling with his own early drafts. Shepard did not enjoy the experience nor did he enjoy screenwriting in general, as he recounts to the Village Voice,
“I hate it…It’s never just working on a film. It has to do with studios, with pleasing certain people, cutting things down and re-writing. It’s not a writer’s medium…the writer is just superfluous.”
Shepard wrote a couple drafts, the basis for the narrative then left the project,
“I didn’t know how to continue with what Antonioni wanted. He wanted political repartee and I just didn’t know how. Plus I was 24 and just wasted by the experience. It was like a nightmare.”
He even loathed becoming a sought after screenwriter. Neither the promise of money nor Hollywood fame could lure him. Shepard subsequently retreated as quickly as he could back into the world of playwriting.
“…You get these scripts showing up in the mail. Can you do this one? Can you do that one? Twenty thousand for this one and 30 thousand for that one. It’s like an open auction… I find it exhausting; not only exhausting – debilitating.
Nonetheless, he would later write the script for German director Wim Wender‘s appropriately lauded ‘Paris, Texas’ (1984) starring the great Harry Dean Stanton as a wandering amnesic.
Japanese master director Akira Kurosawa viewed cinema as the greatest of the arts because it combines all the other arts. Shepard would have rejected that – he believed the same was true with theater.
“…It seems to me theatre contains all the other arts. You can put anything in that space – painting, film, dance, music, it can all be contained. Whereas in other arts everything is narrowed down, a spatial art like theatre is unlimited…I’m really interested in the three dimensional aspect, with human performers performing for other live human beings.”
Exhausted by his destructive and anarchic life in New York City, Sam Shepard moved his family to London. He continued to write, producing several plays during this period. Notably, Shepard directed Bob Hoskins in an original production in the West End.
Nonetheless, he spent much of his time gambling and dealing with mounting depression. He finally decided to return to the way of life that had always served him best, so he and his family moved to a ranch in California. In his interview with The Guardian, Shepard remembers,
“It suddenly occurred to me that I was mainly avoiding a territory that I needed to investigate, which was the family. I was a little afraid of it, particularly in relation to my old man and all of that emotion…”
The Old Homestead
It was on the ranch that Shepard wrote his most famous plays. The second play of his Family Trilogy – ‘Buried Child’ won the Pulitzer Prize. The play examined the Carter-led economic slow-down of the late Seventies and the destructive breakdown of the nuclear family in rural America.
It’s not an easy play to watch or read, but it is de rigueur. Shepard has the ability not only to document, but also to explore, understand, and codify American malaise with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel.
I saw ‘Buried Child‘ performed in college; it shook me on both an artistic and political level. The New York Times quite elegantly describes Shepard’s plays of this era as having a “style that oscillates between realism and savage fantasy.”
The Silver Screen
In 1978 Hollywood called once again. Director Terrence Malick (the hermetic poet laureate of American film) cast Shepard in his western ‘Days of Heaven’, the long-awaited follow-up to Malick’s masterful debut ‘Badlands’ (1973). Shepard played a dying farmer swindled by Richard Gere’s duplicitous seasonal laborer.
Both the film and Shepard’s performance received raves. Overnight, Shepard was in demand as a Hollywood actor. Predictably he turned down parts left and right; he couldn’t adjust to his new life.
Sam Shepard returned to the screen in 1980, just as he was finishing his play ‘True West’. ‘True West’ is considered his second masterpiece. The late seventies through the early eighties were peak years for Shepard’s writing. His second Hollywood film was called ‘Resurrection’ and was a star vehicle for Ellen Burstyn. Although Burstyn was nominated for an Academy Award, the film quickly retreated from the public consciousness.
Shepard acted in supporting roles in smaller dramas until 1983 when he accepted the role he was born to play – Chuck Yeager in ‘The Right Stuff’. While the film was not initially a hit, it received rave reviews from critics and earned Shepard an Academy Award nomination for best Supporting Actor for his iconic high-flying performance. The film, as you know, is a favorite of this author.
Shepard subsequently appeared in such diverse films as ‘Steel Magnolias’ (1989), ‘All The Pretty Horses’ (2000), ‘The Notebook’ (2004), and most memorably in Ridley Scott’s ‘Black Hawk Down’ (2001) in an impactful performance as another great American, Major General William F. Garrison.
The Family Trilogy and a Lover’s Quarrel
‘True West’ which is the final play in Shepard’s Family Trilogy, and a thematic sequel to ‘Buried Child’ was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play examines the fractured relationship between a Hollywood screenwriter and his small-time criminal brother.
After a disastrous first-run at the Public Theater in New York City, which the author boycotted, the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago rehabilitated the play’s reputation in a version directed by and starring Gary Sinise.
Shepard followed ‘True West’ in 1984 with ‘Fool for Love’, considered by many to be his last truly great play. The play follows two young quarreling lovers in a motel in the Mojave Desert.
The following year, ‘Fool for Love’ was adapted into a middling feature film directed by Robert Altman with Shepard, himself, miscast as the lead opposite Kim Basinger. Altman’s film captures little of the manic energy of the stage play.
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That American Spirit
1984 marked the end of Shepard’s first marriage. He had been having an affair with actress Jessica Lange for two years. Lange remembers that he had…
“…that wildness, that typically American wildness, a no-restraints outlaw quality…When we were together we were so wild – drinking, getting into fights, walking down the freeway trying to get away – I mean, just really wild stuff. He left his wife and we drove to New Mexico; and that’s where we settled…He’s a great man, a natural man, which is rare. I’ve known a lot of men. And you know I’ve had romances with what you’d call famous men, and none compares to Sam in terms of maleness.”
In many ways she describes both the Sam Shepard that we see on the screen, and the man that emanates from the pages of his plays – individualistic, rugged, masculine, whip smart, charming, and imperfect.
Shepard could never reconcile his film stardom and play writing. He became truly famous because of his winsome features and laconic tone, while his passion never captured the mainstream. Inside the matinee idol was a shaggy dog experimental playwright.
In the end he was both the embodiment of the rugged Western hero, and a blissfully drugged out Greenwich Village artist writing off-kilter subversions that most audiences will never watch.
Maybe that’s the real American Dream.