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Sam Shepard Obituary

Sam Shepard – Playwright, screen-writer, actor, director

Born November 5,1943; died July 27 2017.


Sam Shepard, who has died at his Kentucky home aged 73 following a battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), was a literary outlaw who explored America's mythology in more than fifty plays. Shepard's career as a dramatist began at a time when the 1960s counter-culture he fell into was exploring a sense of rootless disaffection which his work in part defined.

From his early plays seen on the Off Off Broadway circuit, Obie and Pulitzer Prize winning success saw him mature in ways that took his work beyond the claustrophobic motel walls where many of his anti heroes dwelled, to an expanded widescreen backdrop where his poetic existential meditations could be fleshed out. As an actor, he was acclaimed in a Hollywood mainstream he never quite fitted in with, but was nominated for an Oscar for his role in The Right Stuff anyway.

With one foot inside and the other outside the system, Shepard recognised the conflicts and contradictions in the uneasy relationship between art and commerce. He channelled this unease into his 1980 play, True West, in which two brothers, one an Ivy League educated screen-writer, the other an unhinged drifter, are reunited in the suburbs for a volatile struggle of wills that threatens to consume each other.

As some time drummer with psychedelic jug band the Holy Modal Rounders between 1967 and 1971, Shepard brought a whiff of rock and roll and an ineffable cool to the theatre. This was the case whether writing and appearing in the play, Cowboy Mouth (1971), with his then lover Patti Smith, or going on tour in 1975 with Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue, a free-wheeling cross country sprawl featuring a cast list that included beat poet Allen Ginsberg and singers Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. Shepard was hired as scriptwriter for a proposed film that resulted in the quasi fictional Renaldo and Clara. Shepard's document of the tour, Rolling Thunder Logbook, ends with a drunk Dylan causing havoc at press night for an Off Broadway production of Shepard's play, Geography of A Horse Dreamer. The real life scene read as unhinged as anything happening onstage.

Samuel Shepard Rogers III was born in Fort Sheridan, Illinois, to his teacher and farmer father and teacher mother, and, until he adopted the name of Sam Shepard as his writing name, was nicknamed Steve Rogers. Explorations of fractured identity would filter through his work ever after, as would the figure of his alcoholic father. After graduating from high school in Los Angeles County, Shepard briefly studied architecture, but, after falling for the work of Samuel Beckett, jazz and abstract expressionism, he dropped out to join a touring theatre group.

While working as a busboy in New York, Shepard became involved in the Off Off Broadway theatre scene, with plays such as Cowboys (1964) and The Rock Garden (1964). Between 1966 and 1968, Shepard won six Obie Awards, and in 1969 co-scripted Robert Frank's film, Me and My Brother. A year later Shepard co-wrote Michaelangelo Antonioni's fractured hippy fantasia, Zabriskie Point. With Wim Wenders, he later wrote Paris, Texas (1984), which won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

The 1970s saw Shepard flesh out his range and vision with a series of modern American epics. Curse of the Starving Class arrived in 1978, the same year Buried Child won him a Pulitzer. True West (1980), Fool for Love (1983) were both nominated, while Fool For Love was later filmed by Robert Altman, with Shepard playing the lead.

A parallel career as an actor began with a role in Terence Malick's Days of Heaven (1978). The Oscar nomination for The Right Stuff (1983), in which Shepard played test pilot Chuck Yeager, followed. Onstage he won plaudits for his performance in the 2004 off Broadway production of Caryl Churchill's clone-based play, A Number.

Shepard worked closely with radical director Joseph Chaikin, with whom he co-wrote Tongues (1978) and Savage/Love (1981), which explored more poetic forms of theatrical language. After Chaikin was afflicted with aphasia, Shepard penned The War in Heaven, a hyper minimalist text which Chaikin performed.

As well as numerous playtexts, collections of stories and fragments were published. Hawk Moon appeared in 1973, Motel Chronicles in 1983, and Day Out of Days in 2004.

In 1969, Shepard married actress O-Lan Jones, with whom he reunited and decamped to London with their son Jesse following the affair with Smith. They divorced in 1984. By that time Shepard had met Jessica Lange on the set of Frances. They never married, but had two children, Hannah and Samuel Walker, and were together until 2009 in what Shepard later described as a “tumultuous” relationship. The pair spoke fondly of each other until the end.

In 2013, Shepard came to Glasgow to see the final night of the Citizens Theatre's revival of True West, and to take part in an aftershow Q and A. He was impressed enough with Phillip Breen's production to help secure it a London transfer the following year. Shepard's most recent play, A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations), premiered in Derry/Londonderry 2014. As an actor, he most recently appeared appeared in Netflix TV show, Bloodline.

Throughout his at times high profile career, Shepard kept his distance from celebrity, choosing instead to retain a stoic integrity as the dysfunctional conscience of America's vast and fractured heartland. Like a never ending highway, his writing seemed to go on forever.

“I hate endings,” he said in a 1997 interview with the Paris Review. “Just detest them. Beginnings are definitely the most exiting, middles are perplexing and endings are a disaster. The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap. Why not be more honest with the moment? The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning. That's genius.”

Shepard is survived by his children, Jesse, Hannah and Samuel Walker, and his sisters, Sandy and Roxanne Rogers.

 
The Herald, August 2nd 2017

ends

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