Sam Shepard: the man who conquered Broadway and Hollywood
The Pulitzer-winning playwright and Oscar-nominated actor leaves behind a vast career that took him from stage to screen and back again
Monday 31 July 2017 20.15 BST
Sam Shepard, who has died aged 73, was perhaps the only American literary giant who could have written the screenplay for a major movie and also played the romantic lead.
However, Robert Altman’s Fool for Love (1985), which Shepard adapted from his Pulitzer-nominated play, was one of the few occasions on which he used both strings on his bow, generally preferring to keep his considerable writing and performing skills separate.
|Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard|
Perhaps this was because his twin talents took such contrasting forms. His breakthrough plays, such as Buried Child (1979) and True West (1980), sounded like nothing in American theatre before: his characters, disappointed and disappointing outsiders in families dysfunctional to the point of violence, had the savage articulacy of people for too long ignored. At first seeming as if they would struggle to grunt, they gradually began to deliver vicious wisecracks and then unstoppable monologues.
As a screen actor, though, he was in the classic Hollywood mould: craggily handsome, gravel-voiced. The son of a bomber pilot, Shepard was often cast as military figures, including test-pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (1983) and Gen Garrison in Black Hawk Down (2011). Another memorable screen role was in Michael Almerayda’s updated version of Hamlet (2000), in which Shepard played the role of the Ghost, thought by some to have been played in the first production by another playwright-actor, Shakespeare.
Completing 44 plays – more than Shakespeare – Shepard liked to give the impression that his writing was instinctive and even casual. He wrote prolifically and quickly. Whereas some authors can only compose with a particular pen on a precise type of paper in a customised study, Shepard liked to claim that his favourite place to write was on his knee, while driving a truck across the desert – although, perhaps to appease his motor insurance company, he insisted that he only put down dialogue while held at red lights.
Shepard first came to attention in 1971 with the off-Broadway premiere of Cowboy Mouth, written with his then lover, the rock star Patti Smith, who played opposite him in the central roles of two musicians. Smith wrote the foreword to The One Inside, a novella that Shepard published in February, her introduction including the perceptive suggestion that the recurrent male character in his work was, possibly autobiographically, “the loner who didn’t want to be alone”. (Smith was one of Shepard’s two key female muses, the other being Jessica Lange, with whom he lived for a quarter of a century.)
As a playwright, Shepard followed the greats of the previous generations – Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller – in transferring the themes and situations of classical Greek tragedy to 20th-century America: Shepard’s Pulitzer-winning Buried Child (1978), in which the fate of a corpse is fought over in the aftermath of war, was in part a transatlantic translation of Antigone.
|Patti Smith and Sam Shepard|
But apart from the theatre of Sophocles and Euripides, the major literary influence on Shepard’s writing was the western, encouraged by having spent significant spells in the desert south-west of America both as a child and an adult.
Shepard’s male characters are frequently fugitives and outsiders, actual or imagined cowboys, and both True West (1980), in which warring brothers are reunited, and Fool For Love, which has fighting lovers meeting again, are set on the edge of the desert. But the shadow of America’s frontier literature is equally apparent when the strict setting is the mid-west, as in Buried Child, or the north-west, for A Lie of the Mind (1985).
|Patti Smith and Sam Shepard|
A governing theme of his plays was the difficulty of two generations of American soldiers – from the second world war and then Vietnam – in adjusting to peacetime family life. A Lie of the Mind begins with a near homicidal act of domestic violence. A favourite Shepard beginning is the homecoming or domestic reunion that exposes (often literally) where the bodies are buried: in The Late Henry Moss (2000), hostile brothers war over the corpse of their father, unsparingly represented on stage.
His characters also often battle with alcoholism, the effects which Shepard had both witnessed – he told the Paris Review that it was a hard to find a sober male in his family line – and experienced. The disputing brothers in True West – Hollywood screenwriter Austin and his sibling, Lee, a criminal drifter – can be seen as versions of the lives to which Shepard’s DNA and personality might have led him.
Shepard lived in London early in his career, and this may have helped to shape plays that came to be equally respected in UK subsidised theatre and in his home country. The writer’s marriage of European and American frontier literary styles was neatly caught in the title of Paris, Texas, the 1984 movie he co-wrote for Wim Wenders.
A tremendous revival of Buried Child last year in London, starring Ed Harris – soon followed by an impressive new staging of A Lie of the Mind at the Southwark Playhouse – mean that Shepard has died with his stock as a writer high in Britain. In America, he stands as one of the few to have conquered New York as a playwright and Hollywood as a movie star.