Actor and Playwright Sam Shepard Passes Away

Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Sam Shepard died Monday July 31st, 2017. He suffered from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and was 73 years old.

The Playwright

Like many folks in New York’s Greenwich Village scene, Sam Shepard was a transplant from the Midwest. There, he fell in with the Off-Off-Broadway movement and honed his skills at  Theatre Genesis. Over the years, he wrote over 40 plays.

Sam Shepard and Chuck Yeager on the set of The Right Stuff
Sam Shepard and Chuck Yeager on the set of The Right Stuff

The work that put him on the map is 1971’s Cowboy Mouth. The play is about his real life affair with singer Patti Smith. Additionally, Smith and Shepard c0-starred in the original production. After one performance, Shepard fled to New England and wrote plays from his home. In 1975, he became playwright-in-residence at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco. The Magic Theatre debuted many of his most recognizable works.

In 1979, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child. Also, the Broadway production of Buried Child earned five Tony Nominations. He followed-up Buried Child with True West. True West is a legendary play. It marks the end of his Family Trilogy. The story follows two brothers finding common ground while working on screenplays. Furthermore, a production of True West in the year 2000 earned four Tony nominations. The production starred John C. Reilly and Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

The Actor

Sam Shepard was a beloved actor in addition to his extensive writing credits. He cut his teeth in the same Off-Off-Broadway scene where he honed his writing skills. And, in 1978, he landed a role in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. He played a generous farmer who gets duped by Richard Gere and Brooke Adams. 

The role snowballed into other films, and in 1983, he played Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. He earned a best supporting actor nomination. The film received eight Academy Award nominations in total and won four. Shepard’s acting career continued steadily until his ALS rendered him unable to work. Recently, he played Robert Rayburn on Netflix’s Bloodline.

Sam Shepard’s Legacy

Sam Shepard spent the last five decades entertaining and challenging audiences through his performances and words. To many, he was simply a “that guy.” One of those character actors who’s name you can’t quite remember but you know you liked him in that one thing. However, his presence always added something extra to a film. He embodied his characters in a natural way, and never overshadowed the key players in his films. Although, when the time came to pull the dramatic weight, he delivered. Sam Shepard operated best in dichotomies. On screen, he was a mix of handsome and hard edged. On the page, he confronted America’s rigid “rules” for what it means to be American, and explored our most rebellious tendencies.

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