Jessica Lange, with Hannah Shepard and Samuel Walker Shepard – the children, now grown, that she had with Sam Shepard – entered the Ellen Stewart Theatre quietly as an audience of age-burnished talent from the electrifying free-form heyday of off-off Broadway theater waved greetings, blew kisses, shared memories and settled in Sunday for an afternoon tribute to the actor and playwright, who died July 27 at 73.

The master of ceremonies was Jean-Claude van Itallie, whose landmark triptych of counter-culture plays, America, Hurrah! had its roots in this same theater. He quoted early appreciations from the Village Voice and Newsweek that praised the young playwright for plays that were “a form of exorcism, magical, that grapple with the demonic forces of the American landscape,” as the latter put it. Van Itallie drew knowing laughter when he added, “I don’t want to give an image that Sam was doing this intellectually or that it was a dry, intellectual scene down here in the Sixties. It wasn’t. It was playful, it was erotic. Many of us playwrights were gay. Sam was stunningly not gay.”

Stewart, who ruled her family of artists through a combination of unflagging devotion and gut instinct, and her audiences with finger cymbals, called that eroticism “juicy lucy,” van Itallie recalled, and Shepard was its avatar. “She felt that Sam personified juicy lucy.”

Michal Gamily, Jean-Claude van Itallie, Joyce Aaron Funk, Charles Mingus III and Sandy Rogers, beneath a portrait of Funk as a young actress.
Jeremy Gerard

Testimony to that effect was offered by a compelling group from Shepard’s circles, interspersed with general helpings of clips from Oren Jacoby’s documentary 1998 Stalking Himself. When Shepard’s sister, Sandy Rogers, performed “Why Wyoming,” one of the songs she wrote for the soundtrack of Robert Altman’s film adaptation of Fool for Love, one could feel the audience in unison bating its breath. Sam loved it, she said, in part because “why was Sam’s favorite word.”

Thomas Keith, a La Mama intern when Shepard arrived, read Shepard’s astonishing account of his first year in New York, a rush of words from 1963 that could hold its own against any verbal torrent from Jack Kerouac or Bob Dylan. Joyce Aaron Funk, Shepard’s girlfriend and an actress who appeared in his early works, recalled the early days, and two current actors, Wayne Maugans and Leslie Silva performed a scene from one of them, Chicago.

Artist Charles Mingus III, a friend from high school and later roommate of Shepard’s, had a somewhat more raw recollection of their on-again, off-again friendship and collaborations. And Anne Militello, who was manning lights for rock shows in San Francisco when Shepard was in residence at that city’s Magic Theater, recalled being drawn into his circle. Theater is boring, she averred to the man in a plaid flannel shirt and truck driver’s cap who she ran into at the Magic. Undeterred, he’d pressed a new script into her hands, and after she read it that night she told a friend “that truck driver can write!” Only then did she learn that the truck driver had won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play Buried Child.

Shepard’s film work, from Zabriskie Point to Paris, Texas, did not go unacknowledged as more accounts were to be delivered by others from Shepard’s expanding circle of artists, friends and admirers. The gathering was Number 143 in La Mama’s Coffeehouse Chronicles, curated and directed by Michal Gamily. There will certainly be other tributes in Hollywood and New York to this cultural icon, but it’s doubtful any will be more heartfelt. Or sexier, or funnier.