UPDATED Tuesday AM: The marquees of Broadway theaters will be dimmed for one minute Wednesday night in memory of playwright, actor and novelist Sam Shepard beginning at 7:45.
On Broadway, Shepard debuted with his contribution to the musical revue Oh! Calcutta! (1969) followed by Operation Sidewinder (1970), a revival of Oh! Calcutta! (1976), Buried Child (1996), True West (2000), and Fool for Love (2015). He received Tony Award nominations in 2000 for True West and 1996 for Buried Child, for which he had earlier been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
“Sam Shepard was a prolific storyteller who created provocative, thoughtful, and exciting work for Broadway, off-Broadway, and film. His original voice was a definite draw for audiences and had an undeniable influence on other artists,” said Charlotte St. Martin, President of the Broadway League. “He will be greatly missed. Our thoughts are with his family, friends, and colleagues.”
PREVIOUSLY with more information: Sam Shepard, whose snaggle-toothed smile, craggy good looks and outlaw style as actor and writer made him an American icon in the mold of Gary Cooper and Marlon Brando, died July 27 at home in Kentucky. He was 73 and had been suffering from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was surrounded by family at the time of his death, according to Chris Boneau, a family spokesman.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, actor, author, screenwriter and director, Shepard was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of pilot Chuck Yeager in Philip Kaufman’s 1983 film The Right Stuff. The author of 44 plays, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979 for Buried Child and was best known for such works as Fool for Love, True West and A Lie of the Mind. In 2009 he was named the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award as a master American dramatist.
Shepard’s screen acting career began with Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), with Richard Gere and Brooke Adams. He played Ellen Burstyn’s love interest, Cal, in Resurrection (1980). In 1985, Robert Altman adapted Fool for Love with Shepard playing opposite Kim Basinger and Harry Dean Stanton.
The following year, Shepard was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Shepard, like Bob Dylan a Midwest transplant to New York’s creatively roiling, devoutly anti-Establishment downtown scene of the 1960s, came of age in the anarchic, off-off-Broadway theaters – Theatre Genesis, Caffé Cino, Judson Poets’ Theatre and La Mama Experimental Theatre Club – that were offering a marked alternative to Broadway. His early plays grafted the energy and often the music of rock ‘n’ roll onto the free-wheeling open verse of protest and youth worship. His affair and collaboration with poet and rocker Patti Smith resulted in Cowboy Mouth, whose hero was described in semi-mythic terms (“a rock-and-roll Jesus with a cowboy mouth”). The 1971 play was performed only once before Shepard, whose wife at the time had just given birth to their son, left town, finding the show “too personal.” In 1966 the American Place Theatre had presented his first full-length play, La Turista, which Shepard trimmed from three acts to two just before opening.
“I was a belligerent asshole back then,” he told me in an interview later. “Really. I mean I was really not a pleasant person to be around. I was rude and belligerent.” He told producer Wynn Handman, “‘Listen, man, it’s too long, let’s make it a two- act play.’ He didn’t even blink an eye. He just said, ‘Fine, whatever works.’ I just dropped the last act and made adjustments in the second act. It worked much better.” But the show, which included an onstage act of fowlicide, infuriated audiences.
“I had my doubts about killing a live chicken onstage every night,” Handman told me. “I told them it was illegal.” The creative team came up with a way of faking the death of the chicken, but the audiences were not assuaged.
Shepard’s plays remained obsessed with American iconography – especially of an idealized West in which cowboys roamed, at odds with modernism, capitalism and most other isms – while addressing serious themes of inequality, disenfranchisement, poverty and anti-militarism that put him in the company of the greatest American playwrights. Those works – Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class, A Lie of the Mind and others – were significant in influencing a new generation of socially engaged writers across genres, from theater to film and television and poetry; Shepard’s oeuvre includes several volumes of poetry and short stories.
Shepard was born in Fort Sheridan, IL. His partner from 1982 through 2009 was Oscar-winning actress Jessica Lange, with whom he had two children. Survivors include his children, Jesse, Hannah and Walker Shepard, and his sisters, Sandy and Roxanne Rogers. Funeral arrangements remain private. Plans for a public memorial have not yet been determined.
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