Sam Shepard Is Remembered As ‘An Epochal, Original’ Writer

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In the black-and-white photo, Richard Gere is stiff-backed, his muscles tensed, booted feet flat on the slightly raised platform. He’s wearing jeans and a T-shirt, the short sleeves rolled up. Leather straps secure his shins and forearms to the solid wooden frame of what could pass for a throne in a medieval torture chamber. His eyes – beautiful eyes on the beautiful face of a beautiful young actor – are completely hidden behind a blindfold. During the 10-minute monologue that follows, both actor and audience will have to rely entirely on Gere’s mouth – the twisting shape of it, as much as the rush of words emanating from it – to do the work that most thespians have the use of their entire bodies to project. The subject is horses.

Martha Holmes, from 'Wynn Place, Show'

And then he’s dead: Sam Shepard’s Killer’s Head is an Ambrose Bierce-like hallucination that unfolds during the seconds leading up to an execution.

“I don’t even remember if I read for Killer’s Head,” Gere recalled in an interview we did long after the show’s 1975 premiere at The American Place Theatre. He was a student, training with Wynn Handman, the theater’s director. “I was strapped in a chair, blindfolded and shackled. It was an exercise in manifesting a person. Images kept popping into my head. I remember being in the swell of this guy’s mind as he is waiting to be executed. Wynn’s one note, which came to me through the director, was that he wanted to hear the text more clearly.”

Words mattered to Shepard. Across more than 50 plays, film work as actor, writer and director, and volumes of poetry, fiction and memoir, Shepard cultivated the image of an intensely private man of few words, from whom vast torrents of words, tsunamic waves of them, could rush. That doubleness was part of his appeal to critics and writers who “got” him: I’ve been struck, in the days since July 27, when Shepard died at 73 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, by how many who wrote about him and spent time with him, felt a unique and personal connection.

Certainly that was generational: Many of us were off-Broadway babies (as opposed to those of us addicted to the Broadway grosses pages of Variety) who’d cut our teeth on the plays of Rochelle Owens, Lanford Wilson, Michael Weller, Ed Bullins and Jean-Claude van Itallie, along with Shepard. For Walter Kerr, schooled in an earlier era, Shepard never would be more than an oddity beyond his ken: “The production, then, is firm and energetic,” the New York Times critic wrote in 1983, of Fool for Love. “The play I must leave to the cult.”

Diane Keaton and Sam Shepard in ‘Crimes of the Heart’ Keith Hamshere/De Laurentiis/REX/Shutterstock

The timing of Kerr’s demurral not only followed Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for Buried Child, but also came on the heels of his discovery by Hollywood for his portrayal of Chuck Yeager in Philip Kaufman’s film The Right Stuff. Shepard already appeared in classically Shepardian roles in Days of Heaven and Frances and would, for a while, come to resemble something  like a classic Hollywood leading man in mainstream films like Crimes of the Heart and Baby Boom.

“Sam and I had a good relationship,” says Bernard Weiner, drama critic of the San Francisco Chronicle during the decade from 1975-1984 when Shepard was in residence at that city’s Magic Theater. Among others, Buried Child, True West and Fool For Love were first produced there. A poet and author very much in synch with the playwright, Weiner understood Shepard’s wider appeal.

“I think he felt that his work was being reviewed fairly by someone who understood and respected what he was about,” Weiner recalled. “And he tolerated our occasional interviews because they were more friendly conversations between theater professionals than generic question-and-answer sessions. To this point, we had a 20-minute dialogue once about Samuel Beckett, whom he revered. He definitely was a private person but also was amazingly open when he felt comfortable with his interlocutor. We all were lucky to have had him in our midst for such a long, productive time.”

Sam Shepard Jeremy Gerard

Veteran actor Jay O. Sanders played Bradley in the original production of Buried Child, which moved from the Magic to New York, where it ran first at the Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel) and then at Circle Repertory Theatre.

“Sam didn’t fly, so he wasn’t around at all,” Sanders says of the transfer, “but our cast of Buried Child came together in Sam’s world like a real family under Robert Woodruff’s direction. The Pulitzer win was announced the day after we closed at the Theatre De Lys. I most remember the overarching sense of freedom in our nightly playing of it, and the idea that memory is so elusive that each of our characters remembered our past very differently…the truth of our very lives was up for grabs.”

Trying to pin down Shepard was the sport of every writer who tackled the subject.

“I was asked to write a quickie bio by Dell Books, to capitalize on the Oscar nomination for The Right Stuff and the tabloid interest in his nascent affair with Jessica Lange,” says Don Shewey, who turned out the first look at off-Broadway’s enfant terrible turned emergent Hollywood icon. “I took the assignment for two reasons: I admired the crazy rock-n-roll energy and poetic theatricality of his plays, and I identified with him personally as a guy with a tempestuous relationship with his alcoholic military-veteran father.

Shepard with writer Don Shewey Courtesy Don Shewey

It was several years before Shewey finally met his subject in person, resulting in more published interviews (see the biography here).

“What I relate to most is his profound understanding of being psychically split between what happens outside and what happens inside,” Shewey told me. “What I learned was that he was profoundly a man of letters, extremely knowledgeable about certain pockets of poetry and international literature. It’s not surprising that Shepard had a lifelong love for horses. Much less known is his deep engagement with spirituality and philosophy, especially the teachings of Gurdjieff, a subject so close to his heart that when I interviewed him it was the one thing he wouldn’t discuss.”

I too had a couple of memorable opportunities to speak with Sam Shepard. The first time was in the late ’70s, after an opening, when he stayed around as part of the Magic family. Screwing up my courage, I introduced myself, and somehow the subject quickly turned to the Bible, about which he was extremely knowledgeable. Some three hours and many drinks later, we’d covered territory ranging from Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, to Job, Jonah and other prophets. It won’t surprise anyone familiar with his plays that father-son relationships figured heavily in Shepard’s iconography and the symbolism that pervades his work, reminding me of Edward’s monologue in King Lear:

These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us. Though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects. Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide, in cities mutinies, in countries discord, in palaces treason, and the bond cracked ’twixt son and father. 

John Malkovich and Sam Shepard Martha Holmes, from 'Wynn Place Show'

I spent a more extended time with him much later, discussing his work at the American Place, where he’d returned in 1991 with States of Shock, an explosive outburst of a play starring John Malkovich and concerned with the Persian Gulf war. While it would take years for others to confront America’s military incursion, Shepard was on fire.

“He said it was the most important thing, that he needs to do this play right now,” Handman recalls. “Sam had that urgency, and his urgency was irresistible. He had to get that play done. It was of utmost importance.”

Shepard was to the end an artist intimately, and publicly, of and about his times.

“It’s a very strange experience, to write a biography of someone who’s still alive” Shewey said of taking on that original assignment. “Sam was 41 and I was 30. His death last week hit me hard. Like his colleagues and fans, I mourn the world’s loss of an epochal original writer. On a personal level I wasn’t prepared for how keenly I feel the loss of…not so much my subject, but a kind of alter-ego.” I think that was true for all of us off-Broadway babies.

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