Arts & Entertainment

Sam Shepard, Pulitzer-winning playwright, is dead at 73

Sam Shepard poses for a portrait in New York, Thursday, Sept, 29, 2011. He died Thursday at the age of 73.
Sam Shepard poses for a portrait in New York, Thursday, Sept, 29, 2011. He died Thursday at the age of 73.
Charles Sykes/AP

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Sam Shepard, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Oscar-nominated actor and celebrated author whose plays chronicled the explosive fault lines of family and masculinity in the American West, has died. He was 73.

Family spokesman Chris Boneau said Monday that Shepard died Thursday at his home in Kentucky from complications related to Lou Gehrig's disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

The taciturn Shepard, who grew up on a California ranch, was a man of few words who nevertheless produced 44 plays and numerous books, memoirs and short stories. He was one of the most influential playwrights of his generation: a plain-spoken poet of the modern frontier who combined ruggedness with lyricism.

In his 1971 one-act "Cowboy Mouth," which he wrote with his then girlfriend, musician, and poet Patti Smith, one character says, "People want a street angel. They want a saint but with a cowboy mouth" — a role the tall and handsome Shepard fulfilled for many.

"I was writing basically for actors," Shepard told The Associated Press in a 2011 interview. "And actors immediately seemed to have a handle on it, on the rhythm of it, the sound of it, the characters. I started to understand there was this possibility of conversation between actors and that's how it all started."

Shepard's Western drawl and laconic presence made him a reluctant movie star, too. He appeared in dozens of films — many of them Westerns — including Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven," ''Steel Magnolias," ''The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," and 2012's "Mud." He was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as astronaut Chuck Yeager in 1983's "The Right Stuff." Among his most recent roles was the Florida Keys patriarch of the Netflix series "Bloodline."

But Shepard was best remembered for his influential plays and his prominent role in the off-Broadway movement. His 1979 play "Buried Child" won the Pulitzer for drama. Two other plays — "True West" and "Fool for Love" — were nominated for the Pulitzers as well, and are frequently restaged.

Shepard was a frequent collaborator with the actor Ed Harris. The two first met when Harris starred in a Santa Monica production of "Cowboy Mouth." Shepard also directed Harris in the original 1983 production of “Fool for Love” at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco.

"Sam really wrote for actors [with] just the rhythms of his speech and the specificity of character." said Harris in an interview with The Frame on Monday. "And he was a really good director. I loved working with him as a director. He understood what it was to be up there on the stage. He was a man of the theatre and knew what it was to do live performance night after night."

When Harris and Shepard co-starred in "The Right Stuff," the two got to know each other both on and off the set. Harris says Shepard was an important figure in his life especially in the beginning of his career.

"He had a huge influence on me as a human being I got to say," Harris said. "I think it kind of morphed into more of a mutual friendship as the years went by. But initially I was, not in awe of him, but I had a great amount of admiration for him."

Actor Peter Coyote, who Shepard cast in the 1980 world premiere of his play "True West" at the Magic Theatre, remembered Shepard in an interview with The Frame as someone whose "genius was unmistakable."

"You didn't have to be close and intimate [friends with him] to realize how gifted and how original and how profound he was," Coyote said.

Coyote recalled that Shepard "had a kind of tarnished eye toward the business of Hollywood," and was "very much dedicated to real, as opposed to commercial, art." 

"I always felt like playwriting was the thread through all of it," Shepard said in 2011. "Theater really when you think about it contains everything. It can contain film. Film can't contain theater. Music. Dance. Painting. Acting. It's the whole deal. And it's the most ancient. It goes back to the Druids. It was way pre-Christ. It's the form that I feel most at home in, because of that, because of its ability to usurp everything."