Playwright, Screenwriter and Actor Sam Shepard Dies at 73

Legendary playwright Sam Shepard helped develop Off Broadway into a creative force.

Playwright, author, and actor Sam Shepard, who spearheaded the Off Broadway movement, died on July 27 from complications of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), the theatre public relations firm Boneau/Bryan-Brown announced. Shepard was 73 years old. Known for such plays as Buried Child, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, Curse of the Starving Class and A Lie of the Mind,  Shepard’s 1969 science fiction play The Unseen Hand influence Richard O’Brien’s stage musical The Rocky Horror Show.

Shepard wrote 44 plays as well as books of short stories and essays. Besides his 1979 work Buried Child, his plays, True West and Fool for Love were also nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Eleven of Shepard’s plays won Obie Awards including Chicago and Icarus’s Mother in 1965 and Red Cross and La Turista in 1966. Shepard was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as pilot Chuck Yeager in 1983’s The Right Stuff.

Described by New York magazine as “the greatest American playwright of his generation,” Shepard’s early Off Off Broadway plays were black humored absurdist works.  But he developed towards extreme realism. Shepard wrote the plays The Rock Garden, Operation Sidewinder, Mad Dog Blues, Suicide in B Flat, Inacoma, and True West.

Sam Shepard was born November 5, 1943, in Fort Sheridan, Illinois. He described his father, Samuel Shepard Rogers, Jr., as “a dedicated alcoholic.” His mother, Jane Elaine was a teacher. Shepard spent his teenage years as a ranch hand, and studied agriculture Mt. San Antonio College, where he fell under the influence of playwright Samuel Beckett.

Ad – content continues below

Shepard began his stage career as a busboy at The Village Gate. He became involved in the Off-Off-Broadway theatre scene starting in 1962 through the head waiter, Ralph Cook. He was soon producing plays landmark theaters like La MaMa and Caffe Cino.

Shepard began writing screenplays like Don’t Come Knocking, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriske Point and Robert Frank’s Me and My Brother. Shepard begin acting in 1978, playing a land baron in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, and Rodeo in Renaldo & Clara, which Shepard wrote with Bob Dylan. Shepard appeared in dozens of films including All the Pretty Horses, Black Hawk Down, Swordfish, Baby Boom, Fool for Love and The Pelican Brief. Shepard also performed with the psychedelic band the Holy Modal Rollers.

Shepard premiered his 1979 Pulitzer-nominated play Buried Child at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, where he spent a decade as playwright-in-residence. His plays True West (1980), and Fool for Love (1983), which starred Ed Harris and Kathy Baker, debuted at the theater. In 2000, Shepard returned to the theatre to direct the world premiere of The Late Henry Moss, starring Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, and Cheech Marin.

“Sam changed the face of American theatre forever,” the theatre’s Artistic Director Loretta Greco, who directed a revival of Fool for Love earlier this year, said in a statement. “With over 40 plays, he is our field’s most raucous trailblazer and the reason most of us make theatre. Actors KILL for the chance to play roles crafted by Sam – and we directors are humbled by the odyssey. Sam was my kind of writer: Primal. Restless. Rhythmic. And wickedly funny. He wanted us to feel his plays. He would say, when asked about the meaning of his work, that if he knew the answers he wouldn’t need to write anymore. Thankfully, he spent a lifetime digging at the mythic bones out back for hints of what it is to be human and we are all the richer for it. We will miss him dearly.” 

Shepard had a long working relationship with singer-songwriter Patti Smith, who wrote the music to Shepard’s play Cowboy Mouth. The two-person play about a kidnapping was first performed, with Smith as one of the leads, on April 29, 1971 at the American Place Theater. It was produced as a double bill with the play Black Bog Beast Bait, which starred Shepard’s then-wife actress O-Lan Jones. Smith and Shepard were having an affair at the time. Shepard was married to Jones from 1969 to 1984. They had one son, Jesse Mojo Shepard, aged 47. 

Shepard had a thirty year relationship with actress Jessica Lange, who he starred with in the film The Notebook, until they separated in 2009.  The couple have two daughters, Hannah Jane Shepard, aged 31, and Samuel Walker Shepard, aged 30.  

Ad – content continues below

Shepard is survived by his children and his sisters, Sandy and Roxanne Rogers.