The great American playwright and actor Sam Shepard passed away recently at the age of 73, leaving behind an influential and iconic body of work in the realms of theatre and cinema.
After years of toiling in the Off-Off Broadway scene where his early plays displayed a more experimental and surreal bent, Shepard rose to national and international prominence in the late 1970’s as an acclaimed playwright examining the dark side of the American Dream through dysfunctional family dynamics with plays such as Buried Child – for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 – Curse of the Starving Class (1978) and True West (1980).
Shepard’s involvement in the world of film began as far back as 1969 when he penned the screenplay for an independent film called Me and My Brother. The following year, he was credited as one of the co-writers on Michelangelo Antonioni’s one and only American production, the notorious flop Zabriskie Point and later contributed his screen writing services to Bob Dylan’s self indulgent 1978 fiasco Renaldo and Clara.*
An initially reluctant actor it would seem; in 1971, he acted in a production of his own play Cowboy Mouth, co written with his then partner Patti Smith. He fled New York after the performance, vowing never to tread the boards again after this seemingly chastening experience.
But he seemed destined to emerge as a screen actor, blessed as he was with naturally handsome, rugged features and a compelling stillness that the camera could not ignore and thus Shepard was approached by director Terence Malick to star as one of the lead characters in his second feature Days of Heaven, a beautifully realised period drama now regarded as an American masterpiece.
From there until the end of his career, Shepard would often be hired to embody variations of the American male with perhaps his most well known screen role being his performance as Chuck Yeager in Phillip Kaufman’s irreverent 1983 epic The Right Stuff.
Shepard was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his iconic portrayal of an all – American pioneer, the first aircraft pilot to break the sound barrier and it is a role which seemed to define his screen presence from there on in; a natural, unforced masculinity combined with an understated charisma that usually created authentic and believable romantic chemistry with any actress he played against, making Shepard something of a thinking womans sex symbol for much of the 1980’s.