Sam Shepard, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979 for his play, Buried Child, died last week at his home in Kentucky. His death, from complications of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, was announced today in The New York Times and other news outlets.
Shepard was both a playwright and an actor, appearing in such films as Terrance Malick’s Days of Heaven and 1983’s The Right Stuff, for which he earned an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of U.S. Air Force General and record-setting test pilot, Chuck Yeager.
Born in Illinois, Shepard went to high school in Los Angeles and worked as a ranch hand as a teenager. After becoming interested in painting and jazz, he joined a theater company and in the early 1960s, moved to New York, where his first job was as a busboy at the famed Village Gate jazz club on Bleecker Street. He soon became involved in the Off-Off Broadway scene and was associated with St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, which served as a venue for some of his early work. In 1968, Shepard, along with Robert Frank and poets Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky wrote Me And My Brother, a film about Peter Orlovsky and his schizophrenic brother, Julius.
In 1971, Shepard collaborated with his then-lover, an unknown Patti Smith in Cowboy Mouth, a play loosely based on their relationship. Smith and Shepard met at the Village Gate, where he was playing drums with the Holy Modal Rounders, according to Mapplethorpe: A Biography, by Patricia Morrisroe. The book detailed their relationship through Smith’s eyes, who “regarded themselves as partners in crime, and often when they went to Max’s [Kansas City] they would drink too much and start fights. ‘Everything you heard about us in those days is true,'” Smith admitted. “We’d have a lot of rum and get into trouble. We were hell-raisers.’” Shepard was married at the time and he abandoned the production after opening night. He and his wife and child left New York for England, where he stayed until 1975. Smith and Shepard would reconnect later in life and even collaborate again.
In the summer of 1975, Bob Dylan asked Shepard to accompany him as part of The Rolling Thunder Review, Dylan’s traveling caravan of musicians who toured small theaters – first in the Northeast and Canada, then later in the South and Southwest. Shepard was to serve as a screenwriter for Dylan’s film, Renaldo and Clara, a documentary of the tour, with concert footage and dramatic scenes based on Dylan’s lyrics. While mostly improvised, Shepard was credited as co-writer of the film, along with Dylan. Shepard also published a book about the tour called The Rolling Thunder Logbook, a travel diary of the tour experience. In the mid-Eighties, Shepard co-wrote “Brownsville Girl,” an 11:00+ song with Dylan, which appeared on his album, Knocked Out Loaded.
The New York Times writes of Shepard, “He was widely regarded as one of the most original voices of his generation, winning praise from critics for his searing portraits of spouses, siblings and lovers struggling with issues of identity, failure and the fleeting nature of the American dream.”
The author of 40 plays over the course of his career, Sam Shepard was nominated for two other Pulitzers, for True West and Fool for Love, which both received Broadway productions.
Shepard had a 30-year relationship with actress Jessica Lange, which ended in 2009. They had two children together.