Sam Shepard Biography

Sam Shepard has woven tales of the American West and plumbed the darkest depths of the human psyche in his four-decade career as a writer. Whether depicting criminal lowlifes in his play Simpatico or the volatile relationship of two lovers in Fool for Love, Shepard does not shy away from depicting the ugly side of human behavior. One of the hallmarks of Shepard’s work is his unique approach to dialogue. Characters often speak in elliptical, circuitous patterns, and he is not afraid to let them wax poetic. Shepard, whose playwriting was nurtured by a variety of theater artists, remains committed to teaching and working with the next generation of playwrights.

Facts and Trivia

  • Shepard has also found success as an actor. He was nominated for an Oscar for his role as Chuck Yeager in 1983’s The Right Stuff.
  • Shepard was featured as a musician on longtime-friend Patti Smith’s 2007 album, Twelve.
  • One of Shepard’s few film efforts as a writer-director was 1994’s Silent Tongue, which featured one of the last performances of actor River Phoenix.
  • Shepard’s two-decade-old play True West finally made it to Broadway in 2000. The two lead roles were both played by John C. Reilly and Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
  • Since the early 1980s, Shepard has been romantically involved with actress Jessica Lange. They have two children together.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1164

Born Samuel Shepard Rogers on an Army base in 1943, growing up mainly on a California ranch, arriving in New York City in the 1960’s, living for three years in London, gifted in timpani, devoted to sports, and an outdoorsman of the working kind, Sam Shepard is almost a living example of the kind of characters he puts on the stage. After high school graduation (in Duarte, California, in 1960), Shepard experimented with several lifestyles and occupations, including ranch hand, sheep shearer, and rock-and-roll musician. The early successes of one-act plays such as Cowboys (1964) and The Rock Garden (1964, and 1969, as part of Kenneth Tynan’s Broadway revue Oh! Calcutta!), especially in the Off-Off-Broadway theaters of New York in the 1960’s, gave him the incentive to continue in drama (other genres, as well as music and art, drew him and still invest his plays with variety and a unique creative signature).

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Shepard moved to New York at nineteen and changed his name to Sam Shepard. Waiting tables at Village Gate allowed him to pursue his interests in theater, which he did by writing several one-act plays which were produced Off-Off Broadway at such venues as La Mama, the Open Theatre, and the American Place Theatre and with such works as the now familiar Cowboys. By the time of the 1965-1966 theater season, the up-and-coming playwright with the mixed reviews had won Obie Awards (granted by The Village Voice) for Chicago (1965), Icarus’s Mother (1965), and Red Cross (1966).

An avant-garde comedy, La Turista, was produced in 1967 in New York and in 1969 in London. His first full-length success, Operation Sidewinder (1969), was performed as part of the inaugural season of the new producer/directors of Lincoln Center, Jules Irving and Herbert Blau. The play, combining American Indian folklore with high-technology weaponry, drew strong critical response in both directions, but it clearly marked Shepard’s debut as an important new writer of the American cultural present.

In 1971, with much acclaim came The Mad Dog Blues. With its success, Shepard took wing to England, where he lived for the next three years, writing numerous international hits, such as The Tooth of Crime (1972) and Geography of a Horse Dreamer 1974). By the late 1970’s, Shepard would have a substantial bibliography, one that included Buried Child (1978), which won the Pulitzer Prize. By the mid-to late 1980’s, he would pen such notable plays as the disturbing and yet undeniably stunning and provocative True West (1980) and the equally explorative and evocative A Lie of the Mind (1985), which won the prestigious New York Drama Critics Circle Award. In 1986, Shepard was elected into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

His long canon of plays from that time is attributable in part to his prolific imagination and in part to his indifference about editing or polishing his work, preferring to get it produced and letting it stand or fall in its original form. He once remarked, “I like to start with as little information about where I’m going as possible.” Some critics have found fault with this tendency on his part, noting that his plays lack the cohesion and sense of closure usually found in successful stage work.

Shepard’s artistic skills are not limited to writing for the stage, however. His gifted presence is his essence behind the scenes of the film industry as scriptwriter and in the scenes of numerous films as an actor playing his and others’ characters as well. His screenplays are distinctly Shepard: visual, asymmetrical, and obtuse, full of creative bravado, not entirely interested in telling the story in a coherent way. He cowrote Zabriskie Point (1969) with Michelangelo Antonioni and traveled with Bob Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Review in 1975 to write, at Dylan’s request, the screenplay for a film that would become Renaldo and Clara (1978). He has also received accolades as an actor in such films as The Right Stuff (1983); his 1985 adaptation of his play Fool for Love (1983), with Kim Basinger; Steel Magnolias (1989) as Dolly Parton’s husband; All the Pretty Horses (2000); and dozens more. He has directed and written the films Far North (1988), starring Shepard’s paramour Jessica Lange, and Silent Tongue (1994).

Shepard’s personal relationships have been subject for discussion, tied as they were to his work and creativity. In 1969, he married O-Lan Johnson. Their union saw a son born six months later. In 1970, Shepard, twenty-six years old and dreaming of being a musician (despite, by this time, having twenty plays to his credit), was playing drums with a cult band from Vermont, the Holy Modal Rounders, at the Village Gate. There he met Patti Smith, legendary rocker and soon to be poet, who fell in love with Shepard. As biographer Patricia Morrisroe reports in Mapplethorpe: A Biography (1995), the two were exceptionally close (despite Smith commenting that she and O-Lan were still good friends). Shepard and Smith, writes Morrisroe, “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.’”

More than renegade partiers, Smith and Shepard were cowriters. He encouraged her to continue writing the poetry that she so wanted to and asked for her contributions to his play The Mad Dog Blues, for which Smith wrote the lyrics. They cowrote a rock opera, Cowboy Mouth (1971), and Shepard would dedicate Hawk Moon (1973) to his counterpart of the “emotionally packed” early 1970’s. Yet because they were such emotionally packed times—inundated with drugs and drink and spotlighted acts and actions, as he would later tell his biographer, Don Shewey—Shepard extracted himself from the relationship, the scene, and New York, moving to London in 1971.

A little over a decade later, on the set of the 1982 motion picture Francis, Shepard met film star Lange. In 1983, he divorced O-Lan and began what would be a long-term relationship with Lange, with whom he has acted in films such as Country (1984) and Don’t Come Knocking (2005), which he also wrote; whom he has directed; and with whom he has lived in New Mexico, Minnesota, Montana, Virginia, and New York. Together, they have two children.

Shepard continued to write for the stage despite his financial and artistic success as a screenwriter and actor. His A Lie of the Mind, another anguished examination of the disfigured family, brought to the stage once again the conflict among passion, family, and a strangely American sense of lost dignity. Most of his plays since 1976 have debuted at the Magic Theatre, in San Francisco, where he was playwright-in-residence in the 1970’s. The Late Henry Moss, featuring Sean Penn and Nick Nolte, debuted at the Magic Theatre on November 7, 2000, the same year that Shepard was nominated for Broadway’s Tony Award for True West (four years after he received a Tony nomination for Buried Child). In 1985, his screenplay for Paris, Texas won a Palme d’Or, the prestigious Cannes Film Festival prize.

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