On July 27, 2017, actor and playwright Sam Shepard died at the age of 73 in Midway, Kentucky from complications involving amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He was a person best known for his impressive craft as a writer, winning a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and being hailed in 2009 by New York Magazine as "the greatest American playwright of his generation." His career onstage has surpassed his career on film, which included memorable turns in films like Days of Heaven, and The Right Stuff: the latter of which earned him an Oscar nomination. With a career spanning over half a century, Shepard leaves behind an impressive body of work, and one that inspires actors and writers on stage and screen to give their all for their craft and make art that really matters.
Shepard was born Samuel Shepard Rogers III in Fort Sheridan, Illinois on November 5, 1943. He was named after his father, who was a teacher, farmer, and had served in the U.S. Air Forces as a bomber pilot during World War II. It was a detail made ironic by young Shepard, nicknamed "Steve Rogers," having a fear of flying. Still, his father was considered to be a "dedicated alcoholic" and his mother was a teacher. After briefly studying agriculture in school, he began to study the works of Samuel Beckett, jazz, and abstract expressionism. This lead to a career that saw him mix with the 1960's counterculture movement that included theater work.
In 1962, he lived in New York City, New York and became involved in the Off-Off Broadway theater scene. It was during this time that he changed his name from Steve Rogers to Sam Shepard. He was mostly connected with Ralph Cook's Theater Genesis, located in Manhattan's East Village. He chose not to direct any of his works. Between 1966 and 1968, he received attention after winning six Obie Awards. This lead to a screenwriting career with Robert Frank's Me and My Brother and Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point. He was also involved in the psychedelic folk band The Holy Modal Rounders and appeared appeared as drummer on their 1967 and 1968 albums. Oh his early works, The Unseen Hand inspired the stage musical The Rocky Horror Show (of which would be adapted into the cult classic movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show). His work was considered to be bleak, poetic, and surrealistic with traces of black humor and characters who lived on the fringes of society. He also worked with both Bob Dylan and Patti Smith at various times during this period.
Despite having an established stage career and a decent screenwriting career, he made his "official" acting debut in Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven in 1978, co-starring Richard Gere and Brooke Adams. In 1983, he starred as Chuck Yeager in the NASA drama The Right Stuff, which earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Despite having a fear of flying, he famously chose to experience flying with the real life Yeager. He continued to work on stage as he made a steady career in film. His play Fool for Love would also be adapted by Robert Altman, with Shepard in the lead role. He also kept up a music career that included playing banjo on a cover of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Patti Smith. By the 1970's, he was also directing his own plays because he believed that they required his vision.
Shepard met his second wife Jessica Lange on the set of Frances. They moved in together and had two children during their 30 year marriage. In later years, he also became accustomed to teaching students the craft of screenwriting at various theater workshops. He also was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1986. His work in Black Hawk Down inspired him to return to acting, though he mostly continued to produce and revive his plays. With an incredible career, it's hard to say that he wasn't passionate. He made the most of anything that he worked on, and helped to create the world of stage and film into a more compelling place. It's likely that his plays will continue to inspire for decades to come. He leaves behind an impressive, unmatched career, and one that shows just how talented he really was.