Friday, November 8, 2019

Sam Shepard: A Blue-Collar Renaissance Man

“It's one of the great tragedies of our contemporary life in America, that families fall apart. Almost everybody has that in common.”

This is a quote from Sam Shepard—the late playwright, actor, and all-around cultural icon—who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 2017, at the age of 73. I respond to this particular quotation because I’ve just seen a strong stage production of Buried Child, for which Shepard was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979. Like many of Shepard’s writings for the stage, Buried Child is a raw, tough-minded look at a family in crisis, set in a run-down house somewhere in rural America. It has its darkly comic moments, but its basic mood is grimly ironic. It’s not the kind of play one easily forgets.

I suspect most people who know the Hollywood side of Sam Shepard (including his 26-year relationship with actress Jessica Lange) don’t realize he was the author of 44 plays, many of them award-winners. The grotesque but largely realistic family dramas that mark the highpoint of his career include (along with Buried Child) Curse of the Starving Class, True West, Fool for Love, and A Lie of the Mind. Some of Broadway’s and London’s best actors have taken on roles he has written. He always resisted performing in his own work, but was persuaded by Robert Altman to play a leading part in a 1985 film production of Fool for Love, one that also featured Kim Basinger, Harry Dean Stanton, and Randy Quaid.

Though Shepard thought of himself primarily as a playwright, Hollywood loved his acting chops as well as his craggy Middle-America look. The son of a former military man who took up farming in his later years, Shepard seemed right at home in dramas set amidst cornfields or battlefields. His first big movie role came in 1978, when he played the key role of a lovelorn farmer in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. Five years later, his portrayal of legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff nabbed him an Oscar nomination. His later roles ranged from Steel Magnolias to Black Hawk Down, from Hamlet (he played the ghostly father of Ethan Hawke’s title character) to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. One of his last big roles was as the family patriarch in the all-star film production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County (2013).

My first brush with a Sam Shepard work came back in the Seventies, when I saw a local production of Shepard’s 1972 play, The Tooth of the Crime. A musical drama set in a vaguely sci-fi future, it involves a lethal battle of weapons and words between an ageing rocker and a dangerous young upstart who seeks to dethrone him. I was never entirely sure what the play was about, but remained mesmerized by its manic energy. What I’m just now learning is that the highly versatile Shepard was also a rock drummer back in the day, a musician who toured sporadically with a psychedelic folk band, The Holy Modal Rounders. He also accompanied Bob Dylan on his Rolling Thunder Revue, charged with coming up with a screenplay for Dylan’s 1978 attempt at filmmaking, Renaldo and Clara. With Dylan he later co-wrote  the song “Brownsville Girl,” and he also collaborated both professionally and personally with Patti Smith.

Truly, Shepard’s was a life well lived. I hope that, despite the bleak vision conveyed in his dramas, he had some fun, and smelled a lot of roses.

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