Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Sam Shepard: Writer, Actor, “The New Gary Cooper”

Shepard, as Yeager, is at left

The story of Sam Shepard is one of Hollywood’s most unusual. How many of America’s award-winning playwrights also end up as full-fledged movie stars? As a serious theatregoer, I’d thrilled to the jazzy rhythms of Shepard’s 1972 play, The Tooth of the Crime. At L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum, I’d also been present in 1977 for a New Theatre for Now presentation of his Angel City, but joined two-thirds of the audience in not coming back after intermission. Still, I have serious respect for Shepard’s mature domestic dramas, which include the Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child (1979) along which such other mature works as True West and Fool for Love. No question that he’s one of the most essential American playwrights of his era.

 So how did he wind up acting in movies? As John J. Winters’ definitive 2017 biography, Sam Shepard: A Life, makes clear, partly his native restlessness made him open to trying new things. And during his lifetime he always hung around with creative types who were ripe for experimentation. That’s how he chanced to be part of Bob Dylan entourage, charged with writing and shooting 1978’s ill-conceived Renaldo and Clara. In that same era, writer-director Terrence Malick convinced him to take the role of a taciturn farmer who’s blinded by his love of a much younger woman in the evocative Days of Heaven. The role suited him exactly: It turned out Shepard had no special gift for on-camera line-readings. But the camera loved his weathered features and the sense he projected of being close to the soil. The film’s producer explains how in the cutting room Malick “went with Sam’s silence and the way he looked when he had a big sky or a white field behind him.”

 Five years later, he landed his best role: as flyboy Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. The film draws a contrast between Yeager’s authentic heroics and the flamboyant, petulant corps of Apollo astronauts. Fans remember the film’s opening, in which Yeager, on his horse, stares down a late-model jet amid the Joshua trees of the Mojave Desert. Director Philip Kaufman has said of this scene, “Sam’s got the persona of Gary Cooper, the tall solitary American on horseback.” The film earned him a 1983 Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, as well as a slew of offers for other acting roles. His second-billed 1982 appearance in a biopic called Frances had already introduced him to  actress Jessica Lange, who would become the center of his romantic world for decades thereafter. Together they appeared in Country, in which he again explored his farming roots. And he played in other ambitious dramas too, such as Ridley Scott’s Somalia film, Black Hawk Down and the well-received (though annoyingly titled) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, in which he took the role of Frank James in a starry cast that included Casey Affleck and Brad Pitt.  

 At the same time, Shepard was also fattening his bank account by accepting “paycheck” parts in trifles like Baby Boom and the mostly-female weepie, Steel Magnolias. After a while I stopped hearing about him, either as an actor or a playwright, and wondered why. Winters’ book has the answer, in an epilogue added to the paperback edition. On July 27, 2017, Shepard died of complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at the age of 73. Stoic to the last, he had let few people know that a degenerative illness was stealing his life away, thereby robbing stage and screen audiences of a distinctive and memorable presence. Winters’ book fills in the gaps nicely.


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