Sam Shepard, who became one of the leading playwrights of his generation with works that depicted a darkly unsparing vision of American family life and who also sustained a significant career as a film actor, has died at the age of 73.
Mr. Shepard died last Thursday at his home in Kentucky from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. His death was announced Monday.
The author of more than 40 plays and numerous short stories, Mr. Shepard brought a singular dramatic voice to the creation of a world that literary critic Walter Kirn once described as “Grass-Roots Gothic, infused . . . with a sense of folksy madness and populist brutality.’’
Many of Mr. Shepard’s plays were rooted in the American West, but it was a West stripped of all illusion and myth. From the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, he went on an astonishing run that included “Curse of the Starving Class’’ (1977), “True West’’ (1980), “Fool for Love’’ (1983), and “A Lie of the Mind’’ (1985). He won the Pulitzer Prize for 1978’s “Buried Child.’’
Tall and rangy, possessed of leading-man looks and a quietly authoritative, Gary Cooper-ish presence onscreen, Mr. Shepard earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of legendary pilot Chuck Yeager in the 1983 adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff’’ and gave memorable performances in many other films. Mr. Shepard’s double act — major playwright and movie star — was a highly unusual one, though there was little question which one he valued more. “I didn’t go out of my way to get into this movie stuff,’’ he once said. “I essentially think of myself as a writer. But, there’s no reason why you can’t be many different things.’’
He was, and when you consider the breadth of his career, “We won’t see the likes of him pass this way again,’’ said John J. Winters of Pawtucket, R.I., author of a recently published biography “Sam Shepard: A Life’’.
“If Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill kind of burst the bubble on the idea of the American family, Shepard came along and buried it,” said Winters. “He didn’t believe in happy endings. He had a difficult time growing up as the child of an alcoholic father, and he channeled that into his work.’’
Though he was a private man, a certain glamour attached itself to Mr. Shepard’s image. His relationship with the actress Jessica Lange lasted for decades before ending in 2009. A Shepard play from the early 1970s, “Cowboy Mouth,’’ was co-written and performed with then-girlfriend Patti Smith. He was a drummer in the band the Holy Modal Rounders for several years, and he collaborated with Bob Dylan on “Brownsville Girl,’’ a song on Dylan’s 1986 album “Knocked Out Loaded.’’
Like Dylan, Mr. Shepard always seemed like a man apart. His individualistic and rebellious stance extended even to the theater. In a 1984 interview with American Theatre magazine, he said: “I don’t go to the theater at all. I hate the theater. I really do, I can’t stand it. I think it’s totally disappointing for the most part. It’s just always embarrassing. But every once in a while, something real is taking place.’’
Many would count Mr. Shepard’s own dramas in that latter category. According to Winters’s biography, the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, herself a Pulitzer winner, once sent Mr. Shepard a fan letter calling him her “gorgeous north star.’’
Though some of his plays were presented on Broadway, it was off-Broadway where he was truly a potent force.
In “True West,’’ a pair of brothers — one a screenwriter, the other an alcoholic thief — undergo a reversal of roles and personalities that climaxes in a physical confrontation. In his “Buried Child,’’ a man brings his girlfriend home to meet his Midwestern family, a deeply dysfunctional clan that proves to be harboring a very grim secret. In “Fool for Love’’ Eddie and May, who may be brother and sister, engage in a tumultuous reunion in a rundown motel room on the outskirts of the Mojave Desert that reveals the all-consuming passion between them.
‘‘There’s some hidden, deeply rooted thing in the Anglo male American that has to do with inferiority, that has to do with not being a man, and always, continually having to act out some idea of manhood that invariably is violent,’’ Mr. Shepard told The New York Times in 1984. ‘‘This sense of failure runs very deep — maybe it has to do with the frontier being systematically taken away, with the guilt of having gotten this country by wiping out a native race of people, with the whole Protestant work ethic. I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s the source of a lot of intrigue for me.’’
Although Mr. Shepard never ceased to be a force to reckon with, he seldom again reached the heights of his late 1970s to the mid-1980s peak. “You do have to ask that question: What happened after 1986?’’ Winters said. “You have to ask why Sam’s later plays never had the same focus or the same impact as what we’ll call the family plays. It could be that he was too busy acting.’’ It may have been financial necessity; Winters said that Mr. Shepard’s plays were not big moneymakers.
Mr. Shepard appeared in many films, including “Days of Heaven’’ (1978), “Raggedy Man’’ (1981), “Frances’’ (1982), “Country’’ (1984), the film version of “Fool for Love’’ (1985), “Crimes of the Heart’’ (1986), “Baby Boom’’ (1987), “The Pelican Brief’’ (1993), “All the Pretty Horses’’ (2000), “Black Hawk Down’’ (2001), “The Notebook’’ (2004), and the 2013 film adaptation of “August: Osage County.’’ Recently, he played the patriarch of a troubled Florida clan in the Netflix series “Bloodline.’’
His death, which caught many in the theater world by surprise, prompted reflections on his work by the many writers, actors, and directors he influenced. One of them was Jeff Zinn, managing director of Gloucester Stage Company and author of “The Existential Actor.’’
“He had an outsize effect on me,’’ Zinn said by phone on Monday. Elaborating later by e-mail, Zinn said that in 1987 he directed a production of Mr. Shepard’s “A Lie of the Mind’’ at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater that led to Zinn becoming co-artistic director there. He went on to direct several other plays by Mr. Shepard.
“Shepard is embedded deep in my theatrical DNA,’’ Zinn said.
And Zinn made it clear that while he’s worked often on Mr. Shepard’s plays, he is not done exploring the works of a dramatist who made it his business to challenge theatergoers every step of the way, saying: “The list of Shepard plays on my bucket list yet to be done is also long.’’Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.