Sam Shepard passed away at his home in Kentucky in late July surrounded by his family. He died from complications from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, at the age of 73. Shepard is recognized as a legendary playwright, authoring a whopping 55-plus plays as well as being a renowned actor. His prolific career spanned over five decades.

Although the Illinois native would come to be known as one of the greatest American playwrights of his generation, he didn’t see it coming. “I don’t know how I ever began writing plays; I certainly didn’t decide to. I just found myself writing them,” he said. It was Shepard’s interest in theater that led him to New York in his late teens. He started to write Off-Off-Broadway plays and soon developed a distinct, poetic voice, often using bleak elements and dark humor. Indeed, his characters were often loners or drifters entangled in dramatic themes which exposed broken middle-American families.

Dying City playwright Christopher Shinn said of Shepard’s work, “Sam always wrote from that place–a zone of trauma, mystery, and grief. Whether the play was more mainstream or experimental in its conception, he took the big risk every time.”

It was a while before Shepard realized his tendency toward chilly family relationships was related to his childhood home life. After all, Sam once described his father as “a drinking man, a dedicated alcoholic.” In a 1998 interview on Great Performances, Shepard reflected, “It suddenly occurred to me that I was maybe avoiding a territory that I needed to investigate which is the family. And I avoided it for quite a while because to me there was a danger–I was a little afraid of it–particularly of my old man and all that emotional territory. I didn’t really want to tiptoe in there. And then I thought well maybe I better.”

In 1979, Shepard won a Pulitzer Prize for his darkly comic Broadway play Buried Child and it was nominated for five Tony Awards to boot. The play marked a turning point in his career as some of his most celebrated works soon followed including True West and Fool for Love–both of which were finalists for Pulitzer prizes.

Shepard’s acting debut came when Terrence Malick cast him as the shy farmer in the 1978 film Days of Heaven opposite Richard Gere and Brooke Adams. It was a major role and it got him noticed. Subsequently, he was cast in many film roles over the following decades. He played Cal in Resurrection; Bailey in Raggedy Man; he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the pilot Chuck Yeager in the 1983 film The Right Stuff; he played Spud Jones in Steel Magnolias; William Garrison in Black Hawk Down; and Beverly Weston in August: Osage County. More recently, he was cast in the Netflix series Bloodline.

Shepard is survived by his three adult children. Jesse Mojo from his marriage to O-Lan Jones, and Hannah Jane and Samuel Walker from his tumultuous 27-year relationship with actress Jessica Lange.

Upon hearing the news of Shepard’s passing, Selma director Ava DuVernay tweeted, “Sam Shepard. Whenever he came on-screen, you knew you were in good hands.”

Actor Jason Alexander wrote, “A great man of the theater has passed. Thank you, Sam Shepard. RIP.”

And the creator of House of Cards Beau Willimon tweeted, “Sam Shepard is one of the greats. These eyes saw so much, and he wrote of what he saw with fearless, timeless honesty. RIP maestro.”

 

 

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