Sam Shepard is dead. The Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Academy award nominated actor, and author succumbed to complications from Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 73.
Shepard, perhaps best known to the public for his laconic portrayal of Chuck Yeager in the adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, was a revolutionary playwright who stretched the boundaries of language and imagery on the American stage.
In Mr. Shepard’s plays, the only undeniable truth is that of the mirage. From early pieces like “Chicago” (1965), written when Mr. Shepard was in his early 20s and staged in the margins of Off Off Broadway, to late works like “Heartless” (2012), he presented a world in which nothing is fixed.
That includes any comforting notions of family, home, material success and even individual identity. “To me, a strong sense of self isn’t believing in a lot,” Mr. Shepard said in a 1994 interview with The New York Times. “Some people might define it that way, saying, ‘He has a very strong sense of himself.’ But it’s a complete lie.”
That feeling of uncertainty was translated into dialogue of an uncommon lyricism and some of the strangest, strongest images in American theater. A young man in “Buried Child,” a bruising tale of a Midwestern homecoming, describes looking into the rearview mirror as he is driving and seeing his face morph successively into those of his ancestors.
Though Mr. Shepard received critical acclaim almost from the beginning of his career, and his work has been staged throughout the world, he has never been a mainstream commercial playwright.
But several writers who grew up studying Mr. Shepard’s works said that they were struck by his boldness. Christopher Shinn, whose plays include the Pulitzer finalist “Dying City,” said he was reminded of Mr. Shepard’s gifts as a writer while watching “Buried Child” Off Broadway last year.
“I felt the play pulsing with Sam Shepard’s unconscious, and I realized how rarely I feel that in the theater today,” Mr. Shinn said on Monday. “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.”
The Times makes note of Shepard’s passing resemblance to Gary Cooper. Indeed, on screen, he played the “Everyman” character with an intensity that lit up the theater. There was steel behind those blue eyes and his lanky frame masked a smoldering sexuality. He was a capable actor, never brilliant, but perhaps that says more about the roles in which he was cast rather than any talent he may have possessed.
I saw several of Shepard’s plays over the years and was mesmerized. In truth, they were not to everyone’s liking. But the almost poetic way that characters expressed themselves was as uplifting as his plots were depressing.
All people with Shepard’s huge talents are, to some degree or another, driven by demons. It what makes them so interesting. His work on and off Broadway has stood the test of time and will be revived many times in the years to come.