Who Was Sam Shepard?
Sam Shepard was born in Fort Sheridan, Illinois, on November 5, 1943, and went on to produce and write many plays, winning a 1979 drama Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child. Shepard was also a director, screenwriter and actor who was featured in many films, including Days of Heaven, Paris, Texas, Country, Steel Magnolias, Thunderheart, The Notebook and August: Osage County. He earned a 1983 supporting actor Oscar nomination for The Right Stuff.
Sam Shepard was born on November 5, 1943, in Fort Sheridan, Illinois, the oldest of three children. His father was an army officer, and the family moved frequently during Shepard’s childhood. His father was also an alcoholic, and the dysfunctional atmosphere in the transient household would color Shepard’s later writing.
During his high school years in Duarte, California, Shepard began acting and writing, chiefly poetry. Outside of the classroom, from 1958 to 1960, he worked in the stables at a horse ranch in Chino, yet another early experience that would influence his future plays. Shepard graduated from high school in 1961 and took classes at Mount San Antonio Junior College for a year, where he set out to study agriculture.
In a profound twist, a traveling theater group, the Bishop's Company Repertory Players, made a stop in his town, and Shepard decided to join the group and hit the road. After nearly two years of traveling with the ensemble, Shepard moved to New York City and began writing a series of avant-garde one-act plays.
Early Plays & Film Career
In 1964, Shepard had his first two plays Cowboys and The Rock Garden produced as a double bill. Two years later, in unprecedented fashion, he won OBIE awards for three plays—Chicago (which Shepard claims to have written in a single day), Icarus's Mother and Red Cross. In 1967, his first full-length play, La Turista, gave Shepard his fourth OBIE, and he won two more with Melodrama Play (1968) and Cowboys #2 (1968). Shepard rounded out the 1960s by marrying actress O-Lan Jones Dark, and his first son, Jesse Mojo, was born in 1970.
As the new decade kicked off, Shepard and his family moved to London, and he continued to write, notably the 1973 OBIE winner The Tooth of the Crime. The following year he returned to the United States and joined Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue, a traveling band of musicians, and was asked to write a movie about the tour. (Shepard would later write a book about the experience instead, 1977's The Rolling Thunder Logbook.)
In the late 1970s, Shepard moved to the big screen as an actor, a career path that would lead to nearly 70 roles over 30-plus years. His first high-profile part would come in only his second film, when he landed the lead in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978). Roles in other high-profile films would soon follow, among them Raggedy Man (1981), Frances (1982; in which he met Jessica Lange, who would be his partner for nearly 30 years and with whom he would have two more children) and The Right Stuff (1983). Shepard received a supporting actor Oscar nomination for The Right Stuff, for his portrayal of famed pilot Chuck Yeager.
Pulitzer Prize for 'Buried Child'
This period would also mark a high point in Shepard’s output as a playwright, and two more OBIE-winning plays would emerge: Curse of the Starving Class and Buried Child (both 1978). Along with the OBIE, Buried Child earned Shepard the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979. On the heels of this success, Shepard wrote True West (1980), which provided coveted roles for high-profile actors over the next three-plus decades.
Sam Shepard remained one of America’s most respected playwrights and actors. He continued to write plays such as Fool for Love (1983; adapted as a screenplay for the 1985 Robert Altman film of the same name), A Lie of the Mind (1986) and Simpatico (1993), and he was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 1994. He also continued to act in films such as Steel Magnolias (1989), The Pelican Brief (1993), Snow Falling on Cedars (1999), All the Pretty Horses (2000), Black Hawk Down (2001), The Notebook (2004), Safe House (2011) and Mud (2013).
Shepard also received acclaim for his television roles, earning an Emmy nod for the 1999 A&E miniseries Dash and Lilly, directed by Kathy Bates. He later joined the cast of the 2014 Discovery Channel miniseries Klondike and the 2015 Netflix mystery drama Bloodline, which co-starred Sissy Spacek.
The acclaimed actor and playwright died on July 27, 2017, at his home in Kentucky from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 73.
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