Fans of both film and theater are mourning the loss of a great with the announcement of the passing of Pulitzer Prize winner and Oscar nominee Sam Shepard. The playwright and actor passed away on July 27, 2017 due to complications associated with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis at the age of 73 leaving behind a celebrated career both on an off the big screen. To honor his accomplishments in film and beyond lets take a look at his rise to fame spanning 54 years.
Shepard was born Samuel Shepard Rogers, III on November 5, 1943 in Fort Sheridan Illinois. Named after his father, Shepherd was nicknamed “Steve Rogers”, the same name as the alter ego of Captain America. His father was a farmer described as a “dedicated alcoholic” while his mother was a teacher. Shepard spent his early life working on his father’s ranch and even studied agriculture after high school. While embracing the family business at Mt. San Antonio College he gained a love for jazz music, abstract expressionism, and the works of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. Before long the farm boy turned into an aspiring performer as Shepard joined a touring repertory group called the Bishop’s Company and dropped out of school to pursue a career on stage and screen.
Shepard started seriously seeking out roles off Broadway in the early 1960s in New York City and adopted the name he would make famous, Sam Shepard, dropping the “Steve Rogers” nickname in his professional life. Shepard produced a few of his own plays at several Off-Off-Broadway venues and won six Obie Awards from 1966 to 1968 for his original work. From 1964 until 1968 he led nine different stage productions and made the jump to the big screen in 1969 as the co-writer for “Me and My Brother”. He also penned a play called “The Unseen Hand” which would go on to be an influential work for Richard O’Brien when he wrote “The Rocky Horror Show”.
The 1970s Sam Shepard’s young career gain major steam as he penned two more films as a screenwriter during that time, “Zabriskie Point” and “Oh! Calcutta!” He also co-wrote “Renaldo and Clara” in 1978, a film he co-stared in as his first real film role as the character Rodeo. He also played a role in the 1978 film “Days of Heaven”, but it was his stage productions that truly began to add up. Shepard contributed to 15 plays during the 70s, by far his most successful decade in theater, including “The Tooth of Crime”, “Cowboy Mouth”, “Action”, “Angel City”, “Curse of the Starving Class”, and “Buried Child” just to name a few. His work won him numerous Obie Awards for the plays themselves and for Best Playwriting, cementing him as a force to be reckoned with in the theater industry long before his name was notable for his on-screen ventures. It was “Buried Child” that won Shepard the Pulitzer Prize and led the way for Shepard’s star to shine even brighter in the decades to come.
Shepard really picked up his on-screen presence in the 1980s, appearing in at least one move a year throughout that time including parts in “Resurrection”, “Raggedy Man”, “The Right Stuff”, “Fool for Love” which his also wrote, and “Steel Magnolias”, the part that many film buffs probably know him best for today. His role in “The Right Stuff” earned him his most prestigious film award nomination of his career, an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor as pilot Chuck Yeager (shown above). Shepard also wrote numerous films during this time. In addition to “Fool For Love” he helped pen two short films, co-wrote “Paris, Texas”, and wrote and directed 1988’s “Far North” which was his first notable big screen directorial effort. Shepard produced less plays in the 80s but they proved to be high quality works that are among his most popular with theater crowds. “True West”, “A Lie of the Mind”, and “Baby Boom” were just a few stage productions he penned as his career hit a high point heading into the 1990s.
Shepard’s play output shrunk even more in the 90s with only four productions written, including “Simpatico”. The decade saw Shepard a bit more focused on film and, for the first time, television. Shepard had 10 big-screen roles during the 90s, including films like “Voyager” and “The Pelican Brief”, and he wrote two more cinematic projects, “Silent Tongue”, which he also directed, and a film version of “Curse of the Starving Class” as well as a film adaptation of “Simpatico”. These were only a few stage productions Shepard wrote that had been adapted to the big-screen to this point in his career. The big accomplishment for Shepard during the 90s was his first roles on television as he appeared in numerous made-for-TV movies. Among those productions were “The Good Boys”, “Purgatory”, and “Dash and Lilly”. Shepard also appeared in a handful of episode for the series “Streets of Laredo”.
A late career push saw Shepard appear in some pretty notable and popular films in the early 2000s. From 2000 through 2009 his film credits included “Back Hawk Down”, “Hamlet”, “All the Pretty Horses”, “The Notebook” (pictured above), “Swordfish”, the live-action “Charlotte’s Web” as the narrator, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”, and “Brothers.” He also added several more television films to his record including 2007’s “Ruffian”, his final small-screen film role. His contributions as a writer started to shrink at this point in his career however. Shepard produced two writing credits for film during this time, including his final film credit as a writer for the short film “Fool for Love”. He did contribute a handful of plays, including a stage production of “The Notebook”, “Kicking a Dead Horse”, and “The God of Hell.” It would be the most successful years of Shepard’s career in terms of the notoriety of the films he appeared in and heading into the 2010s he settled into big-screen roles with few new written works being produced for the stage or screen.
Over the course of the 2010s Shepard settled into working on more artistic and underground films with appearances in “Darling Companion”, “Fair Game”, “Cold in July”, “Midnight Special”, and “Mud”. His final film role was in 2017’s “Never Here”, capping off a decade where he notched 15 big-screen credits although his directing and screenwriting days were behind him. Shepard’s final play for the stage was 2014’s “A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations)” and his final television role was as a recurring character in “Bloodline” (shown above).
Sam Shepard was a devoted actor and writer right up to the later years of his career and many pegged him as the greatest playwright of his generation. A man that came up from humble beginnings, Shepard made a name for himself as a multi-talented and capable artist on the screen, on stage, and on paper and did his best to share his talent with others and help cultivate the talents of his fellow screenwriters and actors along the way. His contributions to the industry should not be ignored and judging by his many Obie Awards, his Oscar nomination, his Pulitzer, and his countless other nominations for both stage and screen I’d say he had a career worth celebrating on all counts. Mr. Shepard thank you for everything you did. You’re memory will live on in the words and films you helped create and here’s hoping you helped inspire a new generation of writers that can live up to the legacy you left behind!