R.I.P.: Sam Shepard

August 10, 2017

It’s a very strange experience to write a biography of someone who’s still alive, as I did in 1984 when Sam Shepard was 41 and I was 30 (we were kids! I can say in retrospect). And then it’s even weirder when that person dies. I’ve been tracking Shepard’s artistic career and personal life with varying degrees of intensity for more than three decades, so his death July 27 hit me hard. Like his colleagues and fans, I mourn the world’s loss of an epochal original writer. On a personal level I wasn’t prepared for how keenly I feel the loss of…not so much My Subject but a kind of alter-ego.


When I was asked to write a quickie bio by Dell Books, to capitalize on his Hollywood celebrity (the Oscar nomination for The Right Stuff, the tabloid interest in his nascent affair with Jessica Lange), I took the assignment for two reasons: 1) because I admired the crazy rock-n-roll energy and poetic theatricality of his plays (like The Tooth of Crime) and 2) because I identified with him personally as a guy with a tempestuous relationship with his alcoholic military-veteran father. I didn’t meet him in the course of writing the book nor while revising the biography for a second edition, published in 1997 when the Broadway debut of his Pulitzer-winning Buried Child dangled the promise of some new attention to the now-certified movie star’s theatrical body of work.

It wasn’t until 2003 until I finally got to sit down with him in St. Paul, MN, for a nuts-and-bolts interview for American Theater magazine; we talked again the following year in New York when I interviewed him for the Village Voice about his 2004 play The God of Hell. I feel like I know more about his personal life than anyone who’s not a friend needs to know (he was pretty private, and I respect that). I feel like I know a lot about him as an artist, which matters a lot more to me, and what I relate to most is his profound understanding of being psychically split between what happens outside and what happens inside.

In films Shepard reliably represented the many faces of craggy masculinity. It’s no disrespect to say he wasn’t a great actor – he was an economical performer and an iconic presence, which suited most of his film roles. His most memorable performance, for me, was playing the ghost of Hamlet’s father in Michael Almereyda’s 2000 film. I weep just thinking about the way he pulled Ethan Hawke into his arms and growled into his ear “Remember me!” His best-known stage plays (Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child, True West, Fool for Love, A Lie of the Mind) revolve round the relatable subject of family life, presented in all its combative, hilarious, ridiculous mythological depth.


I always preferred his quirkier, stranger, more poetic and absurdist work because I felt him exercising his deepest passions there. (His 2012 play Heartless, above, produced by Signature Theater, is right up there with the wildest and craziest of his plays.) What I learned from meeting and writing about him was that he was profoundly a man of letters, extremely knowledgeable about certain pockets of poetry and international literature. He cared shockingly little about contemporary theater and only late in life delved into Shakespeare and the Greeks. It’s not surprising that Shepard had a lifelong love for horses (raising them and riding them). Much less known is his deep engagement with spirituality and philosophy, especially the teachings of Gurdjieff, a subject so close to his heart that when I interviewed him it was the one thing he wouldn’t discuss. These are the layers and flavors of Shepard’s work that I think will reveal themselves more as time goes by.

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