Sam Shepard: Way More Than an Actor

For at least two generations of moviegoers, Sam Shepard has been recognized simply as an actor — a tall, rangy guy who specializes in rugged outdoorsy roles.

But there’s a whole lot more to the man.

Beginning in the late ‘60s, this rural Illinois native began carving out a niche as one of America’s most challenging, innovative and unconventional playwrights, finally winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979.

After spending much of his childhood on a family ranch and never formally training as an actor (or as a writer, for that matter), Shepard burst upon the motion picture scene in 1978 with his haunting portrayal of the dying farmer in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.

Since then he has appeared in dozens of films, usually as a reliable supporting player but sometimes as a leading man.

The Library’s new free film series, “Fool for Cinema,” looks at Shepard’s celluloid output as actor, writer and director.

But before we wade too deeply into the man’s cinematic resume, it’s worth checking out his early days as a playwright. Those experiences informed Shepard’s outlook and, to a great extent, the face he presents to the moviegoing public.

The first thing to recognize about Shepard is that he is almost exclusively self-taught. Out of high school he became the drummer for the rock band The Holy Modal Rounders (one of their songs was on the soundtrack of Easy Rider) and at 19 got involved in New York’s vibrant off-off Broadway theater scene, later becoming the playwright-in-residence at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre.

When he started writing, Shepard has said, he knew next to nothing about theater. He was winging it, without a background from which he could learn what works on stage and what doesn’t.

As a result, his plays were marked by unexpected, outrageous moments that you couldn’t find in anyone else’s productions.

In his Pulitzer-winning Buried Child, a farm family gathers around a huge pile of sweet corn that is shucked as the play unfolds. Later on a character begins throwing dozens of glass bottles, which shatter on the stage. We’re not talking prop glass. No, these were real glass bottles, salvaged by the theater’s property master from area dumpsters.

In True West — about a Hollywood screenwriter and his scumbag sibling — a frustrated hack uncaps and drinks several beers right in front of us and takes a golf club to his uncooperative typewriter, sending keys and springs flying into the first few rows of seats. (I saw James Belushi in the role in an Off-Broadway production; years later in an interview the actor told me that gulping brew onstage every night — Shepard insisted on real beer — nearly gave him a drinking problem.)

In Curse of the Starving Class a resentful young man defiantly urinates on his younger sister’s science project. Again, no props. The actor was required to relieve himself in full view of the audience.

And in Fool for Love two lovers (they have learned too late in their affair that they share the same philandering father) throw each other around a cheap motel room. I saw Fool in the early ‘80s in NYC, and was overwhelmed by the violence of the play. Afterwards a stagehand showed me that big bass drums were stacked on the back side of the stage flats so that when the actors crashed into the walls, the whole set reverberated like giant tympani. The drums were Shepard’s idea, he said.

Add to these hair-raising, gut-wrenching moments of pure theater Shepard’s almost singleminded concentration on the death of the American Dream — his plays are most often about families hitting an economic, ethical and spiritual dead end — and you had one of the most distinctive and disturbing voices in American theater.

He has won 10 Obies, a Drama Desk award, a New York Drama Critics’ Circle award and an Outer Critics Circle award.

And after launching a film career Shepard wasted no time in getting an Oscar nomination for his performance as test pilot Chuck Yeager in 1984’s The Right Stuff.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.

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