Sam Shepard: Playwright at Center Stage (Appreciation)

Shepard’s writing expressed strong feelings with few words

Sam Shepard
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It’s something of a show-business truism that writers sink into the background, shoveling the coal below deck while the glamorous actors and charismatic directors do their work in a more public setting. Part of what makes Sam Shepard’s career so fascinating was his apparent ease on both sides of the camera.

We’ve had other playwrights become actors — Tracy Letts is probably film and TV’s current leading light in that category — but Shepard wasn’t merely a strong character actor; he was sexy and charismatic in a way that made him a pin-up for people who read the New York Review of Books.

When he and Jessica Lange were a high-profile couple (their black-and-white Vanity Fair layout, photographed by Bruce Weber, festooned the walls of my freshman dorm room), they were instantly iconic: a more Zen-like Liz and Dick, or Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe on more equal footing.

Shepard was by no mean hitching a ride on Lange’s fame, having established his own bona fides by the mid-1980s. “Buried Child” earned him a Pulitzer in 1979, and his authorial reputation only grew with subsequent works like “Fool for Love” and “True West.” (The latter play was seen by millions when PBS’s “American Playhouse” aired a TV adaptation in 1984, starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise as two battling brothers.)

Playwrights don’t generally become household names outside of Broadway circles, but Shepard was becoming well known to moviegoers with striking acting turns in films like Terence Malick’s 1979 “Days of Heaven” and the biopic “Frances” (where he met Lange), not to mention his Oscar-nominated performance as pilot Chuck Yeager in “The Right Stuff.” Shepard had become enough of a selling point as an actor — carrying with him a craggy, no-nonsense brand of laconic American toughness — that he was cast in the lead role of Robert Altman’s screen adaptation of “Fool for Love.”

(Naturally, the ever-snotty Spy magazine couldn’t resist taking a dig at Shepard’s two branches of fame; a writer there once sniffed that Shepard thought he was Gary Cooper crossed with Eugene O’Neill when he was really a mix of Randolph Scott and Zane Grey.)

The writing slowed down in the last several decades of his life, but the acting roles continued, with Shepard excelling both in leads and supporting performances. Spy’s opinion notwithstanding, there was something very Gary Cooper-ish about Shepard’s handsome, rugged features and his ability to convey a great deal of emotion with a minimum of dialogue.

Younger audiences who grew up watching “Baby Boom” on HBO loved Shepard as Diane Keaton’s knight in flannel armor, and many obits have cited his roles in “Black Hawk Down” and Netflix’s “Bloodline,” but he leaves behind a rich legacy of acting work. If you’re in the mood for some deeper cuts, check out Volker Schlöndorff’s 1991 “Voyager” or the Kathy Bates-directed “Dash and Lilly,” where Shepard plays Dashiell Hammett opposite Judy Davis’ Lillian Hellman. (And there are some lovely Shepard-Lange moments in “Crimes of the Heart.”)

Writer, actor, musician (he had an affair with Patti Smith in the early 1970s and later played banjo on her cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”), Shepard was a talented hyphenate who kept creating all the way up to his passing this weekend after a bout with ALS. Whether crafting his own words or performing those written by others, he was an extraordinary American artist.