Biography of Sam Shepard, American Playwright

Writer of 'True West' and other iconic American plays

Sam Shepard in jeans and a black shirt, with his hand touching his forehead
Sam Shepard (1943-2017) at a 2006 panel.

Jemal Countess / Getty Images

Sam Shepard (November 5, 1943–July 27, 2017) was an American actor, playwright, and director. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979 and was nominated for an Oscar in 1983. He’s best known for his work in the theater, as a playwright, actor, and director.

Fast Facts: Sam Shepard

  • Full Name: Samuel Shepard Rogers III
  • Known For: American playwright, actor, and director
  • Born: November 5, 1943 in Fort Sheridan, Illinois
  • Parents: Samuel Shepard Rogers, Jr. and Jane Elaine Rogers (née Schook)
  • Died: July 27, 2017 in Midway, Kentucky
  • Education: Mt. San Antonio College, Duarte High School
  • Selected Works: Curse of the Starving Class (1978), Buried Child (1978), True West (1980), Fool for Love (1983), A Lie of the Mind (1985)
  • Selected Awards and Honors: Obie Awards (10 awards total between 1966 and 1984), Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination (1983), Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play (1986), American Theater Hall of Fame (1994), PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award (2009)
  • Partners: O-Lan Jones (m. 1969-1984), Jessica Lange (1982-2009)
  • Children: Jesse Mojo Shepard (b. 1970), Hannah Jane Shepard (b. 1986), Samuel Walker Shepard (b. 1987)
  • Notable Quote: “When you hit a wall—of your own imagined limitations—just kick it in.”

Early Life

Sam Shepard was born in Fort Sheridan, Illinois, and named after his father, Samuel Shepard Rogers, Jr., who was a teacher, a farmer, and, during World War II, a bomber pilot for the US Air Force. His mother was Jane Elaine Rogers (née Schook), a schoolteacher. During his early life, Shepard went by the nickname Steve. The family eventually moved to Duarte, California, where he attended Duarte High School and worked on a ranch.

After graduating from high school in 1961, Shepard briefly attended Mt. San Antonio College, where he studied animal husbandry. While at college, he was introduced to jazz, abstract art, and absurdism, and he dropped out of school to join the Bishop’s Company, a touring theatre repertory group. Soon after that, he moved to New York City to pursue a career in theatre.

Profile shot of Sam Shepard, wearing a shirt and suspenders
Sam Shepard circa 1970. Hulton Archive/Getty Images 

Shepard arrived in New York City and moved in with his friend, Charlie Mingus, Jr., the son of jazz musician Charles Mingus. At first, he worked as a busboy at a nightclub, the Village Gate club in the artsy Manhattan district of Greenwich Village. While working there, he befriended Ralph Cook, a fellow artist and the head waiter at the club, who introduced him to the experimental off-off-Broadway theatre scene. In 1969, he married O-Lan Jones, an actress and writer. They had one child, a son, Jesse Mojo Shepard, born in 1970. Although they remained married until 1984, Shepard soon became involved in an affair from 1970 to 1971 with punk musician and songwriter Patti Smith, who was apparently unaware of Shepard’s own career success at that time.

Off-Off-Broadway Beginnings (1961-1971)

  • Cowboys (1964)
  • The Rock Garden (1964)
  • Chicago (1965)
  • Icarus's Mother (1965)
  • 4-H Club (1965)
  • Red Cross (1966)
  • Fourteen Hundred Thousand (1966)
  • La Turista (1967)
  • Cowboys #2 (1967)
  • Forensic and the Navigators (1967)
  • The Unseen Hand (1969)
  • The Holy Ghostly (1970)
  • Operation Sidewinder (1970)
  • Mad Dog Blues (1971)
  • Back Bog Beast Bait (1971)
  • Cowboy Mouth (1971)

While in New York City, Shepard stopped going by “Steve Rogers,” as he had for most of his life, and switched to the stage name “Sam Shepard.” Beginning around 1965, Shepard began a close relationship with La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, a highly experimental theatre company located in the East Village. His first works there were a pair of one-act plays: Dog and The Rocking Chair, both produced in 1965. Over the next few decades, Shepard’s work would appear at La MaMa quite frequently.

Among the collaborators at La MaMa with whom Shepard worked was Jacques Levy, a psychologist, musician, and director who also worked with The Byrds and Bob Dylan, as well as directing the famous off-Broadway revue Oh! Calcutta! Levy directed Shepard’s plays Red Cross (in 1966) and La Turista (1967). In 1967, Tom O'Horgan (best known for directing the musicals Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar) directed Shepard's Melodrama Play alongside Leonard Melfi's Times Square and Rochelle Owens' Futz, again at La MaMa. In 1969, La MaMa presented The Unseen Hand, Shepard’s new science fiction play; the play would later be cited as an influence in the cult favorite musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Shepard’s work with La MaMa earned him six Obie Awards (the most prestigious awards for non-Broadway theatre) between 1966 and 1968. He shifted focus briefly to screenwriting, penning Me and My Brother in 1968 (an indie film that was also Christopher Walken’s feature film debut) and Zabriskie Point in 1970. During his affair with Patti Smith, he wrote and performed (with Smith) in the play Cowboy Mouth at The American Place Theatre, drawing inspiration from their relationship. Smith gained positive notice from the performance, which helped launch her music career. Shepard, on the other hand, bailed on the production after opening night. First, he ran off to New England without telling anyone, then he took his wife and son and moved their family to London, where they remained for the next few years.

Return to Acting and Major Plays (1972-1983)

  • The Tooth of Crime (1972)
  • Geography of a Horse Dreamer (1974)
  • Killer's Head (1975)
  • Action (1975)
  • Angel City (1976)
  • Suicide in B Flat (1976)
  • Inacoma (1977)
  • Curse of the Starving Class (1978)
  • Buried Child (1978)
  • Tongues (1978)
  • Seduced: A Play in Two Acts (1979)
  • True West (1980)
  • Savage/Love (1981)
  • Fool for Love (1983)

While in London, Shepard became an adherent of the self-development method called the “Fourth Way,” which focuses on ideas about increasing attention and energy, minimizing inattentiveness or drifting, and continually transforming and improving one’s self through a variety of methods, some vaguer than others. He would remain interested in these methods of self-improvement throughout the rest of his life.

In 1975, the Shepard family moved back to the U.S., where they settled on the Flying Y Ranch, a 20-acre property in Mill Valley, California. He continued working in the theater and even briefly took a job in academia, serving for a semester as the Regents' Professor of Drama at the University of California – Davis. Also in 1975, Shepard went out on tour with Bob Dylan; he and Dylan were co-writing a film, Renaldo and Clara, that was based on the tour. Although much of the movie ended up being improvised, rather than scripted, Shepard did publish his memoirs of the trip, Rolling Thunder Logbook, in 1978.

Shepard was named the playwright in residence at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco in 1975. During his residency there, he wrote some of his best-known and most successful plays. His “Family Trilogy”—Curse of the Starving Class (1976), Buried Child (1979), and True West (1980)—went on to be considered his master works, along with 1983’s Fool for Love. Buried Child, a dark comedy which follows a young man’s return to his family farm, was nominated for five Tony Awards and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Between 1966 and 1984, Shepard won a record-setting ten Obie Awards.

Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange, arms around each other, in a movie still
Shepard with future partner Jessica Lange in the 1984 film 'Country'. Paramount/Getty Images

During this time, Shepard also began taking more roles on film. In 1978, he made his film acting debut in Days of Heaven, directed by Terrence Malick and co-starring Brooke Adams and Richard Gere. He starred opposite Jessica Lange in the 1982 film Frances, and they fell in love. With his marriage to Jones falling apart, he moved in with Lange in 1983, a year before his divorce from Jones was final. They would go on to have two children together: a daughter, Hannah Jane Shepard, in 1986, and a son, Samuel Walker Shepard, in 1987.

His most famous film role came in 1983, when he played Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to break the sound barrier, in The Right Stuff. The role earned Shepard a nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars.

Teacher, Writer, and Actor (1984-2017)

  • A Lie of the Mind (1985)
  • A Short Life of Trouble (1987)
  • The War in Heaven (1987)
  • Baby Boom (1987)
  • States of Shock (1991)
  • Simpatico (1993)
  • Tooth of Crime (Second Dance) (1996)
  • Eyes for Consuela (1998)
  • The Late Henry Moss (2000)
  • The God of Hell (2004)
  • Kicking a Dead Horse (2007)
  • Ages of the Moon (2009)
  • Blackthorn (2011)
  • Heartless (2012)
  • A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations) (2014)

During the 1980s, Shepard continued pulling double duty as a playwright and a film actor. His next play was A Lie of the Mind, which debuted at the Promenade Theatre off-Broadway in 1985 with Shepard himself as the director. He also reunited with Dylan to write “Brownsville Girl,” an epic, eleven-minute song that was eventually included on Dylan’s 1986 album Knocked Out Loaded. In 1986, the Oscar-nominated director Robert Altman adapted Shepard’s play A Lie of the Mind, casting Shepard in the lead role.

Shepard also dedicated a considerable amount of time to teaching and other positions that focused on developing new artists. He was frequently found giving lectures and teaching classes across the country, not just in formal academic environments but at festivals and other events as well. In 1986, he was elected to both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He continued writing plays steadily throughout the later decades of his life, although none of them quite reached the same acclaim as his previous ones.

Sam Shepard, standing with hands in pockets, at a microphone
Sam Shepard reciting a story at the 2008 World Science Festival.  Amy Sussman/Getty Images

By the start of the new millennium, Shepard reportedly was beginning to burn out a bit when it came to his film acting career. However, in 2001, Black Hawk Down helped him find new interest in his film work, even as he continued splitting his time between theatre and film. That year also proved to be creatively inspiring in another way for Shepard: his 2004 play The God of Hell was a reaction to the September 11 attacks and the subsequent reactions by the American government. His play True West made its Broadway debut in 2000, earning a Tony nomination for Best Play. In 2010, Ages of the Moon made its New York theatre debut in the same season as a revival of A Lie of the Mind, both off-Broadway.

Shepard continued acting and writing all the way through the final years of his life. In 2013, he co-starred in the film adaptation of August: Osage County, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts that deals with many of the same themes (rural America, family drama, dark comedy and secrets) that Shepard’s plays delve into. His final two plays were 2012’s Heartless and 2014’s A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations). From 2015 to 2016, Shepard starred as patriarch Robert Rayburn on the Netflix drama series Bloodline, which followed the complicated and often dark secrets of a Florida family. Shepard’s character did not appear in the third season, which was released just months before his death. His final film role was the thriller Never Here; it was filmed in 2014, but it was not released until just weeks before his death in the summer of 2017.

Literary Styles and Themes

Shepard’s work can largely be separated into a few distinctive eras and styles. His early work, in particular his off-off-Broadway work, is, as one might expect, heavily experimental and non-traditional. For instance, his 1965 play Icarus’s Mother features seemingly disconnected plotting and bizarre moments that are left deliberately unexplained. Much of this can be tied to his overall absurdist aesthetic at the time, eschewing realism for something more experimental and unusual, refusing to give easy answers or traditional dramatic structure.

Over time, Shepard’s writing moved more towards realist styles, albeit still with heavily tragicomic elements and themes that fascinated him: complicated, often darkly funny familial relationships (and family secrets), a touch of surrealism, seemingly rootless or aimless characters, and characters and places that dwell on the outskirts of society (specifically, American society). His plays are frequently set in rural America, reflecting his own Midwestern upbringing and his interest in exploring these often-isolated families and communities.

Although Shepard did work on screen and in prose on a few occasions, his most prolific work was, of course, in the theatre world. He explored a wide variety of theatrical work, from shorter one-act plays with heavily experimental or abstract styles (such as his early work at La MaMa) to full-length plays that took a more realistic approach to plot, dialogue, and character, such as his “Family Trilogy” of plays. His work in the theatre earned him a slew of recognitions and awards, including his record-setting string of Obie wins, a Tony nomination, and induction into the American Theater Hall of Fame.

Death

Shepard’s final years included a battle with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), a motor neuron disease with an average survival time of two to four years from onset to death. He died at his home in Kentucky on July 27, 2017, at the age of 73. His papers were divided in his will, with approximately half bequeathed to the Wittliff Collections of Southwestern Writers at Texas State University and the others given to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. In honor of his contributions to the theatre industry, Broadway dimmed its lights to memorialize him that same night he died.

The marquees on Broadway dimmed at sunset with an image of Shepard on all the signs
Broadway dimmed its lights on July 27, 2017 to memorialize Shepard.  Walter McBride/Getty Images

Legacy

Shepard’s work has had an ongoing influence on the American theatre community, both as a writer and as an educator. In 2009, he received the PEN/Laura Pels Theater Award, recognizing him as a master American dramatist. Although his plays did not reach the same level of public consciousness as some of his contemporaries, since he largely stayed away from heavily commercial theater and stuck to the off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway scene, Shepard was generally recognized within the community as one of the great playwrights of his generation. His combination of experimental and surrealist techniques with more realism and rural drama created a voice that truly set him apart.

Sources

  • Bloom, Harold. Sam Shepard. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009.
  • Shewey, Don. Sam Shepard. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press, 1997.
  • Wetzsteon, Ross. "The Genius of Sam Shepard". New York: 11 Nov. 1984.