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The frontier in his eyes: Sam Shepard, 1943-2017

"I hate endings," the late Sam Shepard told The Paris Review in 1997. "Just detest them. Beginnings are definitely the most exciting, middles are perplexing and endings are a disaster ... The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap."

The end of Sam Shepard's life is a disaster for theater and cinema. The 73-year-old playwright and actor, who both embodied and critiqued rough-hewn American frontier ideals of masculinity, died Thursday in Kentucky, surrounded by family, following a long, mostly private struggle with ALS.  He was still a present tense force in the American imagination. Shepard's last play, the middlingly reviewed A Particle of Dread—one of many variations on the Oedipus story, though more straightforward than most—premiered in 2014, 50 years after the first produced Shepard play, 1964's appropriately titled Cowboys. It's difficult to total up exactly how much he wrote, because he wrote in so many different formats, often solo but sometimes with co-writers. But from a cursory accounting he appears to have done 38 full-length plays, not counting revisions and contributions to dramatic anthologies, plus several bound collections of fiction, poetry and plays. In sheer volume as well as overall quality, it is an astonishing body of work, and it looks even more impressive when you consider that Shepard simultaneously nourished a career as a screen actor, and, to a lesser extent, a songwriter and musician. 

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Shepard's works as a playwright fascinated, and sometimes mystified or irritated, big city theater critics because they were so concerned with the American West and South, and how the culture and mythology of those regions shaped men's views of themselves in ways that led to feuding and violence, and complicated, often poisoned, relationships with women and children. Much of Shepard's work had a strong surrealist or magical realist element, drawing on 20th century trends in nonrealistic and mythological storytelling—everything from Bertolt Brecht and Eugene O'Neill to Julio Cortazar and, possibly his favorite novelist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Ghosts appeared often in his work, and they weren't haunting people metaphorically: these were Shakespearean visitations. And when his characters complained of being cursed, you'd be foolish to assume they were speaking figuratively. The ghosts of the past were always coming back to torment or challenge the present. Often you got the sense that there was no past and present, at least not in the characters' imaginations, only a perpetual now. 

His best plays are probably The Tooth of CrimeThe Curse of the Starving ClassBuried Child, True West, Fool for Love, A Lie of the Mind, and The God of Hell. But even his lesser works and curiosities are of value, because Shepard was so consistent in his themes and developed them so intuitively, as if exploring his own mind without preconceptions rather than trying to prove an intellectual or political point. When critics complained about Shepard, it was often because they couldn't tell exactly what conclusion he'd come to about the themes that fascinated him: the relationship of sons to toxic fathers, and of women to toxic men; the value and danger of patriotism and the meaning of the American flag; the responsibility of rural people to re-create themselves when the economy fails them or society ignores them. 

But here it's probably worth remembering that Shepard was a poet and musician as well as a playwright, and the former types don't tend to lay out their issues in a local way, like editorial writers, much less advocate for a particular solution. They just ask questions and let you see the imaginative work as it's happening. "When you write a play, you work out like a musician on a piece of music," Shepard said in a 1971 interview. "You find all the rhythms and the melody and the harmonies and take them as they come." (Some of Shepard's best collaborators were musicians, including Bob Dylan, who cowrote 1978's "Renaldo and Clara" with him, and Patti Smith, who co-wrote the 1971 stage drama Cowboy Mouth, a hostage drama about two rock stars working through their past traumas in a hotel room. Shepard, who got married young to actress O-Lan Jones and had a son with her named Jesse Mojo Shepard, had an extramarital affair with Smith, who had no idea Shepard was an acclaimed playwright until a friend told her.)

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Shepard's acting career took off around the same time that his playwriting career started to heat up. The pivotal year was 1978, when Shepard debuted two of his greatest plays, The Curse of the Starving Class and the Pulitzer prize-winning Buried Child, and appeared in Terrence's Malick's classic Days of Heaven, an epic, semi-improvised drama set in Texas in the early 20th century, costarring Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Linda Manz. Shepard's performance in one-third of a love triangle, as a character identified in the credits as "Farmer," made the most of his Young Gary Cooper handsomeness. There was an innate decency to the performance that was likely determined by Shepard; then, as now, Malick wasn't known for giving his actors much instruction about the characters' inner lives, as he was mainly concerned with what actions they were involved with in the moment. 

Philip Kaufman would exploit some of the same characteristics in his 1983 screen adaptation of The Right Stuff, costarring Shepard as a horseback riding, Beeman's-gum chewing incarnation of legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier. The performance was criticized by some as too overtly stylized, practically an idealized commentary on old-fashioned ideals of machismo. But it worked for the film, which contrasted Yeager's 19th century vibe against the media-constructed images of the astronauts who left Yeager behind in the desert. Shepard got his first and only Oscar nomination in the role, as well as the most indelible sequences and images: the climactic shot of Yeager walking, soot-faced, away from a wrecked plane, a plume of smoke rising in the background, stands in for the film itself, as powerfully as the much-imitated "power walk" of the Mercury astronauts. 

Shepard hooked up with another gorgeous and formidable actor, Jessica Lange, around this time; their relationship lasted 26 years, until their breakup in 2009, and produced two children, Hannah Jane and Samuel Walker Shepard. Lange and Shepard acted together in 1982's Hollywood biopic "Frances" and 1983's "Country," a drama about a couple trying to save a family farm.  

A year later he co-wrote (with L.M. "Kit" Carson) the screenplay to "Paris, Texas," a road film about memory and the promise and disappointment of the West, a career milestone for star Harry Dean Stanton,  and one of the best movies ever directed by Wim Wenders.  The story developed out of conversations between Shepard and Wenders, ballooned into a 160+ page script, then was shaped into a partly workable shooting screenplay by Shepard, who ultimately abandoned it due to other obligations.  Carson finished and polished it, yet it retains much of the playwright's spirit, and there are many moments when Stanton seems like an older, wiser, more ravaged stand-in for Shepard, literally as well as figuratively seeing the world that he created. 

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Shepard became a sex symbol in the '80s and '90s and was cast accordingly, most notably in "Baby Boom," where he played a humble country doctor who became the lover of New York yuppie (Diane Keaton) who moved to his small Connecticut town to raise a child left to her by a distant relative. Shepard cannily used his handsomeness, which was quite lucrative, to finance his intellectual pursuits, which mostly weren't. For a while, he didn't seem to respect film acting, at least not in the way he respected acting for the stage. "I didn't go out of my way to get into this movie stuff," he told the Village Voice in the '80s. "I think of myself as a writer. Film acting is really the trick of doing moments. You rarely do a take that lasts more than 20 seconds. You really earn your spurs acting onstage."

But he loved movies and movie stars, and the more often he appeared on the big screen, the more adept and versatile he became. At the time of Shepard's death, Shepard was still a sought-after supporting actor, often in in folksy or grizzled roles: in the last five years, his matinee-idol handsomeness, tethered to the mundane real world only by the snaggly front teeth he refused to have fixed, finally gave way to a weathered grandfatherly look; he turned it to his advantage, displaying a versatility that wasn't obvious when he was younger. In "August: Osage County," "Killing Them Softly," "Mud," "Out of the Furnace" and "Midnight Special," he showed signs of turning into the 21st century's closest equivalent to the character actor Ben Johnson, who served as the (sometimes bright, sometimes dark) heart of sixties and seventies films like "The Wild Bunch" and "The Last Picture Show." All his life Shepard had been fascinated by idea of the frontier and the end of it, and at last we could see it in his face. 


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