“Sam Shepard was a writer who could trace and track the epic mythic raw American thrum
that runs underneath and vibrates throughout so much of this country.”
-Pulitzer Prize-winning Playwright, Suzan Lori Parks
Sam Shepard was born as Samuel Shepard Rogers in 1943. For years, the Rogers family moved from base to base along with their Air Force patriarch, finally settling into Bradbury, California after the war. Shepard was a rambunctious and rebellious teen. Robert Goldberg of Playboy Magazine summed up this time in Shepard’s life: “He was one of the rebels without causes who hated school and spent their time cruising, drinking cheap liquor and taking speed.” Despite his “rebel” tendencies, he was captivated by the arts, spending endless hours playing drums and reading Eugene O’Neill and Samuel Beckett.
Shepard’s ambitious search for independence was instigated largely by his tumultuous relationship with his father, Sam Rogers. Rogers chose to navigate his life through booze and abuse towards his family, leaving the largest impression on his soon-to-be playwright son. Reflecting back on his father’s life, Shepard stated, “My dad came from an extremely rural farm community … and the next thing he knows he’s flying B-24’s over the South Pacific, over Romania, dropping bombs and killing people he couldn’t even see. These men returned from this heroic
victory … and were devastated in some basic ways that’s mysterious still.” It was unpacking his father’s devastation that led Shepard to dissect the themes of inheritance, family, and the disillusionment of the modern Americans within his plays.
In any case, the urge to escape his father’s household finally reached a breaking point in 1963, when he loaded up his ‘51 Chevy and left for New York City. But the shadow of his father, the stark image of a belligerent, masculine alcoholic, served as both a repressed memory and an inescapable legacy. That shadow would continue to follow Shepard for the rest of his life.
New York City (1963-1971)
Shepard landed in NYC’s Greenwich Village, during the peak of the artistic community’s thrilling transformation from the 1950’s increasingly inaccessible and institutionalized Off-Broadway scene into a new era of daring works in non-traditional spaces like bars, cafes, and basements - Off-Off-Broadway. Between 1960-1964, performance spaces like Caffe Cino, Judson Poets’ Theater, and La MaMa fostered theatrical experimentation, cultivating the careers of artists like Ellen Stewart, Maria Irene Fornes, Jacques Levy, and longtime collaborator Joseph Chaikin. Old forms and values were giving way to a new style of art-making, and Shepard was ready to dive in.
Shepard also credited his early exposure to jazz as a key influence on his writing: “I… was stunned by [Charles Mingus’s] sense of polyrhythm-- rhythm on top of rhythm on top of rhythm. I was fascinated by the idea of merging that with writing, seeing if there was a way of evoking the same kind of collage in the writing of plays.” Shepard would go on to write over twenty plays in the following eight years, gaining him a near legendary status amongst the Greenwich Village community, and winning him multiple Obie Awards.
Finding His Voice (1971-1983)
By 1971, Shepard had grown exhausted of the Off-Off-Broadway scene. Despite his limited income, he took his wife, actress O-Lan Jonson, and their son, Jesse Mojo Shepard (born a year earlier), and moved across the sea to London. If Shepard moved looking to find the scrappiness of NYC he had loved in the 1960’s, he found it in London’s fringe theater scene. While his time in London was brief, his he was able to identify and appreciate the profoundly American quality of his work. Upon moving back to the states, Shepard began a new prolific phase of his career. While retaining the experimental qualities of his earlier works, he set out to “destroy the idea of the American family drama,” and would soon write the greatest critical and commercial achievements of his career - such as Curse of the Starving Class (1977), Buried Child (1978), and True West (1979).
The next few years would take some riveting turns, from collaborating with Joni Mitchell and Allen Ginsberg on Bob Dylan’s concert-film Renaldo and Clara (as well as co-writing the Dylan song “Brownsville Girl”) to starring in Hollywood hits such as “Days of Heaven” (1978) and “The Right Stuff” (1984), for which he would earn an Oscar nomination. On the set of “Frances” (1982), Shepard fell in love with co-star Jessica Lange, which began a “terrible and impossible” affair. These feelings of forbidden love and helplessness were channeled into Fool for Love (1983), where he staged his so-called emotional “eye of the hurricane”. That same year, he left his wife and son for Lange.
Despite never marrying and retaining different careers and lifestyles, Shepard and Lange developed a life together for over three decades. They lived in Charlottesville, VA before moving to Lange’s Minnesota hometown to take care of her mother and to raise their two children. Over these three decades, Shepard explored different elements of filmmaking, whether that was screenwriting (“Paris, Texas”), directing (“Far North”, “Silent Tongue”), or acting in more commercial films for financial stability (“Black Hawk Down”). Inspired by the death of his father, which he felt left “a curse” on his life, he wrote A Lie of the Mind (1985) which grappled with themes of familial health and legacy.
In 1996, a reworked version of Buried Child opened at Steppenwolf in Chicago before transferring to Broadway, gaining rave reviews and five Tony Award nominations, including Best Play. Fool for Love was adapted into a Robert Altman film starring Shepard in 1985, and subsequently staged on Broadway in both 2005 and 2015. True West arrived on Broadway in 2000, featuring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly alternating the lead roles.
Towards the end of his life, Shepard struggled with alcoholism. Although he was able to become sober for a few years, Shepard stated that he was prone to “mak[ing] the same mistakes over and over again.” His relationship to Lange ended around 2010. Shepard continued working up to his death on July 27, 2017 due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). With his death came an outpouring of memorialization and appreciation from his collaborators, friends, and admirers. New generations continue to find meaning in his work; in 2016, Ed Harris starred in the New Group’s revival of Buried Child, and as recently as 2019, Signature Theatre revived Curse of the Starving Class, while True West (starring Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano) once again thrilled audiences on Broadway.