Texas cowboy poet Red Steagall sat down with Sam Shepard for a 2006 C&I cover story to talk about horses, the West, and the late actor’s role in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Red Steagall: Sam, what developed your interest in horses and the West?
Sam Shepard: I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley out there towards that semi-desert country in California where all the racetracks and the lay-up farms were. I grew up with Thoroughbreds, working at Santa Anita [Park racetrack] as a hot walker when I was a kid and working in a lot of those lay-up farms. I mostly did grunt work — I was mucking out stalls and working in the alfalfa fields. You know in high school you didn’t get very glamorous jobs back then. So that’s kind of where my initial interest in Thoroughbreds came from — just watching those horses go around that track. Santa Anita, of course, had always been a big center for Thoroughbred racing with a great jockey colony and a lot of good trainers.
Steagall: Fans who know you as an actor and playwright may not know that you're also a serious racehorse breeder.
Shepard: I’ve been breeding horses for about I8 years now. I could afford it because the movie thing came along and gave me an opportunity to buy some mares, and they did pretty good. Last year we had a really nice graded stakes winning mare. She won about $677,000. I sold her as a yearling, unfortunately, but she won a pile of money. I’ve got her half-sister now, and she looks like the real deal. We’re keeping our fingers crossed with her.
Steagall: And you’ve been involved in the cutting-horse business for a long time also. How did that come about?
Shepard: Well, it was a long, circuitous kind of deal. I got into team roping through the movies-the stuntmen taught me how to team rope. Back in the ’70s I was team roping quite a lot, and from there I went into cowboy polo, which is a kind of slam-bang affair in an arena with padded chaps and all that stuff. And then from there I went to polo, and along the way I ran into these cutting-horse guys and got started with that.
Steagall: Do you still compete quite a bit in the cutting horse?
Shepard: Yeah, I was just in the Futurity this year and was lucky enough to make it into the second go-around, but I missed the bubble by about four points.
Steagall: So are you going to come back and compete this spring at the Super Stakes in Fort Worth?
Shepard: It’s a lot of fun. I mean, it’s just great fun to sit on one of these horses. But I have a film coming up that's supposed to be shooting around that time in Shreveport, Louisiana. It’s the story of Ruffian-you know, the great filly that broke her leg. So I don’t know if I can break away enough time to compete in the Super Stakes, but I’ll certainly get over there.
Steagall: You continue to be in demand as an actor. How did your movie career start out?
Shepard: Well, it was totally accidental. I knew a screenwriter named Rudy Wurlitzer-he's an old buddy of mine-and he’d written a screenplay called Days of Heaven back in the ’70s. Terry Malick-who’s now become kind of legendary-directed that film. Rudy just out of the blue recommended me as an actor for this part of the old wheat farmer in that movie, and they cast me in it. You know, it was being in the right place at the right time. I went up to Alberta, Canada, and shot the thing, and lo and behold it became an underground classic.
It won the Academy Award for cinematography and became kind of a classic movie.
Steagall: So your career developed from there?
Shepard: Yeah, you do one of them, and then it kind of builds from there.
Steagall: Of all the movies you’ve been in, which are you the most proud of from a creative standpoint?
Shepard: I was never in a blockbuster, but the one that I really enjoyed and the one I think everybody involved in enjoyed was The Right Stuff, where I played Chuck Yeager. Everything about that film was a lot of fun. I got to ride my own horse. I had a big roan — a bowlegged rope horse. It was just a hell of a lot of fun to do that movie and kind of an honor to play that man who’s become such a legend over the years.
Steagall: If you were going to pick out one particular kind if movie that you would like to be identified with, what would that be?
Shepard: No question: It’s westerns, but there’s not enough of them. One of my favorites was Good Old Boys with Tommy Lee Jones. That guy’s a great rider, a real Texas rider, and it was a great story. Tommy Lee likes to keep things real, and it was good to shoot with him being a born-and-bred Texan and a pretty damn good horseman.
Steagall: Will we be seeing you in another western any time soon?
Shepard: I recently finished one up in Canada with Brad Pitt called The Assassination Of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I think it might be a real exciting film. They’re just starting to cut it now in LA. It was shot by an Australian guy named Andrew Dominik. For some reason, these Australians just have a great feel for the Western. You know, it was an Australian who did Lonesome Dove. So I think this could be a real good movie. It’s got all the earmarks of being a classic Western. Let’s hope that plays.