The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, actor, and Western enthusiast passed away last week at age 73.
Fairly early in The Right Stuff, director Philip Kaufman’s rousing ode to risk takers and history makers, there’s a classic movie moment that ingeniously commingles simplicity and symbolism, Western mythos and Space Age innovation. A cowboyish figure — lean, laconic and leather-jacketed — appears on horseback in the high desert of California. He boldly guides his steed through the spindly brush, to approach a clearing where an X-1 aircraft lies still but not silent, randomly belching flames like some dread creature of dark fantasy. The horse, not surprisingly, is spooked by the strange new vehicle. But the cowboy is calm; his expression, quizzical. He appears to be a man who knows he is looking at the future.
Strictly speaking, this scene isn’t our first glimpse of Sam Shepard as legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager in Kaufman’s 1983 film. And the movie itself, faithfully adapted from Tom Wolfe’s non-fiction best-seller about high-flying heroes, really wasn’t the lanky actor-playwright’s big-screen debut. (He previously costarred, to attention-grabbing effect, in Terence Malick’s 1978 Days of Heaven.) But it’s this particular moment in this particular movie that sealed the deal for Shepard, that crystallized his movie-mythic persona. Since then, he has remained for many moviegoers the modern-day equivalent of an archetypical western hero.
Ironically, Shepard — whose recent death at age 73 from Lou Gehrig's disease complications was reported today — couldn’t claim actual Western roots. But the minor detail of his being born (on November 5, 1943) in Sheridan, Illinois, mattered very little to his many fans and admirers. Indeed, it appeared to be of little consequence to those who knew him best as a movie star that many of Shepard’s most significant achievements as a playwright – he had a Pulitzer Prize and several Obie Awards to his credit — focused on decidedly anti-heroic cowboy figures.
Critics responding to his more challenging plays — ranging from the sensual Fool for Love to the volatile True West — branded Shepard as an iconoclast, a maverick revisionist who illuminated the darker undercurrents that percolate beneath romantic renderings of the American West. (A New York Times critic once hailed Shepard as a “poet laureate of the West” who remains “consistently, ruthlessly true to his experience of a wilderness where America has always hidden its promise and its dream.”) But when it comes to portraying western characters on screen as an actor, Shepard usually strove to strike a more traditional pose.
Whether it was a frontier lawman who needs a shot at redemption in Purgatory (1999), a former Texas Ranger who reluctantly joins a manhunt in Streets of Laredo (1995), or a burnt-out western movie star who wants to repair frayed family ties in Wim Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking (2005), Shepard effortlessly conveyed the authority and authenticity that audiences traditionally associate with the strong-and-silent icons who gallop through our collective pop culture consciousness. In recent years Shepard appeared in the Netflix series, Bloodline.
“As an actor,” essayist John Hughes marveled in a 2003 appreciation, “Shepard has been America’s primary heartthrob alterna-cowboy for many years. He’s Gary Cooper in denim.”
More than 30 years ago, critic Roger Ebert already was raving about “the strong and sometimes almost mystical screen presence of playwright Sam Shepard.” Among the movies that have been enhanced by that presence:
DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978)
Shepard made his first impact on screen as a handsome young landowner whose frail health and romantic longing cause him no end of grief in Terence Malick’s lushly beautiful period drama. His character, identified only as “The Farmer,” falls in love with Abby (Brooke Adams), the alluring sister of Bill (Richard Gere), a harvester in the farmer’s Texas Panhandle wheat field. Unfortunately, Abby marries the farmer only because she thinks he will die within a year. Even more unfortunately, the extremely jealous Bill isn’t really her brother.
THE RIGHT STUFF (1983)
As test pilot Chuck Yeager, the taciturn ace who broke the sound barrier in his X-1 aircraft, Shepard is the very model of virile grace under daunting pressure in Philip Kaufman’s spirited film of Tom Wolfe’s best seller about the early days of high-speed flight and outer-space exploration.
Offering strong support to top-billed Jessica Lange, his longtime companion and occasional costar, Shepard is subtly expressive yet deeply moving as an Iowa farmer who’s driven to drink and desperation when a bank threatens to foreclose on the land his family has owned for generations.
FOOL FOR LOVE (1985)
Shepard does double duty as star and scriptwriter for Robert Altman’s imaginative adaptation of Shepard’s claustrophobically intense play about the stormy reunion of Eddie, a moody rodeo cowboy, and May, his beautifully forlorn half-sister. As Eddie, Shepard conveys carefully calibrated measures of cocksure cunning and desperate yearning, revealing the insecure underside of a self-styled Marlboro Man. And Kim Basinger is every bit as good as May, merging anxious sensuality with smoldering rage, showing us how intensely May hates herself for not hating Eddie enough.
THE ONLY THRILL (1997)
An undeservedly obscure gem, with Shepard and Diane Keaton perfectly cast as a small-town Texas couple whose long-term relationship never quite blossoms into a full-fledged commitment. Over three decades, Reece (Shepard), a land developer who owns a second-hand clothing store, and Carol (Keaton), a widowed seamstress, share a “friendship with benefits.” But Reece is unwilling (or unable) to take the necessary step of divorcing his comatose wife in order to marry Carol. Fortunately for all parties involved, their respective children (Diane Lane, Robert Patrick) are less reluctant to take risks when it comes to ensuring their own happily-ever-aftering.
When desperados ride into Refuge, a peaceful frontier town somewhere west of The Twilight Zone, they take a mite too long to fully understand why the general store proprietor resembles Jesse James, the local physician looks a lot like Doc Holliday — and the hospitable Sheriff Forrest (Shepard) is a dead ringer for Wild Bill Hickok. A cult favorite ever since it premiered on the TNT cable network, this supernatural Western showcases Shepard’s understated yet authoritative performance as a righteous lawman who doesn’t need a gun to dispense harsh justice.
DON’T COME KNOCKING (2005)
Shepard the scriptwriter created a terrific character for Shepard to play in Wim Wenders’ criminally under-rated, melancholy dramedy: Howard Spence, an aging western movie star who goes AWOL from his latest comeback vehicle. Driven by discontent (and, possibly, a vague desire to rediscover himself), he visits his long-estranged mother (Eva Marie Saint) in Elko, Nevada. She surprises him with news of a child he fathered years earlier during a location shoot in Butte, Montana. So heads back to “the scene of the crime,” to seek reconciliation with a former lover (Jessica Lange, Shepard's off-screen longtime companion) and the adult son (Gabriel Mann) he has never known. I know: Sounds corny and predictable. But it isn’t. The movie is by turns funny and affecting, wistful and wrenching. The supporting players — including Tim Roth, Fairuza Balk and the radiant Sarah Polley — are excellent. (Look for Oscar-winner George Kennedy in a wink-wink, nudge-nudge cameo as a beleaguered film director.) And the cinematography by Franz Lusting is nothing short of extraordinary: The gaudy casinos of Elko and the dreary cityscapes of Butte look almost magical. And best of all, there is Sam Shepard, going beyond mere acting to simply being a cowboy determined to balance his accounts before the last roundup.