Sam Shepard

Sam Shepard (1943–2017)

Sopan Deb reports in the New York Times that the playwright and actor Sam Shepard died at his home in Kentucky at the age of seventy-three. A spokesman for his family said the cause of death was complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He is best known for writing plays such as Curse of the Starving Class (1977), Buried Child, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1979 and was part of his “Family Trilogy,” and A Lie of the Mind (1985). Shepard was also was nominated for two Pulitzers for True West (1980) and Fool for Love (1983), which both were produced on Broadway. He received the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award in 2009.

Born Samuel Shepard Rogers IV in 1943 in Illinois, he began acting and writing poetry, as well as working as a stable hand at a ranch in Chino, when he was a teenager. After graduating from Duarte High School in Los Angeles County in 1961, he briefly studied agriculture at nearby Mt. San Antonio College but soon dropped out to join a touring repertory group called the Bishop’s Company. He adopted his professional name, Sam Shepard, after he moved to New York and became involved in the Off-Off-Broadway theater scene. The winner of six Obie Awards between 1966 and 1978, Shepard wrote the play Cowboy Mouth—a collaboration with his then-lover Patti Smith—in 1971, which was staged at the American Place Theater in April of that year. In 1975 he was named playwright-in-residence at the Magic Theater, where he created many of his most notable works, including the “Family Trilogy.” Shepard also toured with Bob Dylan on his Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975, serving as the ostensible screenwriter of Dylan’s foray into film, Renaldo and Clara (1978), though much of the film was improvised. Shepard’s book Rolling Thunder Logbook, a diary of the tour, was published by Penguin Books in 1978. A decade later, Dylan and Shepard cowrote the song “Brownsville Girl,” which was included on the album Knocked Out Loaded (1986).

Shepard was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor for his role in Philip Kaufman’s 1983 film The Right Stuff, which in 2013 was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. His most recent work as an actor was in the Netflix show Bloodline (2015–). Shepard’s papers are archived at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.