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Sam Shepard | Biography

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Early Life in Rural California

Playwright, screenwriter, musician, and actor Sam Shepard was born Samuel Shepard Rogers III on November 5, 1943. Shepard made his name with darkly funny and surreal plays often set in the American West, along with many dramatic film roles. Shepard's father was a pilot in the Air Force, and the family moved to several military bases after Shepard's birth in Illinois. His father was an alcoholic with nomadic tendencies, whose personality traits inspired many of the explosive characters in Shepard's works.

The family eventually settled on an avocado farm in Southern California. As a young man Shepard worked on a ranch and briefly studied agriculture at Mount San Antonio College. He discovered acting interested him more and left college in the early 1960s to join a traveling theater troupe called the Bishop's Company Repertory Players. Fascinated by jazz and the work of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, Shepard headed to New York City. There he hoped to experience the stage as both writer and actor.

Playwriting: Absurdity, Satire, Risks, and Acclaim

New York's off-off-Broadway scene in the early 1960s was an exciting place for a young playwright. Experimental work of all kinds was encouraged. But Shepard sensed American theater lacked a strong, distinctive voice like Beckett's. "American art was starving," he later said of the 1960s—the decade he began writing plays.

He found success quickly. Early plays Chicago, Icarus's Mother, and Red Cross won the Village Voice newspaper's Obie Awards, given to Off-Broadway theater, during the 1965–66 season. Shepard also began collaborating with well-known musicians Patti Smith and Bob Dylan.

From 1971 to 1974 Shepard lived in England, where he wrote The Tooth of Crime (1972) and Geography of a Horse Dreamer (1974). He then returned to America as the playwright in residence at San Francisco's Magic Theatre. There his work began to mature, taking on more absurd themes and satirizing the dryness of American culture. Shepard's mid-1970s plays include Killer's Head (1975, a look inside the mind of a murderer), Angel City (1976, about Hollywood's destructive potential), and Suicide in B-flat (1976, about the death of a jazz musician).

Plays in the late 1970s went on to mine the potential of tense family drama and blood relationships. These plays had small casts, acidic dialogue, and bleak post-industrial western settings. From 1977 to 1980 Shepard wrote and produced the three plays known as the "Family Trilogy": Curse of the Starving Class (1977), Buried Child (1978), which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and True West. The last depicts the conflict between an aspiring playwright and his social outlaw brother as the men collaborate fitfully and violently on the script for a Hollywood western.

Later plays include A Lie of the Mind (1985), The God of Hell (2004), Ages of the Moon (2009), and Heartless (2012). He also wrote a short story collection called Days Out of Days (2010). In 1986 Shepard earned membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. American playwright Christopher Shinn recalls, "[Shepard] always wrote from ... a zone of trauma, mystery, and grief ... He took the big risk every time."

Acting and Television

Shepard is also known as an accomplished film actor. He received critical acclaim for roles in the films Days of Heaven (1978) and Resurrection (1980). His breakout role came in 1983, when he played test pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, earning an Academy Award nomination. Shepard both wrote and starred in the 1985 film Fool for Love, based on a play he'd written in 1983. He also appeared in several films based on novels, including All the Pretty Horses (2000) and The Pelican Brief (1993). Familial conflict and myths of the American frontier continued to dominate Shepard's film and playwriting careers. He played outlaw Frank James in 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James and outlaw Butch Cassidy in 2011's Blackthorn. Dark family-centered dramas included Out of the Furnace (2013), August: Osage County (2013), and Cold in July (2014).

Shepard was married to American actress O-Lan Jones from 1969 to 1984. He also had a long-term relationship with American actress Jessica Lange. After Shepard's death from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis on July 27, 2017, he was remembered as a skilled actor and revolutionary playwright. New York magazine called him "the greatest American playwright of his generation." His physical presence and influence on the many media he practiced placed him at the front rank of creative drama.

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