NEWS: January-Jnne 2020
June 30, 2020

Last fall Minnesota native Jessica Lange published her third collection of black and white photographs called "Highway 61" which were also exhibited at Howard Greenberg's NYC gallery. Highway 61 originates in the city of Wyoming, Minnesota running 1400 miles along the Mississippi River all the way down to New Orleans. She dedicated both the book and exhibit to Sam and when Rolling Stone asked her about the dedication last October, she replied, "Yeah. (Long pause) I miss him every single day of my life, and I thought, 'Well, this would be a good dedication because there was a man who loved the road and spent a good portion of his life driving different highways.' So, yeah." (Smiles)

I believe this was the first time that Ms. Lange spoke publicly about Sam since his death three years ago. Why she never did remains a mystery as well as why she didn't join the family at his bedside where he lay dying. At least ex-girlfriend Patty Smith loved him enough to care for him in his final weeks.

Another film page added! As most Shepard fans know, the married Sam and the beautiful actress became an item while filming "Frances" so it wasn't surprising that he would be considered for the role of Gil Ivy in a film called COUNTRY that she was about to co-produce and star in. It was a project that concerned Ms. Lange at that time. She told the press, "The part of Jewel Ivy was more familiar to me than any other part I've played. I drew from all my aunts in rural Minnesota. I wanted to convey the tremendous strength and tenacity of these women in balance with a heartbreaking vulnerability."

"Country" was the story of the trials and tribulations of a rural family as they struggled to hold on to their farm during the trying economic times experienced by family farms in the 1980s. Coincidentally, there were three movies released in 1984 with stories about the farmers' plight told from the perspective of a strong heroine. Remember Sissy Spacek in "The River" and Sally Field in "Places in the Heart"?

It was a troubled project from the beginning. The script by Austin's William D. Wittliff was rejected by most Hollywood studios and when production began in late 1983, Wittliff, who was set to also direct, resigned three weeks into filming after his differences with Lange and Shepard proved insurmountable. Richard Pearce took over the cold and difficult winter shoot in Iowa. In the end, Sam did contribute to the screenplay though his name does not appear among the credit titles.

During filming, Sam continued to write to his pal Johnny Dark and there are two interesting excerpts I'd like to share. The first one was written in October 1983 in which Sam discusses his frustration with the production.

"Well, a lot of shit has hit the fan since I started this letter 10 days ago. The cinematographer has been fired, the director's quit & I've quit until they get a replacement. They've threatened to sue me if I don't go back to work but threats always make me more stubborn. It's a strange situation to be in because Jessica has a big stake in this film & she wants to get it done come hell or high water. At this point I just want to go back home & ride my horses & shoot my new shotgun & maybe build a fire in the fireplace. I really can't stand this movie crap anymore - it gets harder & harder to do it."

"I don't really know what's going to happen now. The producers are frantically looking for a new director & trying to keep the film rolling so they don't lose money. I suppose this move on my part is going to brand me as 'difficult' & 'temperamental' in Tinsel Town. I really don't give a shit anymore. Jessie & me are closer than ever but life in the movies is just not my game so I guess I'll just have to accept this fact that I'm hooked up with a movie star & allow her to play that out & maybe just ride along beside her on the sidelines somehow."

This would be Sam's 8th film and though he describes his disdain for movie making, he did go on to make 50 more films! The second excerpt is from a December 10, 1983 letter in which he professes his love for Ms. Lange.

"I wanted to give her a ring & ask her in the corniest way possible if she'd be my wife and have my kids and live with me forever. I bought this great Sapphire ring set in gold. I stuffed it in my pocket & got all excited about asking her. I waited for her to come into the motel where we watch the dailies every afternoon & when I saw her coming, I swept her outside into the cold wind and snow & popped the question. We jumped up and down together like little kids, giggling in the snow."

Obviously, the marriage never happened and perhaps that was the right decision for Sam since he had a problem staying faithful to any woman.

What some critics pointed out in their movie reviews was that Sam was definitely miscast and I agree with them wholeheartedly. One critic wrote, "The husband is basically a weak man, unable to hold up to pressure. Shepard doesn't look like he has a weak bone in his body. It's a little like casting John Wayne as a coward." Texas Monthly wrote, "As Jewell's husband Gil, Shepard flashes a wolfish grin at the beginning and is sneakily appealing, but as the farm slips away, Gil turns into a bitter, moist weakling. Sam Shepard wasn't born to play weaklings - his bones were built for heroism". And from the Daily Titan -  "Shepard, the playwright-actor, who has been hailed as a modern Gary Cooper, is hopelessly miscast as the suddenly spineless Gil Ivy." Certainly his conversion from devoted husband to petulant and abusive drunk is too extreme and results in a confused audience in defining his character.

Although the film failed at the box office, it was generally admired by critics. Ms. Lange was nominated for both an Oscar and Golden Globe "Best Actress" award for her performance. She also joined Sissy Spacek and Jane Fonda in testifying before the United States Congress about the traumatic conditions of America’s heartland. The film  also caught the attention of then-president Ronald Reagan, who decried the supposed propaganda of the picture even though part of its provocation also stemmed from the prior policies of Jimmy Carter.

June 25, 2020

It was the second time for Sam to sit in the film director's chair in the spring of 1992 as he began production for his screenplay called SILENT TONGUE. For the film's location, he chose the desolate landscape on the plains of southeastern New Mexico - Llano Estacado, or Staked Plains. His story, a bizarre combination of western film revisionism and Greek tragedy, takes place in 1873. He described his chosen location - "This was probably the most terrifying piece of real estate west of the Mississippi. It was absolutely scary. It's a flat table of land with no vegetation at all except burned-out mesquite and cactus. It's wide open. In order to cross it, you were totally exposed to these raids that were pretty persistent up until the Texas Rangers came in."

Inspired by the 1954 western bestseller "The Searchers" by Alan LeMay and John Ford's 1956 screen adaptation, Sam wrote "Silent Tongue" in just 10 days, revised it half a dozen times, then handed it out replete with camera directions and location sites. The script was initially rejected due to its lack of commercial appeal. Sam opined - "Two years later an Indian film wins the Academy Award ("Dances With Wolves") and a ghost film ("Ghost") is number one at the box office. That was kind of an odd twist of fate." In no way does this screenplay come close to the overwhelmingly positive reception of those two cleverly-crafted films.

The photo above is from the Wittliff Collection showing Sam's scribbling and sketches.  Certainly, his first failed attempt as a film director/writer with "Far North" didn't help. However, he had his own take - "The biggest difference between that film and this one is I didn't shoot enough footage with 'Far North.' I just didn't have enough material for that one. When I sat down to cut it, I was forced to get stock footage, which was an awful predicament. I'm shooting a lot more on this one and printing a lot, a lot more angles and coverage."

He also told the press, "Directing feels great; I'm really happy to be doing this. It's rough going, we're working our butts off, we're doing 40 set-ups a day, but it's still better than working in a bank or cleaning horse stalls."

The cast of "Silent Tongue" was obviously impressive starting with the theater and film talent of Irish actor Richard Harris and British actor Alan Bates. Then, add Dermot Mulroney and River Phoenix. Since Sam had just finished "Thunderheart", he also gave a major role to his co-star, Native American Sheila Tousey. It is important to note that this was River's last film to be released after he died from a tragic drug overdose on October 31, 1993.

This tale of revenge and mysticism is grounded in all the familiar Shepardian themes - dysfunctional families, painful father/son relationships, insanity, horses, alcoholism, and buried secrets that fester. Sam explained, "I think it has more to do with 'lostness' than anything else."

"Silent Tongue" takes its plot from the attempt of a distraught Irish-American youth, played by River Phoenix, to guard the corpse of his half-Kiowa wife. His vigil leads to a battle with her vengeful Indian ghost, and destroys what semblance of peace existed in both their families.

Financing for the film was a bit odd for a western. It was an entirely French-financed American production. Belbo Films, based in France, successfully orchestrated funding for the $8.5-million independent production from StudioCanal and Hachette Premiere. But, the French do adore Sam Shepard! When the film was released in France, it was called "Le gardien des esprits".

An early version of the film premiered on January 28, 1993 at the Sundance Film Festival. The photo below shows Sam at the Egyptian Theatre where he took questions after the screening. The film did not receive a warm reception.

He edited it considerably and it later went on to screen that year in November at both the London Film Festival and Native American Film Festival. It lacked a distributor until February 1994 when it was released in the US to mostly negative reviews. It was the last film that Sam ever directed.

At this time in 1992 while filming, Sam  still didn't have his Directors Guild card but he admitted, "I've always found it embarrassing to receive awards. I'm really genuinely not doing it for achievement anymore. It might have been the case when I was 19, but it's so different now than it was then."

At this time, motivated by writers, such as Vladimir Nabokov, Pablo Neruda, Samuel Beckett, Peter Handke and Jim Harrison, Sam was about to focus on storytelling - "I absolutely think that there's a level of storytelling just around the corner that you can tap into, that I'm really interested in now. I can't explain it very clearly but it's different from anything I've ever done before. I used to think it was about images and visions. Now I'm convinced it's about storytelling, storytelling for the purpose of the human deal and not dragging people down, for supporting the fact of persisting and going on."

June 19, 2020

In 1977 the Magic Theatre had moved from its Berkeley storefront into a new home in a Fort Mason warehouse. The new theater would be inaugurated with Sam’s latest work. On a $15,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, he spent six weeks with eight actors and eight musicians developing an improvisational jazz opera called INACOMA. It was like nothing Sam wrote before or afterward, the exploration of the twilight psyche of Karen Ann Quinlan, a young woman who triggered an early "right to die" controversy after falling into a long coma.

Shepard was intrigued by this story - identity and destiny. "At first," he explained, "All I could visualize was a hospital bed, the coma victim and creature-characters. Then various scenes would start popping up, all out of context and wandering in and out of different realities. The scenes were joined by sounds of breathing, then music, then back to sounds. I kept abandoning the idea of even starting to write something because the subject became too vast and uncontrollable."

This photo shows Sam in February 1977 in rehearsal. The play opened on March 18, 1977 with six weeks of performances.

Theater critic Misha Berson was fresh out of college at that time working as the performing arts coordinator at Fort Mason and took every excuse to nose around the rehearsals. She reminisces, "Except for the song lyrics, I recall the piece as largely nonverbal and probably as close to performance art as anything Shepard ever authored. I discreetly watched from the unfinished bleacher seating as he developed the piece, intently focused on his intrepid cast (which included his gifted then-wife, O-Lan Shepard), conferring with them in a soft reedy voice tinged with twang."

"Reflecting the eclectic theatrical inventions bubbling up in San Francisco back then, 'Inacoma' emerged from movement and musical improvisations, yielding images of spinning orderlies in white jumpsuits and a Quinlan-like character who rose from her hospital bed to dance. What I gleaned from that now-obscure production was that Shepard was a true seeker and experimentalist, an artistic stretcher and prober, forever scouting for not just his literary voice but his voices."

Berson also adds, "Wearing leather jacket, blue jeans, and shades, his dark hair flopping over his forehead, Sam was so cool he could've been an extra from the iconic hipster film 'Easy Rider'. But in the late 1970s he was already famous in his own right, at least among theater folk, for his cowboy-beatnik charisma and his sui generis, rock-the-genre plays."

The play didn’t become one of Sam’s most important works. Chronicle theater critic Bernard Weiner interviewed Sam and described the show as beginning with a series of visual images in the author’s mind, and developing out of improvisational work with the actors and musicians.

"Many of my plays center around a character in a critical state of consciousness. I like to operate off that dynamic," Sam said. "The comatose state is especially fascinating because, from the outside, nobody really knows what’s going on inside the person in the coma."

The play featured veteran Magic Theatre actors James Dean, Ann Matthews, O-lan Shepard, John Nesci, Fred Ward, Sigrid Wurdchmidt and Jane Dornacker, most of whom had been in his San-Francisco-produced plays.

San Francisco was a welcome fit for the playwright's creativity. "After years of struggling to find an audience in New York, it's nice to find people here and in London finally catch on to what you’re doing," Sam said. "It’s been good here. There’s more freedom to experiment, to breathe."

As an aside, Christopher Arnott of the Hartford Courant noted this observation on Sam's death in 2017 - "One mark of how influential Shepard was beyond the traditional boundaries of American theater is the number of contemporary rock bands that have been named after his plays. These include Savage Love, True West, Inacoma and, yes, Cowboy Mouth and Buried Child... Sam Shepard's not dead. He rocks on."

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As a kid, Sam had gone by the name "Steve Rogers" to distinguish himself from his father. In 1963 at the age of 20, Sam decided to re-invent himself by changing his given name. He said, "I always thought Rogers was a corny name because of Roy Rogers and all the associations with that. But Samuel Shepard Rogers was kind of a long handle. So I just dropped the Rogers part of it... Now in a way I kind of regret it. But it was, you know, one of those reactions to your background. Years later, I found out that Steve Rogers was the original name of Captain America in the comics."

June 9, 2020

Some critics consider true "True West" to be the third in a trilogy including "Curse of the Starving Class" and "Buried Child", while others consider it part of a quintet which includes "Fool for Love" and "A Lie of the Mind". The play was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1983 and it hasn't left the theatrical landscape since it first premiered with Peter Coyote at San Francisco's Magic Theater in 1980. Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre's 1982 production with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise remains legendary and its popularity continues with Broadway's outing with Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano staged seventeen months ago at the Roundabout Theatre.

Set in 1980 in an out-of-the-way Southern California suburb, it remains a visceral look at played-out Wild West stereotypes, familial envy and revenge, and false value surfacing as Hollywood cliches. Today I've updated the TRUE WEST page with more information and photos. Though I had seen the stage performance with Sinise and Malkovich on videotape, I hadn't been aware of the that production's televised airings - first in 1984 on the PBS series - "American Playhouse" and then in 1998 on "Great Performances". There was also a filmed version of an Idaho production starring Bruce Willis in 2002 on Showtime.

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Here's the cover of a 1985 issue of the Western Writers series devoted to Sam's plays. The 50-page edition was written by Vivian Patraka and Mark Siegel and published by Boise State University.

"Only the avant-garde had taken much notice of Shepard in his early years, and even those who did write about him seemed to promote him without much exegesis. However, by the early 1980s Shepard had been virtually canonized by the critical establishment as the most important and interesting to analyze of contemporary playwrights. Even when such critical powers of bourgeois culture, they found his work fascinating and challenging. Elizabeth Hardwick, Susan Sontag, and Ruby Cohen all championed Shepard against the few conservative figures, such as Walter Kerr and Tennessee Williams, who still found Shepard an anathema... Again and again, Shepard has been perceived by critics as both a truly American playwright and a writer of universal value and distinction, as both 'ruthlessly experimental and uncompromising' (John Lahr) and as a playwright who deals with and illuminates traditional American and dramatic concerns."

June 7, 2020

Galisteo publisher John Miller created the book "Sam Shepard; New Mexico" sharing Sam's writing with the photographs of Ed Ruscha. It was published this past winter. Mr. Miller writes,

Sam Shepard had a deep bond with Santa Fe, where he lived in the 1980s and again in 2010–2015. But Shepard had some nomad in him, and as he recorded in his Motel Chronicles in 1982, he spent as much time crisscrossing the deserts of New Mexico as he did living in any one city. As Shepard’s friend Johnny Dark said, “He lived in Santa Fe, but he also lived in hotels and on the road. . . . He might have been running away or he might have been running toward something.” Twenty years earlier, the artist Ed Ruscha, traveling from Oklahoma to Los Angeles, traversed New Mexico and created ghostly photographs of New Mexico gas stations. Together, Shepard’s writing and Ruscha’s images evoke a poetry of loneliness.

Included in the book are quotes from Bob Dylan, Taylor Sheridan and Josh Brolin.

You might ask what connection Josh Brolin has to Sam Shepard and in this moving farewell that Josh shared on Instagram back in July 2017, he answers that question.

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Taos-raised actor, writer, director, producer and poet Arron Shiver recently mused on life under lockdown in LA. One of his poems about Sam was published in the spring issue of the Taos Poetry Journal.

Shiver says, "I wrote that poem 'My Hero' to commemorate one of my theater heroes. If I look back at the bits of my own writing I'm proud of, and even some of the acting, to be honest, I can see a direct link to Sam, so it shook me when he passed. I pretty much had read all of his stuff, and it had a tremendous effect on me. formed me, in a lot of ways. So when he passed away back in 2017, I was in LA, and we all sat around drinking tequila and reading his lines out loud, and everything I remembered about my interactions with him came out. This poem was an offshoot of that. Stuff I remembered from that time. Funny stuff, mainly. Almost fights, a lot of drinking, some wonderful advice he gave me about acting. At that time he usually would rather talk about horses than acting. He had worked hard and he had worked a long time, and all he really wanted to do by the time I met him, as far as I could tell, was fish and ride horses."

The first verse reads -

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DID YOU KNOW that when Warren Beatty was ready to cast "Reds",  Sam was considered for the role of "Eugene O’Neill" before Jack Nicholson was offered the role. You may remember he played writer Dashiell Hammett in the A&E TV production "Dash & Lily" in 1999.

May 7, 2020

In the News: Artistic Director Loretta Greco is leaving San Fancisco's Magic Theatre this month. wrote, "Greco says she has loved her time with Magic. Sam Shepard might be remembered as building the theatre, but Greco will be remembered for inviting everyone in. Greco had been aware of the theatre because of Shepard, who she calls 'one of our greatest writers, period, the end,' and getting to work with him there was a highlight for her. He was constantly searching, she says, writing for six decades, from when he was a teenager to a few days before he died in 2017."

"Greco keeps some of his short stories by her favorite chair - his work is like a balm for her. 'I was a complete idiot when I first met him,' she recalls. 'I was so nervous that I drove up Franklin the wrong way with Sam in the car. It was hilarious because he was calming me down, and I drive down Franklin every day. It wasn’t a new road for me - it was that I had my hero next to me.'"

Sam with Greco in 2013:

I came across a few other remembrances about Sam

Former Artistic Director Larry Eilenberg:
"Sam Shepard’s relationship to the Magic Theatre now enters the history books side-by-side with Chekhov and the Moscow Art Theatre, O’Neill and the Provincetown Players, Odets and the Group Theatre. While in residence during the 1970s and early 80s, here in San Francisco, Sam bridged the gap between American realism and European absurdism with a voice that was all his own... One of the things I most admired about working with Sam was his insistence upon the primacy of the word. And his words will last, I trust, as long as there are actors and audiences."

Actress Jessi Campbell:
"Sam has broken my heart open a thousand times. It's hard to say exactly what it is, but it's something about his endless searching, his insatiable hunger, his inner turmoil, his relentlessness... His broken men and broken-hearted women... His cowboys, his fathers, his dreamers, his lovers, his love for the open road... Nothing has taught me more about the beauty and the pain of being human. His work has transformed me again and again. He is my favorite. Always will be."

Actor Rod Gnapp:
"Working on Sam Shepard's plays at the Magic, have been the most rewarding and challenging theatrical experiences of my life. My brushes with him and his plays, have made me grapple with the best and the worst of myself. I feel really blessed to have crossed paths with him while working on 'The Late Henry Moss'; and been lucky enough to be in the room and watch him do what he loved... Making theatre out of nothing but his own driven desire. Sam smiling and holding me by the shoulder as we toasted a whiskey to celebrate the wild ride was a moment I will always cherish."

Director/writer/performer Sean San José:
"He made the world so real through his unreal way of approaching it - my whole head opened up seeing his play and I have never found anything that comes close to trying to show the world we live in as well as live theatre."

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During most of Sam's photo shoots at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, he wore sunglasses so these two photos are unique and capture his extraordinary looks at mid-life.

April 16, 2020

In 1987, an off-Broadway play made waves when a Hollywood producer saw it and quickly turned it into the movie STEEL MAGNOLIAS. It has become one of the most beloved movies of all time, cluttered with terrific one-liners and heartfelt moments. Portraying the six Southern belles were Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah and Olympia Dukakis. They embodied sass, stubbornness, loyalty and a do-anything-for-a-friend mentality.

Initial reviews were mixed. Some critics found it weepy but ultimately winning; others thought the film’s brassy sentimentality undermined its real emotional impact. And some took issue with its portrayals of men. Nonetheless, it became 1989′s 14th highest-grossing film. It was based on a true story. The screenwriter Robert Harling’s sister died of diabetic complications after giving birth in the 1980s, shortly before Harling composed the original play and the film script.

Co-star Dolly Parton told the press that Sam, her on-screen husband, reminded her of her real-life husband Carl Dean. She said not only do the two look alike, but they're both strong men of few words. She said, "I much prefer a quiet man. I'm loud enough for the two of us." The two men also shared a fear of flying. At the time of Sam's death, Dolly said, "I was so sorry to hear of Sam’s passing. What a nice man and what a great actor. I was honored to have him play my husband in 'Steel Magnolias.' Rest in peace, my friend."

I'm including a movie clip that shows a great scene from the film with Dolly as the vivacious hairdresser named Truvy who runs a home-based beauty salon and Sam in the role of her husband Spud, described as a quiet, moody man. They're preparing to attend the funeral of their friend Shelby. Here's the link.

As in many films, Sam became a recognizable figure in America cinema, often portraying the font of mature and untamed masculine sexuality. Here's a movie still from the film:

Perhaps the most intriguing criticism of the film dealt with whether it did or didn’t have a man problem. Movie critic Hal Erickson wrote, "The film stumbles a bit in its depiction of the male characters as fools and deadheads." Both Hal Lipper of the St. Petersburg Times and New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby lamented the film’s decision to have actors play the leading ladies’ husbands, sons, and boyfriends onscreen at all. In the stage show, the male characters only existed offstage. Roger Ebert noted that the men "do not amount to much in this movie" but concluded it was "a woman's picture". He added, "I doubt if any six real women could be funny and sarcastic so consistently but I love the way these women talk, especially when Parton observes: ‘What separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.'”

March 30, 2020

I recently came across another book on Sam called "Rebelul Rigorii Mortale", by Romanian writer Alexandra Ares. It was originally published in 2004 but then later expanded in a 2018 edition by Aldine Publishing House. The title translates to "A Rebel of Rigoris Mortis". It won the award for the best drama book from the Union of Writers in Bucharest.

Here is a quote from her book:

"Intuitive and prolific writer, Shepard has improvised theater replicas just as jazzmen improvise musical lines, but he was brilliant in these insights. He rewrote very little, astonishing his friends. The former colleague from the Lower East Side room told how Sam bought a box of paper, went into the room, started beating the car and came out a few hours later with a new piece. […] Shepard reinvented American theatrical language at a time when innovation came from Europe, brought an influx of energy, mystery, revolt and magic into American drama so deeply realistic and created a mythology of the present, starting from the idea. that 'the old God is too far' and 'no longer represents our suffering.' ...Alexandra Ares

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The movie page for DEFENSELESS (1991), has been added today. Besides Sam, it starred Barbara Hershey, J.T. Walsh and Mary Beth Hurt and was directed by Martin Campbell. I'd like to write some positive comments but truth be told, the film was a flop. According to Jonathan Rosenbaum of Chicago Reader, it was "a watchable but instantly forgettable mystery thriller... Sam Shepard does his usual poker-faced bit as the police detective assigned to catch the killer." Ouch! And from another critic, "As a homicide detective named Beutel, Sam Shepard is the only low-key player in the ensemble, so lanky and laconic you could picture him splitting rails in his spare time." And Candice Russell of the Sun-Sentinel writes, "Merely mediocre, Shepard chews gum and looks half-interested, perhaps because he'd rather be riding horses than making movies." Yowser! Okay, you're catching on.

I didn't come across any production notes or interesting stories, but the following excerpt is from a letter from Sam written in Virginia to Johnny Dark on October 3, 1989 - "I have to return to L.A. on the 14th thru the 16th of this month for a re-shoot of Defenseless. I'll be staying at the Four Seasons Hotel on Doheny - if you want to give me a call down there. I really don't want to leave the farm now that Fall has arrived but I guess I have to go. It would be great to see you if you happen to find yourself in L.A. around then."

I will say that the best thing to come out of this film is this photo which I used on the home page. It actually looks like a movie still from "The Right Stuff". Handsome pic!

March 27, 2020

I've added the play page for 1994's SIMPATICO. It was Sam's first full-length play in ten years and was originally targeted for Broadway with a cast that included Ed Harris, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Frederick Forrest and Beverly D'Angelo. However, the $800,000 production budget couldn't be met or as Sam put it, "the deep pockets didn't present themselves". Plans were then made to stage it at the Off Broadway Public Theater. Sam directed with Ed Harris and Beverly D'Angelo remaining with new cast members Fred Ward, Marcia Gay Harden and James Gammon.

The story took place in the world of thoroughbred horse racing with Sam describing it as being "about the rivalry between two close friends who have known each other their whole lives, and involves women and horses, gambling, deceit, envy, jealousy, rage: the stuff I can't help writing about."

Sam with Lange and son Walker at the "Simpatico" preview show on November 5, 1994 at the Joseph Papp Theatre.

"Simpatico" received generally favorable reviews. Vincent Canby of the New York Times called it one of the best plays of the year, and it sold out its initial run but did not hold enough promise to move to Broadway. Five years later, it was adapted for the screen with Nick Nolte, Jeff Bridges, Sharon Stone, Catherine Keener and Albert Finney. Matthew Watchus directed and wrote the screenplay but it was a struggle adapting it. One critic wrote, "Where the play is stripped to bare essentials, the film invokes flashbacks to fill in the backstory, adds multiple locations, and introduces other diversions that slowly strangle the subtle points Shepard achieves in his original."

Certainly, we know that Sam had firsthand knowledge here as far as horses. Hotwalker, rodeo rider, farm manager, team roper, polo player and foxhunting and cutting horses - there's wasn't much that Sam hadn't done with horses. Then in 1987, he became a Thoroughbred breeder. He recalled, "I had a farm, and I'd never been able to afford Thoroughbreds. But I've always been fascinated by pedigrees, by how you plan and actually breed these things. Now I had the chance." In a 2007 interview, he said, "I plan all the matings and never talk to bloodstock agents. I spend endless hours poring over pedigrees, but some of the best horses I've bred came from instinct."

Forever the cowboy, both on and off screen, Sam was often photographed in his western gear. This new photo on the right, which was taken in 2005, is from the National Portrait Galley of the Smithsonian Institution, a gift from Bill and Sally Wittliff. The photographer is Matt Lankes, who also took the first photo, which was previously posted and featured in the April 2006 issue of Cowboys & Indians.

Previously I have posted this famous Annie Leibovitz photo, but always in black and white. This is the original color photo from the December 1984 issue of Vanity Fair.

March 23, 2020

In these coronavirus times of being housebound, I've begun adding missing film pages to several of my web sites. Today I give you FRANCES, the film that introduced Sam to an actress called Jessica Lange, who birthed two of his three children.

The 1982 biopic chronicles the life of actress Frances Farmer from the 1930s to the 1950s beginning with her high school days as a rebellious student in Seattle. She wrote an essay questioning God, which outraged folks as well as her visit to Moscow. The publicity plus her talent led to a successful Broadway and Hollywood career, followed by a mental breakdown and many years in mental institutions. Her domineering mother, outstandingly portrayed by Kim Stanley, was instrumental in creating instability and dysfunction in her daughter's life.

Sam plays Harry York, a fictional person based on a political radical named Stewart Jacobson who claimed to have been one of Farmer's lovers, though close friends of the star denied his even knowing her. Just how a movie can claim to be historically accurate when the protagonist's main love interest was an invention by the writers is a question the filmmakers never address, although on the DVD commentary director Graeme Clifford states, "We didn't want to nickel and dime people to death with facts." He also went on to remark that Lange hadn’t had to "act" for the role in Frances. "She just let out all the stuff she usually represses." My sentiments exactly. When you look at this photo of Frances Farmer, you can see a strong resemblance to Lange.

The film opened to mixed reviews with complaints focused on the story's inaccuracies, such as the fictionalized lobotomy and the above mentioned Harry York. In his review, Roger Ebert writes, "There are a few problems with the film's structure, most of them centering around an incompletely explained friend of Farmer's, played by Sam Shepard as a guy who seems to drift into her life whenever the plot requires him." As to my own reaction, I kept questioning their strange relationship.

Interesting that several actresses were considered for the lead role including Jane Fonda, Sally Field, Natalie Wood, Susan Sarandon and Meryl Streep. Though Lange received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, it was Meryl Streep who swept up that Oscar for her role in "Sophie's Choice". But all was not lost because Lange's role in "Tootsie" garnered her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, often referred to as her consolation prize.

Personally, I thought the most pleasurable offering from the film (besides the onscreen presence of Sam) was its soundtrack by John Barry. The music is about as hauntingly beautiful as any ever written by this talented composer. You can listen to the soundtrack at this link.

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As reported on January 29, a limited edition of "Sam Shepard: New Mexico" was released this month by Lawless Media. The 105-page book, priced at $75, is a quirky ode to Sam by Galisteo publisher John Miller. The limited-edition book gathers starkly powerful (meandering and sorrowful, funny, frank and intimate) passages from Sam's work with a focus on those that touch on the Land of Enchantment, where he lived off and on beginning in the 1980s. This special volume pairs Sam's writings with acclaimed artist Ed Ruscha during their separate times in New Mexico. You can read an excerpt called "Pink Adobe".

February 1, 2020

I used to live and work in Boston so I'm always connected to the city's cultural events. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts will be screening DAYS OF HEAVEN on February 28 and 29 in the Harry and Mildred Remis Auditorium. The museum describes it as "a celebrated example of the power of subtlety. Malick’s painterly use of light and atmosphere has moved critics throughout the decades to describe Days of Heaven as one of the most beautiful films ever made." I ask you who can't help but fall in love with the looks of this rich and stoically handsome, but nameless farmer.

Jean-Claude van Itallie, playwright, performer, and teacher, once said, "Many of us Greenwich Village playwrights were gay. Sam was flamboyantly, abundantly straight. His ebullient sexuality was charismatic—you could see it sparkling in his eyes, and it later helped make him a movie star. Ellen Stewart, La MaMa herself, the living, beating heart of Off-Off-Broadway, once remarked that Sam was like 'juicy Lucy,' as Ellen called the erotic urge, flowing plentifully and creatively."

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Here are a couple new photos of Sam at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin meeting with young playwrights back in 2009.

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Magic Theatre founder John Lion wrote a 1984 article for American Theatre in which he gave some background on the poster and book cover for Fool for Love featuring Elvis. Apparently, the famous candid photo was taken on June 30, 1956 in Richmond, VA by Alfred Wertheimer. Lion describes the photo - "On a glossy background and filling the cover page, in a dark jacket and perfectly coiffed conk, was Elvis Presley in an early ’56 photo. Tight in on him, nose to nose, her bare shoulder slightly pressed forward in anticipation, with a slightly skewed bouffant and a diamond broach earring, was a beautiful unidentified blond. And what was joining the two figures, in the space between their faces, catching a little light and subtly glistening? Why, their tongues!"

"Believe it or not, when the show went from Magic Theatre to Circle Repertory Company in New York, and the image was again used on the poster, several shops refused to sell it, although The New York Times had no problem printing the image."

Lion continues, "Elvis Presley and Sam Shepard signify a change in the structure of American society that cuts much deeper than critical catch phrases like 'the birth of rock and roll' or the 'death of the American West.' To both Presley and Shepard is attached the idea of 'the noble savage.' They both apparently came from nowhere, reached the top of their professions with no formal training, rapidly became the stuff of popular myth. But beneath each persona lies an objective, calculating artist who has basically altered the way we look at things."

January 29, 2020

Lawless Media of Galisteo, New Mexico has announced the upcoming publication of a new book by John Miller on Sam and artist Ed Ruscha.

The synopsis reads:

In 1963, artist Ed Ruscha photographed filling stations from Oklahoma to LA. He published them in Twentysix Gasoline Stations, generally considered the first modern artist's book.

Ruscha took 60 photographs which he edited to 26. The unpublished images from New Mexico are reproduced here, from the artist's original negatives.

Sam Shepard, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, author, screenwriter, actor, and director had a deep bond with Santa Fe, where he lived in the 1980s and from 2010-2015.

But Shepard had some nomad in him, and beginning with Motel Chronicles in 1982, he spent much time crisscrossing the deserts of New Mexico.

As Johnny Dark said: "He lived in Santa Fe, but he also lived in hotels and on the road... He might have been running away or he might have been running toward something."

Twenty years earlier, traveling from Oklahoma to LA, the artist Ed Ruscha traversed the same territory, creating ghostly images of New Mexico gas stations.

Now, in this special volume, these two restless storytellers combine their talents to paint a unique portrait of New Mexico.

The description does not mention the number of pages nor the size of the book, but it appears to be more of a coffee table book with black and white photos by Ruscha and quotes from Sam's writings about New Mexico.

A sample is given from Sam's "Motel Chronicles":

In Santa Fe they stopped long enough to gas up and then headed north toward Chimayo.

The sweet smell of juniper blew through the open windows.
Crows floated above the highway scanning for dead lizards and rabbits.

The Black Mesa appeared on their left and they all agreed that they understood why the Indians considered it sacred.

But none of them actually explained why they thought that.

The event date for the book is listed as Saturday, March 14, 2020 at 3:00 pm at Bookworks, 4022 Rio Grande Blvd NW in Albuquerque, NM.

January 12, 2020

Netflix documentary IT TAKES A LUNATIC profiles Wynn Handman, who’s hailed as "the keystone of American theatre." He founded the highly influential American Place Theatre in New York City, directing a number of plays and he taught acting classes for more than 50 years. His former students such as Richard Gere, James Caan, Michael Douglas, and Frank Langella reflect on his influence on their careers as well as the theater community through his desire to give opportunities to upcoming talent. You'll also spot Sam Shepard in this film, which is currently available thru Netflix. Shepard productions in the American Place's early years included 1967's "La Turista," and "Killer's Head".

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And speaking of "Killer's Head", the play has been announced in an upcoming double bill by Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in Los Angeles.  The second half is his 1969 one-act "The Unseen Hand" - that is part of the Odyssey's 50th Anniversary "Circa '69" Season of significant and adventurous plays that premiered around the time of the company's inception. Check for dates running from January 25 thru March 8 at the theatre web site.