Sam Shepard Is Remembered As ‘An Epochal, Original’ Writer
Source: Deadline journalist Jeremy Gerard - August 7, 2017

Words mattered to Shepard. Across more than 50 plays, film work as actor, writer and director, and volumes of poetry, fiction and memoir, Shepard cultivated the image of an intensely private man of few words, from whom vast torrents of words, tsunamic waves of them, could rush. That doubleness was part of his appeal to critics and writers who "got" him: I've been struck, in the days since July 27, when Shepard died at 73 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, by how many who wrote about him and spent time with him, felt a unique and personal connection.

"Sam and I had a good relationship," says Bernard Weiner, drama critic of the San Francisco Chronicle during the decade from 1975-1984 when Shepard was in residence at that city's Magic Theater. Among others, "Buried Child", "True West" and "Fool For Love" were first produced there. A poet and author very much in synch with the playwright, Weiner understood Shepard's wider appeal.

"I think he felt that his work was being reviewed fairly by someone who understood and respected what he was about," Weiner recalled. "And he tolerated our occasional interviews because they were more friendly conversations between theater professionals than generic question-and-answer sessions. To this point, we had a 20-minute dialogue once about Samuel Beckett, whom he revered. He definitely was a private person but also was amazingly open when he felt comfortable with his interlocutor. We all were lucky to have had him in our midst for such a long, productive time."

Veteran actor Jay O. Sanders played Bradley in the original production of "Buried Child", which moved from the Magic to New York, where it ran first at the Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel) and then at Circle Repertory Theatre.

"Sam didn’t fly, so he wasn’t around at all," Sanders says of the transfer, "but our cast of 'Buried Child' came together in Sam's world like a real family under Robert Woodruff's direction. The Pulitzer win was announced the day after we closed at the Theatre De Lys. I most remember the overarching sense of freedom in our nightly playing of it, and the idea that memory is so elusive that each of our characters remembered our past very differently…the truth of our very lives was up for grabs."

Trying to pin down Shepard was the sport of every writer who tackled the subject.

"I was asked to write a quickie bio by Dell Books to capitalize on the Oscar nomination for 'The Right Stuff' and the tabloid interest in his nascent affair with Jessica Lange," says Don Shewey, who turned out the first look at off-Broadway's enfant terrible turned emergent Hollywood icon. "I took the assignment for two reasons: I admired the crazy rock-n-roll energy and poetic theatricality of his plays, and I identified with him personally as a guy with a tempestuous relationship with his alcoholic military-veteran father."

It was several years before Shewey finally met his subject in person, resulting in more published interviews.

"What I relate to most is his profound understanding of being psychically split between what happens outside and what happens inside," Shewey told me. "What I learned was that he was profoundly a man of letters, extremely knowledgeable about certain pockets of poetry and international literature. It's not surprising that Shepard had a lifelong love for horses. Much less known is his deep engagement with spirituality and philosophy, especially the teachings of Gurdjieff, a subject so close to his heart that when I interviewed him it was the one thing he wouldn't discuss."

I too had a couple of memorable opportunities to speak with Sam Shepard. The first time was in the late '70s, after an opening when he stayed around as part of the Magic family. Screwing up my courage, I introduced myself, and somehow the subject quickly turned to the Bible, about which he was extremely knowledgeable. Some three hours and many drinks later, we'd covered territory ranging from Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, to Job, Jonah and other prophets. It won't surprise anyone familiar with his plays that father-son relationships figured heavily in Shepard's iconography and the symbolism that pervades his work, reminding me of Edward's monologue in King Lear."

I spent a more extended time with him much later, discussing his work at the American Place, where he'd returned in 1991 with "States of Shock", an explosive outburst of a play starring John Malkovich and concerned with the Persian Gulf war. While it would take years for others to confront America’s military incursion, Shepard was on fire.

"He said it was the most important thing, that he needs to do this play right now," Handman recalls. "Sam had that urgency, and his urgency was irresistible. He had to get that play done. It was of utmost importance."

"It’s a very strange experience, to write a biography of someone who's still alive" Shewey said of taking on that original assignment. "Sam was 41 and I was 30. His death last week hit me hard. Like his colleagues and fans, I mourn the world's loss of an epochal original writer. On a personal level, I wasn’t prepared for how keenly I feel the loss of…not so much my subject, but a kind of alter-ego."