He's become a legend over the last
three decades, but the elusive cowboy of American
theater is not going soft on us -- for damn sure.
Sam Shepard is wearing black slacks,
a black mock-turtleneck sweater and a glossy black
leather jacket. The legendary cowboy of American theater
looks dressed up. Like he's heading down to the chapel
on Main Street. In fact, what he's doing is looking nice
for the theater donors milling about this San Francisco
party, located in a chic restaurant on an industrial
slice of the bay.
Outdoors on the patio, under an unusually clear night
sky, Shepard stands by a heater that glows like a street
lamp and chats with a covey of Armani-clad socialites.
It's a stunning sight, really. For not only has Shepard
steered clear of the public since gaining renown as the
second coming of Gary Cooper in "The Right Stuff," he
has made the pitfalls of fame a critical theme in many
of his four dozen plays...
After three decades in the theater business, though, the
57-year-old playwright knows firsthand that private
donations are what keep regional stage doors open. He
knows a little celebrity glad-handing seems to loosen
the purse strings of the well-to-do, especially the new
media-doused generation of the young and the rich here
Besides, he holds a genuine affection for San
Francisco's Magic Theatre, which produced his new play,
"The Late Henry Moss," and where he worked as
playwright-in-residence in the late '70s, when he wrote
his famous "family" plays: "Curse of the Starving
Class," "Buried Child" and "True West." But even if this
party is making him think he would rather be home on his
Minnesota horse ranch, Walker, he has
plenty of celebrity support...
Again and again, Shepard has written brilliantly about
being trapped by the images others have given him, that
he has given himself. "Keep away from fantasy. Shake off
the image," lectures the gangster rock star Crow in "The
Tooth of Crime." The inability to connect with others
through the skeins of our illusions is a driving theme
of Shepard's passionate, violent work.
But -- outside of his plays, anyway -- he has done
little complaining or explaining about his image. Which
is one reason why he remains such a magnetic presence in
person. It's sentimental, a little hagiographic,
probably, to call artists mysterious. But as Shepard
drifts through this party, it's precisely his
elusiveness that makes it so hard to take your eyes off
Up close, Shepard is tall, gaunt as an aging rancher and
still as classically handsome as the moment he appeared
on-screen as the laconic, fatally ill wheat farmer in
"Days of Heaven." His hair is thinner now, more of his
forehead is revealed, and his sharp nose and high,
Native American-like cheekbones, along with the lines in
his weatherworn face, deepen the wisdom of his sad blue
As friendly and accommodating as Shepard seems, though,
his conversational manner is clearly schooled by his
spiritual mentor, Samuel Beckett. Yes, he agrees, the
celebrity thing does feel a little off the charts
tonight. But he doesn't mind it for a while. "I think
Armani put up a lot of money for the party," he says.
Don't blame him, though, for jump-starting the celebrity
machine to gain attention for his new play. "I didn't
set out to cast movie stars," he says. "It just happens
that every single one of them is a dynamite actor. The
fact that they're movie stars is something else."
Since the stories in "Cruising Paradise" aren't labeled
as autobiographical, but read as if they're lifted out
his journal, I can't help asking Shepard about the
hilarious "Spencer Tracy Is Not Dead." The most
underrated quality of Shepard's writing is that it is
really, truly funny. So was he really driven to a movie
shoot in Mexico in a metallic blue limo by a German
named Gunther, who was wearing a tuxedo, cummerbund and
fluffy shirt? Did they really get pulled over for
speeding in El Paso and have the car stripped by the
Shepard smiles, crow's feet spreading across his
temples. "Yeah. They let the air out of all the tires so
we couldn't go anywhere. Popped the hubcaps. Went
through all of our luggage. Yeah, that's true." The
shoot was for the movie "Voyager," based on the novel
"Homo Faber" by Max Frisch. "Have you read it?" asks
Shepard. "I think Frisch is one of the best modern
As the party wears on, Shepard remains insulated by
friends, eating dinner with Philip Kaufman, who directed
him in "The Right Stuff," and talking with musician
T-Bone Burnett, whom Shepard has known since 1976, when
they were both members of Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder
Revue. "He's the only one on the tour I'm not sure has
relative control over his violent dark side," Shepard
would write about Burnett. "He's not scary, he's just
Toward the end of the night, Shepard and the lanky
Burnett join the dinner jazz band, the Randy Scott Trio.
A drummer since he was a wayward California teenager,
Shepard gets behind the kit; Burnett commandeers a
microphone and they knock out a version of the novelty
country hit "Long Tall Texan." As the remaining
partygoers head out the door for home, Shepard bangs his
way through Chuck Berry's rickety classic "Too Much
Shepard these days advises fans not to get too excited
about his early plays. Says he in "Sam Shepard: Stalking
Himself," a fine video documentary that made the PBS
rounds in 1998: "They were chants, they were
incantations, they were spells, or whatever you want to
call them. You get on 'em and you go. To say they were
well-thought out, they weren't. They were a pulse."
And the erratic heartbeat in most of them was pumped by
Shepard looking back in anger at his 1950s childhood on
a small avocado ranch in Duarte, Calif., a town outside
of Pasadena that was no more than a suburban remnant,
thrown up with leftover building materials that
developers had little use for. Duarte "was a weird
accumulation of things, a strange kind of melting pot --
Spanish, Okie, black, Midwestern elements all jumbled
together. People on the move who couldn't move anymore,
who wound up in trailer parks," Shepard told Rolling
Stone's Jonathon Cott in 1986.
Shepard's parents had always been on the move. His
father was raised on an Illinois farm and later joined
the Army Air Corps. Shepard was born Samuel Shepard
Rogers IV in Fort Sheridan, Ill., in 1943. Following the
birth of his two younger sisters, the family moved to
South Dakota, Utah, Florida, Guam and South Pasadena
before settling in Duarte. Shepard's mother was a
teacher and his father held a series of odd jobs while
he attended night school to also be a teacher.
"My father had a real short fuse," Shepard told
biographer Don Shewey. "He had a really tough life --
had to support his mother and brothers at a very young
age when his dad's farm collapsed. You could see his
suffering, his terrible suffering, living a life that
was disappointing and looking for another one. It was
past frustration; it was anger."
More often than not, Shepard was the brunt of that
anger. So when he read about a small traveling theater
coming through Duarte, Shepard, who had become smitten
with acting in high school, and had scratched out poems
about despair in his dead-end town, signed on for the
ride. Performing Thornton Wilder plays in New England
churches? Sure, why not? When the Bishop's Company
Repertory Players landed in New York, Shepard got off
Perhaps the one thing to know about Shepard's maturation
as a writer is how diligently and obsessively he worked.
It's something that seems to get obscured in all the
romantic stories about his affair with blooming rock
poet Patti Smith and their collaboration on the play
"Cowboy Mouth," his stint as a drummer in the
acid-dipped folk band the Holy Modal Rounders, in,
really, all the ink spilled over Shepard's Hollywood
image as an "intellectual loner," as "Voyager" director
Volker Schlondorff described him.
In New York in the '60s, Shepard lived with the son of
the great jazz bassist, Charlie Mingus Jr., who had also
grown up in Duarte. "He never stopped writing," Mingus
said of the times when Shepard wasn't reading Beckett,
Pirandello, Edward Albee and Harold Pinter. Shepard
"would walk into a room and close the door, with the
clacking of the typewriter and all. Then he would come
out with a play in a box that the paper came in, a ream
Dennis Ludlow, who helped build horse fences and a barn
on Shepard's small Northern Californian ranch during the
'70s (and who played supporting roles in Magic Theatre
productions of "Buried Child" and "Fool for Love"),
tells me his most indelible memory of Shepard is of the
restless playwright writing in a pocket-size notebook.
"He was always writing down what he heard in bars,
stores, everywhere," says Ludlow. Later, one of
Shepard's playwriting classes presented him with a
carton of the tiny writing pads.
Still, Shepard's early plays were scintillating rock
riffs without accessible verses and choruses until he
met New York director and acting teacher Joseph Chaikin.
He "had a tremendous influence on Shepard," writes
Shewey. "The values he espoused -- his steadfast faith
in the priority of art over glamour, show business,
wealth, and fame" -- left a lasting impression. Shepard
told the Paris Review that Chaikin helped him understand
there's "no room for self-indulgence in theater; you
have to be thinking about the audience."
Under Chaikin's counsel, Shepard began doing something
he had never dreamed of before: rewriting. "Joe was so
persistent about finding the essence of something," says
Shepard. "He'd say, 'Does this mean what we're trying to
make it mean? Can it be constructed some other way?'
That fascinated me, because my tendency was to jam, like
it was jazz or something. Thelonious Monk style."
Chaikin's influence blossomed in Shepard at about the
same time the playwright was tiring of his ragged band
of pop culture outlaws: drugstore cowboys and gunslinger
rock stars, bluesy swamp rats and speed-freak gamblers.
In the mid-'70s, after living for a year in London,
Shepard settled in countrified Marin County, Calif.,
with his wife O-Lan, an actress, and young son Jesse.
They shared a house with O-Lan's mother, Scarlett, and
Scarlett's husband, photographer and writer Johnny Dark.
With Magic Theatre actors and directors, writers and
musicians coming and going, Shepard felt at home in this
"very strong community of artists," he tells me. "It was
energetic and intense in a way that I had missed from
New York. I don't think I've really come across that
situation again. There was something really great about
the Magic experience."
At home on fertile new artistic ground, and committed to
a new seriousness in his writing, Shepard stopped
heeding every impetuous urge and began listening to
voices arising from a deep and wide rift in his heart --
the emotional space surrounding his family,
"particularly around my old man," he says. "I was a
little afraid of it, a lot of that emotional territory.
I didn't really want to tiptoe in there. And then I
thought, well, maybe I better."
Of course, Shepard didn't exactly tiptoe in there. As
everyone knows who has seen his trilogy of family plays
-- "Curse of the Starving Class," "Buried Child" and
"True West," which he wrote in a creative burst of three
years -- Shepard ripped the door off the hinges, smashed
the toasters and exposed an incredible torment at the
core of postwar American families. Sons and fathers,
mothers and daughters, aunts and uncles -- all were
splintered by a never-ending race for never enough
money, by base sex and ambition, by inevitably mounting
layers of frustration. At least that's how it felt as we
sat, awestruck, in the theater.
Most remarkably, Shepard forged his own concentrated,
explosive language. The fury was still there, but now
the words were stripped of pretension. Shepard created a
colloquial poetry of exposure, rhythms rising in an
In 1983, Shepard could admire the critical and popular
success of his family plays. John Malkovich and Gary
Sinise had mounted a daring production of "True West"
that he truly loved. His romantic affair with Lange was
deepening, and he was nominated for an Academy Award for
best supporting actor in "The Right Stuff." At the same
time, from the set of "Country," which he was filming
with Lange in Iowa, he wrote Chaikin a letter:
"Something's been coming to me lately about this whole
question of being lost. It only makes sense to me in
relation to an idea of one's identity being shattered
under severe personal circumstances -- in a state of
crisis where everything that I've previously identified
with in myself suddenly falls away."
When he lived in London, Shepard became enamored with
the writings of Russian spiritual master G.I. Gurdjieff.
So his sharp sense of being lost, of having his identity
shattered, no doubt represented to him a kind of pure
state of inner being. It is an empty place, a chaotic
and frightening one, but it is a place free of illusion,
a place where everything a public artist, a celebrity,
has been told he is doesn't hold. The one predominant
and enduring theme in Shepard's work is the agonizing
struggle to fill that empty space with love.
Listen to him in his story, "You I Have No Distance
From": "I can't remember what it was like before I met
you. Was I always like this? I remember myself lost ...
But you I have no distance from. Every move you make
feels like I'm traveling in your skin."
The evolution of Shepard's personal life is shown in
technicolor in the tract homes and desert huts of his
plays. In the absence of love and connection, the booze
flows; relationships come crashing down. The explosive
"Fool for Love," in which lovers and half-siblings May
and Eddie rage at each other in jealousy -- "You know
we're connected May. We'll always be connected" -- can
easily be seen as the end of Shepard's marriage. Indeed,
that year (1983), he permanently left O-Lan to move in
with Lange. His divorce was final in 1984.
Given the tempestuous turns his characters have taken
under endless emotional storms, it's no wonder he has
remained a relatively private man. The search for love
and transcendence is a fragile business in the public
world of movies and popular theater. Someone always
wants to tell you where to go. The allure of Shepard's
elusive nature is that he has never stopped searching
And we can only admire his devotion. He tells me he acts
in movies only to support his writing. "No way," I say.
"You're Sam Shepard." Says he: "You can't make a living
as a playwright. You can barely scrape by." He does at
times enjoy sinking into a role, but, just the same, he
would rather be on his ranch sinking fence posts,
playing with his kids or writing in his small room next
to the barn....
At 57, the angular, elusive cowboy is not going soft
on us. He is still riding alone across a mesa, it's just
that now he believes that out there, somewhere, is a
deep, enduring peace. In his great 1985 play "A Lie of
the Mind," he seemed to doubt he would ever find it. But
now, it appears, the winds of change have worked their
wonders. "You know, those winds that wipe everything
clean and leave the sky without a cloud. Pure blue.
Pure, pure blue."