NEW YORK - Sam Shepard is back in town. For decades, he
has migrated to New York from far-away country homes and
life on the road. New York is the "arena" for his work:
usually a play; sometimes a book; sometimes a movie.
"I've come and gone from this town so much, going back
to '63," Shepard said in a recent interview over tea in
SoHo. "It's not the place I choose to live. It's the
place I choose to work."
Shepard is now 67, his eyes are more sunken and his hair
grayer, but he remains piercing, charming and
mysterious. The routine is remarkably the same.
He drives his truck from his Kentucky horse ranch (he
always drives, never flies) and returns to New York,
where he first arrived as a 19-year-old actor from his
father's California farm. He came, he says, "out of the
desert" and soon thereafter set the theater world aflame
with his visceral off-off-Broadway plays that hit the
stage like pulsating jazz riffs.
The occasion for Shepard's latest visit is the release
of "Blackthorn," a film that imagines Butch Cassidy (now
called James Blackthorn) had he lived on into old age in
Bolivia. The role is fitting of Shepard: a solitary
figure in exile.
Shepard, laughing hard, recalls an early critic
remarking, "You don't look anything like Paul Newman!" A
gritty and elegiac South American Western, "Blackthorn"
bears little resemblance to the classic 1969 "Butch
Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," which Shepard calls a
"cartoon" in comparison.
"He's a cowboy, you know?" Mateo Gil, the Spanish
screenwriter of "Open Your Eyes" making his
English-language feature directing debut, says of
Shepard. "He's very fond of horses and he loves big
landscapes and loneliness and everything. I thought that
some issues we were dealing with in the script were very
similar to Sam's issues."
Born on an Illinois army base, Shepard's father was a
violent, alcoholic World War II bomber pilot who has
informed much of the playwright's works. Shepard's
"family plays"- "Tooth of the Crime," "Curse of the
Starving Class," the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Buried
Child" and "True West" - make up some of his most
"I was writing basically for actors," Shepard says. "And
actors immediately seemed to have a handle on it, on the
rhythm of it, the sound of it, the characters. I started
to understand there was this possibility of conversation
between actors and that's how it all started."
He has sometimes referred to those plays, many of which
he has since rewritten for various reproductions, as
"clumsy." Early on, Shepard refused to rewrite his
plays, considering them "pure", a notion he now
considers "just plain stupid."
"I don't have anything against clumsy," he says.
"Sometimes clumsy is OK. By clumsy I meant more that ...
I don't know, I should have worked on them longer."
He has remained close with his Cowboy Mouth" co-writer,
Patti Smith and this week recorded several songs with
her—old tunes by Washington Phillips, Ivory Joe Hunter,
Slim Harpo and Richard Rabbit Brown.
"(Our friendship) transcended any youthful difficulties;
it transcended all our different periods of life," Smith
says. "We're just the same. When Sam and I are together,
it's like no particular time. People part and people
die, but to be able to have such a rich history with a
human being as a friend is beautiful."
Though Shepard often evokes the inscrutable American
qualities so deeply imbedded in his writing, he's
surprisingly generous over the course of a rambling
interview. He's readily reflective and his humble
conversation is punctuated by diversions on various
passions, old and new: the songs of Hank Williams; Bob
Dylan's storytelling; the French-Romanian playwright
Eugene Ionesco; Gary Cooper ("How can anyone not like
Gary Cooper?"); "Crime and Punishment" ("a real
page-turner"); and "Don Quixote," which he's rereading
now. "Madness is his exile," he says.
"He fiercely guards his privacy, but if he's talking to
you and lets you in the door, he offers everything,"
says Smith. "You can sit at his table. You can ride his
horse. You can look in his notebook. It's just a matter
of walking through the door."
Shepard's latest play was last year's "Ages of the
Moon." Though he releases fewer works nowadays, he still
writes prodigiously. He flips through the notebook by
his side (he always first writes in a notebook, later
moving to typewriter), evidencing pages of several
working plays, songs, short stories and "stuff kind of
like prose poems, I don't know what to call it."
He's just finished "the bones" of a three-act play he
expects to stage in about a year. Shepard earlier swore
off longer works, but says this one came to him "and I
Last year, he published the story collection "Day Out of
Days," a work of more than a hundred snippets of
fiction, largely dispatched from the road. It's one of
his finest works, endlessly fractured and yet a cohesive
collection of regret and rumination. He opened it with a
quote from one of his greatest literary heroes, Samuel
Beckett: "That's the mistake I made ... to have wanted a
story for myself, whereas life alone is enough."
Do the demons of his youth still drive his work?
"There's nothing serene about it," he says, laughing.
"Yeah, I would say that it did come from a fractured
sensibility. And it's still fractured because of the
state of things. I'm extremely grateful that I found
writing, but it doesn't make it any more peaceful."
In Shepard's 1982 book "Motel Chronicles," he said that
he felt like he never had a home—a feeling he says
"I basically live out of my truck - I mean from place to
place. I feel more at home in my truck than just about
anywhere, which is a sad thing to say but it's true," he
He acknowledges acting is partly to pay the rent ("You
can write 16 plays and not make as much money as you did
doing one movie"), but says he's grown increasingly
fascinated with acting "because I have less and less
fear about it." He's acted in more than 40 films, but is
best remembered for his Oscar-nominated performance in
"The Right Stuff."
"When I first started in film, I was terrified of the
camera," he says. "Now I don't have any fear of the
camera at all. None. I've gotten over it completely to
the point where I can honestly say that I can occupy
that space that Brando personified when he said, 'Just
because they say "action" doesn't mean you have to do
Shepard has crisscrossed art forms, moving from plays to
fiction to acting and music. But for him, the lines
still converge in the theater.
"I always felt like playwriting was the thread through
all of it," he says. "Theater really when you think
about it contains everything. It can contain film. Film
can't contain theater. Music. Dance. Painting. Acting.
It's the whole deal. And it's the most ancient. It goes
back to the Druids. It was way pre-Christ. It's the form
that I feel most at home in, because of that, because of
its ability to usurp everything."