The iconic playwright-actor discusses the effect he
has on women, his Oscarphobia, and why heís an agentís
Q: In The Accidental Husband you play the father of Uma
Thurmanís character. Heís very calm and wry and
low-keyóa lot like your own dad?
A: Uh, no. Wrong. He was a bit of a maniac. I think down
the road he actually went off the deep end. But thatís a
whole ínother legend.
Q: Thereís sort of an inside joke in The Accidental
Husband, in that your characterís girlfriend turns out
to be Brooke Adams, who played your accidental wife in
1978ís Days of Heaven.
A: Right, right. Itís crazy. I think I ran into her once
in the whole time since Days of Heaven, and it was
backstage at a Broadway show somewhere. I havenít had
any contact with her. Wonderful gal, though. Itís crazy,
you know. Time is just nuts.
Q: What did you two talk about when you first saw each
other on the set?
A: Well, obviously, the time thatís elapsed, and what
sheís been doiní and all that. Itís like your whole life
passes. The same thing with Patti Smith. With Patti, I
hadnít seen her for probably, god, 25 or 30 years, and
then all of a sudden we bang into each other in New York
and we start doing stuff together again.
Q: I was just listening to Patti Smithís cover version
of ďSmells Like Teen Spirit.Ē You play the banjo on
A: Actually it was a six-string guitjo I was
playingóitís a banjo body, but guitar strings. And my
son was playing traditional banjo along with John Cohen
from the New Lost City Ramblers. It was quite an
amalgamation. You know, I hate to say it, but Iíd never
really heard the song before, and Patti brought it up,
and I love it. Itís an incredible piece of musicóand
incredible lyrics, too. I never really studied on it,
you know, because I guess it was out of my generation or
somethiní, but itís a fantastic song. Itís very
esoteric, in a way.
Q: You and Patti were a very close pair in the early
seventies. Did she lead you in certain creative
A: Yeah, she had a tremendous influence on me, because I
was unaware, at that time, of any of these French poets,
the symbolist poets and all that stuff, and she kind of
turned me on to Baudelaire and Rimbaud and all those
poets that I never paid any attention to, beiní a
dumb-ass American out in the middle of nowhere. I wasnít
nearly as well-read as she was. Iíd knocked around
American literature, but certainly not the Europeans.
Essentially Patti was a poet back then. She hadnít
really broken into music. Iím certainly not responsible
for it, but I kept telliní her, you know, that she
should sing this stuff. She was doiní poetry readings
and stuff at St. Markís Church, and she was kind of
performing these poetry readings as though they were
songs, and I said, ďWhy donít you sing íem?Ē So I got
her a guitar, and she learned a couple chords, and she
Q: So you bought her the guitar, huh?
A: Yeah, I bought that old Gibson that sheís got. Yeah.
It was a pawn-shop guitar. Back then I donít think I
paid more than 40, 50 bucks for it. Now itís worth
Q: So when you got off the bus from Southern California
to New York City, had you been there, before?
A: Never. No. Had never been east of the Mississippi.
Q: What was your first day in New York like?
A: I got off the Greyhound in Times Square and I donít
think I had more than 15 cents on me, so I saw this
little place that said, ďFive dollars for blood.Ē And I
went in there and did a blood donation and got five
bucks and went out and bought a hamburger. That was the
first thing I did.
Q: The fact that you didnít receive an extended formal
education in writingóhas that been an advantage to you?
A: In some ways yes, because Iíve been able to explore a
lot of writing that Iím not sure I wouldíve gone into if
Iíd been educated in itóif it had been introduced to me
through a class or a teacher or a scholar, Iím not sure
Iíd have the same sense of attachment that I do now.
Because I feel like the writers that Iím drawn to, the
writers that I really cling to, are the writers who seem
to be writing out of a desperate act. Itís like their
writing is part of a survival kit. Those are the writers
that I just absolutely cherish and carry with me
everywhere I go. Because their writing means more to
them than just puttiní out a book. Itís somethiní that
has to do with their survival. Those are the guys Iím
not sure I wouldíve discovered, had I been in a
literature class. Maybe thatís not true. But I feel like
I discovered them on my own. Itís a long list, but
Beckett would probably be at the top of it. And Cťsar
Vallejo. Borges. Thereís a ton of Ďem.
Q: How old were you when Beckettís Waiting for Godot
famously fell into your hands?
A: Letís see, I was probably about 17, 18ósomething like
that. Iíd never seen anything quite like it. Iíd
literally never seen anything on the page like it.
Q: Nothing that even looked like it.
A: Yeah. Exactly. I said, ďWhat is this?Ē And then I
kept looking at it and kept looking at it, and read it
over and over and over again, and it was definitely a
spur, you know? I didnít want to imitate it at all. It
had nothing to do with imitation. But it felt as though
it gave me license to go ahead and try something on my
Q: When you were nominated for Best Supporting
Actor for "The Right Stuff" in 1984, you didnít attend
the Oscars. Why is that?
A: It was too many people. Iíve never felt great in
crowds, and certainly not when theyíre puttiní the
spotlight on you like that.
Q: Your acting career was taking off at the time. Were
you getting lots of offers?
A: Yeah. I turned a lot of stuff down. I still mainly
considered myself a playwright at that point, and I just
felt like, if I start doiní this stuff and become a
quote-unquote movie star, itís really going to be
difficult to have anybody take my writing seriously. So
I kind of backed away from it.
Q: What did you turn down?
A: Oh, well, I guess the most notorious one was
"Lonesome Dove". And then the big Clint Eastwood
Q: You passed that up?
A: Yeah. Iím not even sure why, now. Then there was
another one called "Big" that Tom Hanks did. And Warren
Beattyís "Reds". Stuff like that. But I couldnít see
myself doiní it.
Q: Your agent mustíve wanted to kill you.
A: She did, yeah.
Q: When I mention your name to women, they actually
moan. Are you aware of this reaction?
A: Ha! Thatís very flattering. No, the first thing is,
if women do have that response, they always try to hide
it. Thatís the last thing in the world theyíre going to
reveal. I mean, I wouldnít mind if there was some
revelation of it, but itís not the case. So you really
donít get that much perk out of it.
Q: Youíre 64. Is writing harder now or easier?
A: Both. Once I get into it, thereís something more
accessible about it now. But itís tougher to begin
nowóto really begin, and to really commit. I think you
have more doubts about whatís valuable, I guess.
Q: Because particularly back in your early days you were
spitting out a flurry of one-actsÖ
A: Yeah, you didnít give a shit. Just go. Just go. The
great New York poet Frank OíHara, he said you go on
guts. Thatís what he said. You go on guts. Thatís what
you feel like when youíre that age. But now itís like
itís like you go on terror! Youíre terrified. Itís still
guts, but itís a different deal.
Q: Whatís else has changed as youíve gotten older?
A: Well, I notice Iím a little slower getting up on a
horse. Fishiní in a river, sometimes I get out of breath
and Iím a little more tentative about getting into deep
water. The physical
limitationsóyour balance isnít as strong as it used to
be, you canít jump fences.
Q: Could you jump fences before?
A: Oh, yeah. You know, you just vault íem.
Q: What do you rely on when youíre writing?
A: I go between two typewriters. The one that Iíve got
now thatís just a monster is this little IBM Selectric
from back in the seventiesóthat electric ball thing.
Itís just a monster. I mean, itís extremely fast,
extremely sensitive and accurate, and it feels good. And
then Iíve got a little HermŤs portable that I like very
much, and I take that on the road. Youíve really got to
slam on that one, whereas the electric one is very fast.
But I basically go from the handwritten notebooks to
these other two deals. You know how it is if youíre a
guitar player and youíve got a great old Gibson? The
instrument feels good and you feel good playiní it.
Q: So you donít use a computer for writing?
A: Never. Never. I donít touch it. I donít go anywhere
near it. I mean, everybody around me knows about it, but
Iíve turned my back on it.
Q: Do you e-mail?
A: No. Donít need to. Itís a complete hype. Itís not a
necessity. Why do I need e-mail?
Q: You need it for the same reason youíd need heroin.
A: Yeah. Right. Yeah. And I knew a lot of junkies
growiní up. But you donít need that.
Q: You captured fraternal friction so perfectly in the
play "True West" with its two sparring
brothers, Austin and Lee that I was surprised to learn
that you donít have a brother.
A: Right. I mean, basically theyíre the same person.
Itís just a split. I just wrote íem as two
characters, but theyíre basically two conflicting parts
of one person. So itís very easy to do that withoutóyou
donít need a brother. Youíve got your own brother.
Q: Speaking of which, you were known as Steve Rogers
growing up in Duarte, California, but when you came to
New York City in 1963, you switched your name to Sam
A: If you remember, back in the old days there was a
Steve Rogers who was Captain Americaóthat was his alter
ego, right? And I always thought, I donít want to be
carrying around the name of a cartoon hero. Actually, my
legitimate name is Samuel Shepard Rogers, so I just
shortened it to Sam Shepard and dropped the Rogers. I
just kind of invented it.
Q: Do you ever feel as though thereís a Steve Rogers
still out in the Mojave, living an alternate life?
A: Spinniní his wheels. Yeah. Iím sure there is.