Sam Shepard

Active - 1968 - 2019  |   Born - Nov 5, 1943 in Fort Sheridan, Illinois, United States  |   Died - Jul 27, 2017   |   Genres - Drama

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Biography by Sandra Brennan

A Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (for 1979's Buried Child), an Oscar-nominated actor, and a director and screenwriter to boot, multi-talented Sam Shepard has made a career of plumbing the darker depths of middle-American rural sensibilities and Western myths. The son of a military man, he was born Samuel Shepard Rogers on November 3, 1943, in Fort Sheridan, IL. Following a peripatetic childhood, part of which was spent on a farm, Shepard left home in late adolescence to move to New York City, where by the age of 20, he already had two plays produced.

As a playwright, Shepard went on to win a number of Obies for such dramas as Curse of the Starving Class (1977), which he made into a film in 1994, and True West (aired on PBS in 1986). As an actor, the lanky and handsome Shepard made his feature film debut with a small role in Bronco Bullfrog (1969) and didn't resurface again until Bob Dylan's disastrous Renaldo and Clara (1978). The film followed Shepard's residence in London during the early '70s, where he worked on-stage as an actor and director when not playing drums for his band, The Holy Modal Rounders, which had performed as part of Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975. Also in 1978, Shepard made a big impression playing a wealthy landowner in Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven, but it was not until he received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for playing astronaut Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (1983) that he became a well-known actor. Following this success, he went on to specialize in playing drifters, cowboys, con artists, and eccentric characters with only the occasional leading role. Some of his more notable work included Paris, Texas (1984), which he also wrote; Fool For Love (1985), which was adapted from his play of the same name; Baby Boom (1987), Steel Magnolias (1989), and The Pelican Brief (1993). In addition to acting and writing, Shepard has also directed: in 1988, he made his debut with Far North, a film he wrote especially for his off-screen leading lady, Jessica Lange, with whom he has acted in Frances (1982), Country (1984), and Crimes of the Heart (1986).

In 1999, Shepard could be seen on both the big and small screen. He appeared in Snow Falling on Cedars and Dash and Lilly, a made-for-TV movie for which he won an Emmy nomination in the role of the titular Dashiell Hammett. In addition, he also lent his writing skills to Simpatico, a Nick Nolte vehicle about friendship and loss adapted from Shepard's play of the same name.

As the new decade began, he could be seen as the ghost in a modern-set Hamlet. He appeared in Black Hawk Down, as well as in Sean Penn's The Pledge. His play True West enjoyed a highly successful revival starring John C. Riley and Philip Seymour Hoffman as feuding brothers, which was notable because the actors traded parts every third performance.

In 2004 he appeared in the popular romantic drama The Notebook, and wrote Don't Come Knocking the next year. He was the legendary outlaw Frank James in 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He was cast as Valerie Plame's father in Fair Game, and portrayed a dog-loving sheriff in Lawrnece Kasdan's Darling Companion.

Movie Highlights

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  • Fell in love with horses and farming while growing up in California, where one of his first jobs was working with horses at the Santa Anita Racetrack.
  • Authored more than 40 plays, including Buried Child, winner of the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the Tony-nominated True West
  • Played drums in the late-'60s folk band the Holy Modal Rounders, who were featured on the soundtrack of Easy Rider.
  • Had a relationship with musician Patti Smith in the early 1970s; reunited with her for a poetry reading four decades later in New York.
  • Collaborated with Bob Dylan on several works, including the 11-minute song "Brownsville Girl" on Dylan's album Knocked Out Loaded.
  • Ironically suffered from a fear of flying (which he later overcame) at the time of his Oscar-nominated performance as pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (1983).
  • Spent time writing and sharing ideas at the Santa Fe Institute, where a meeting with former CIA operative Valerie Plame helped him prepare for roles in Fair Game (2010) and Safe House (2012).