The Culture First Look

Sam Shepard, celebrated playwright and actor, remembered as a 'plainspoken poet'

The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Oscar-nominated actor is best known for his off-Broadway plays and leaves a treasure-trove of works chronicling values and ideals in the American West.  

Sam Shepard poses for a portrait in New York on Sept. 29, 2011. The taciturn playwright and actor, who died July 27, 2017, leaves behind a legacy of influential, off-Broadway plays and celebrated performances in film.
Charles Sykes/AP/File
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  • Jake Coyle
    Associated Press

Sam Shepard, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Oscar-nominated actor, and celebrated author, who died Thursday, is remembered for his plays chronicling the explosive fault lines of family and masculinity in the American West. 

The taciturn Mr. Shepard, who grew up on a California ranch, was a man of few words who nevertheless produced 44 plays and numerous books, memoirs, and short stories. He was one of the most influential playwrights of his generation: a plain-spoken poet of the modern frontier who combined ruggedness with lyricism.

In his 1971 one-act "Cowboy Mouth," which he wrote with his then girlfriend, musician and poet Patti Smith, one character says, "People want a street angel. They want a saint but with a cowboy mouth" – a role the tall and handsome Shepard fulfilled for many.

"I was writing basically for actors," Shepard told The Associated Press in a 2011 interview. "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."

Shepard's Western drawl and laconic presence made him a reluctant movie star, too. He appeared in dozens of films – many of them Westerns – including Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven," "Steel Magnolias," "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" and 2012's "Mud." He was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as astronaut Chuck Yeager in 1983's "The Right Stuff." Among his most recent roles was the Florida Keys patriarch of the Netflix series "Bloodline."

But Shepard was best remembered for his influential plays and his prominent role in the off-Broadway movement. His 1979 play "Buried Child" won the Pulitzer for drama. Two other plays – "True West" and "Fool for Love" – were nominated for the Pulitzers as well, and are frequently restaged.

"I always felt like playwriting was the thread through all of it," Shepard said in 2011. "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."

Family spokesman Chris Boneau said Monday that Shepard died at his home in Kentucky from medical complications.

This story was reported by the Associated Press.

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