July 3, 2020
Today the American Film Institute Movie Club celebrated
THE RIGHT STUFF, ranked #19 on AFI's 100 Years
of the greatest American films of all time. Sam's role as Chuck Yeager earned
him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Great performance!
You can check out the
AFI web site and watch a brief video of Ed Harris and Ron Howard discussing
June 30, 2020
Last fall Minnesota native Jessica Lange published her
third collection of black and white photographs called "Highway 61" which
were also exhibited at Howard Greenberg's NYC gallery.
Highway 61 originates in the city of Wyoming, Minnesota running 1400 miles along
the Mississippi River all the way down to New Orleans.
She dedicated both the book and exhibit to Sam and when Rolling Stone
asked her about the dedication last October, she replied, "Yeah. (Long pause) I
miss him every single day of my life, and I thought, 'Well, this would be a good
dedication because there was a man who loved the road and spent a good portion
of his life driving different highways.' So, yeah." (Smiles)
I believe this was the first time that Ms. Lange spoke
publicly about Sam since his death three years ago. Why she never did remains a
mystery as well as why she didn't join the family at his bedside where he lay
dying. At least ex-girlfriend Patty Smith loved him enough to care for him in
his final weeks.
Another film page added! As most Shepard fans know, the
married Sam and the beautiful actress became an item while filming "Frances" so
it wasn't surprising that he would be considered for the role of Gil Ivy in a film called
COUNTRY that she was about to co-produce and star in. It was a project that
concerned Ms. Lange at that time. She told the press, "The part of Jewel Ivy was
more familiar to me than any other part I've played. I drew from all my aunts in
rural Minnesota. I wanted to convey the tremendous strength and tenacity of
these women in balance with a heartbreaking vulnerability."
"Country" was the story of the trials and tribulations of a
rural family as they struggled to hold on to their farm during the trying
economic times experienced by family farms in the 1980s. Coincidentally, there
were three movies released in 1984 with stories about the farmers' plight told
from the perspective of a strong heroine. Remember Sissy Spacek in "The River"
and Sally Field in "Places in the Heart"?
It was a troubled project from the beginning. The script by
Austin's William D. Wittliff was rejected by most Hollywood studios and when
production began in late 1983, Wittliff, who was set to also direct, resigned
three weeks into filming after his differences with Lange and Shepard proved
insurmountable. Richard Pearce took over the cold and difficult
winter shoot in Iowa. In the end, Sam did contribute to the screenplay though
his name does not appear among the credit titles.
During filming, Sam continued to write to his pal Johnny Dark
and there are two interesting excerpts I'd like to share. The first one was
written in October 1983 in which Sam discusses his frustration with the
"Well, a lot of shit has hit the fan since I started this
letter 10 days ago. The cinematographer has been fired, the director's quit &
I've quit until they get a replacement. They've threatened to sue me if I don't
go back to work but threats always make me more stubborn. It's a strange
situation to be in because Jessica has a big stake in this film & she wants to
get it done come hell or high water. At this point I just want to go back home &
ride my horses & shoot my new shotgun & maybe build a fire in the fireplace. I
really can't stand this movie crap anymore - it gets harder & harder to do it."
"I don't really know what's going to happen now. The
producers are frantically looking for a new director & trying to keep the film
rolling so they don't lose money. I suppose this move on my part is going to
brand me as 'difficult' & 'temperamental' in Tinsel Town. I really don't give a
shit anymore. Jessie & me are closer than ever but life in the movies is just
not my game so I guess I'll just have to accept this fact that I'm hooked up
with a movie star & allow her to play that out & maybe just ride along beside
her on the sidelines somehow."
This would be Sam's 8th film and though he describes his
disdain for movie making, he did go on to make 50 more films! The second
excerpt is from a December 10, 1983 letter in which he professes his love for
"I wanted to give her a ring & ask her in the corniest way
possible if she'd be my wife and have my kids and live with me forever. I bought
this great Sapphire ring set in gold. I stuffed it in my pocket & got all
excited about asking her. I waited for her to come into the motel where we watch
the dailies every afternoon & when I saw her coming, I swept her outside into
the cold wind and snow & popped the question. We jumped up and down together
like little kids, giggling in the snow."
Obviously, the marriage never happened and perhaps that was
the right decision for Sam since he had a problem staying faithful to any woman.
some critics pointed out in their movie reviews was
that Sam was definitely miscast and I agree with them wholeheartedly. One critic
wrote, "The husband is basically a weak man, unable to hold up to
pressure. Shepard doesn't look like he has a weak bone in his body. It's a
little like casting John Wayne as a coward." Texas Monthly wrote, "As
Jewell's husband Gil, Shepard flashes a wolfish grin at the beginning and is
sneakily appealing, but as the farm slips away, Gil turns into a bitter, moist
weakling. Sam Shepard wasn't born to play weaklings - his bones were built for
heroism". And from the Daily Titan - "Shepard, the playwright-actor, who
has been hailed as a modern Gary Cooper, is hopelessly miscast as the suddenly
spineless Gil Ivy." Certainly his conversion from devoted husband to petulant
and abusive drunk is too extreme and results in a confused audience in defining
Although the film failed at the box office, it was
generally admired by critics. Ms. Lange
was nominated for both an Oscar and Golden Globe "Best Actress" award for her
performance. She also joined Sissy Spacek and Jane Fonda in testifying before
the United States Congress about the traumatic conditions of Americaís
heartland. The film also caught the attention of then-president Ronald
Reagan, who decried the supposed propaganda of the picture even though part of
its provocation also stemmed from the prior policies of Jimmy Carter.
June 25, 2020
It was the second time for Sam to sit in the film director's
chair in the spring of 1992 as he began production for his screenplay called
SILENT TONGUE. For the film's location, he
chose the desolate landscape on the plains of southeastern New Mexico - Llano
Estacado, or Staked Plains. His story, a bizarre combination of western film
revisionism and Greek tragedy, takes place in 1873. He described his chosen
location - "This was probably the most terrifying piece of real estate west of
the Mississippi. It was absolutely scary. It's a flat table of land with no
vegetation at all except burned-out mesquite and cactus. It's wide open. In
order to cross it, you were totally exposed to these raids that were pretty
persistent up until the Texas Rangers came in."
Inspired by the 1954 western bestseller "The Searchers" by
Alan LeMay and John Ford's 1956 screen adaptation, Sam wrote "Silent Tongue" in
just 10 days, revised it half a dozen times, then handed it out replete with
camera directions and location sites. The script was initially rejected due to
its lack of commercial appeal. Sam opined - "Two years later an Indian film wins
the Academy Award ("Dances With Wolves") and a ghost film ("Ghost") is number
one at the box office. That was kind of an odd twist of fate."
In no way does this screenplay come close to the overwhelmingly positive
reception of those two cleverly-crafted films.
The photo above is from the Wittliff Collection showing Sam's
scribbling and sketches. Certainly, his first failed attempt as a film
director/writer with "Far North" didn't help. However, he had his own take -
"The biggest difference between that film and this one is I didn't shoot enough
footage with 'Far North.' I just didn't have enough material for that one. When
I sat down to cut it, I was forced to get stock footage, which was an awful
predicament. I'm shooting a lot more on this one and printing a lot, a lot more
angles and coverage."
He also told the press, "Directing feels great; I'm really happy to be doing
this. It's rough going, we're working our butts off, we're doing 40 set-ups a
day, but it's still better than working in a bank or cleaning horse stalls."
The cast of "Silent Tongue" was obviously impressive starting
with the theater and film talent of Irish actor Richard Harris and British actor
Alan Bates. Then, add Dermot Mulroney and River Phoenix. Since Sam had just
finished "Thunderheart", he also gave a major role to his co-star, Native
American Sheila Tousey. It is important to note that this was River's last film
to be released after he died from a tragic drug overdose on October 31, 1993.
This tale of revenge and mysticism is grounded in all the
familiar Shepardian themes - dysfunctional families, painful father/son
relationships, insanity, horses, alcoholism, and buried secrets that fester. Sam
explained, "I think it has more to do with 'lostness' than anything else."
"Silent Tongue" takes its plot from the attempt of a distraught Irish-American
youth, played by River Phoenix, to guard the corpse of his half-Kiowa wife. His
vigil leads to a battle with her vengeful Indian ghost, and destroys what
semblance of peace existed in both their families.
Financing for the film was a bit odd for a western. It was an
entirely French-financed American production. Belbo Films, based in France,
successfully orchestrated funding for the $8.5-million independent production
from StudioCanal and Hachette Premiere. But, the French do adore Sam Shepard!
When the film was released in France, it was called "Le gardien des esprits".
An early version of the film premiered on January 28, 1993 at
the Sundance Film Festival. The photo below shows Sam at the Egyptian Theatre
where he took questions after the screening. The film did not receive a warm
He edited it considerably and it later went on to screen that
year in November at both the London Film Festival and Native American Film
Festival. It lacked a distributor until February 1994 when it was released in
the US to mostly negative reviews. It was the last film that Sam ever directed.
At this time in 1992 while filming, Sam still didn't
have his Directors Guild card but he admitted, "I've always found it
embarrassing to receive awards. I'm really genuinely not doing it for
achievement anymore. It might have been the case when I was 19, but it's so
different now than it was then."
At this time, motivated by writers, such as Vladimir Nabokov,
Pablo Neruda, Samuel Beckett, Peter Handke and Jim Harrison, Sam was about to
focus on storytelling - "I absolutely think that there's a level of storytelling
just around the corner that you can tap into, that I'm really interested in now.
I can't explain it very clearly but it's different from anything I've ever done
before. I used to think it was about images and visions. Now I'm convinced it's
about storytelling, storytelling for the purpose of the human deal and not
dragging people down, for supporting the fact of persisting and going on."
June 19, 2020
In 1977 the Magic Theatre had moved from its Berkeley
storefront into a new home in a Fort Mason warehouse. The new theater would be
inaugurated with Samís latest work.
On a $15,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, he spent six weeks with
eight actors and eight musicians developing an improvisational jazz opera called
INACOMA. It was like nothing Sam wrote
before or afterward, the exploration of the twilight psyche of Karen Ann
Quinlan, a young woman who triggered an early "right to die" controversy after
falling into a long coma.
Shepard was intrigued by this story - identity and destiny.
"At first," he explained, "All I could visualize was a hospital bed, the coma
victim and creature-characters. Then various scenes would start popping up, all
out of context and wandering in and out of different realities. The scenes were
joined by sounds of breathing, then music, then back to sounds. I kept
abandoning the idea of even starting to write something because the subject
became too vast and uncontrollable."
This photo shows Sam in February 1977 in rehearsal.
opened on March 18, 1977 with six weeks of performances.
Theater critic Misha Berson was fresh out of college at that
time working as the performing arts coordinator at Fort Mason and took every
excuse to nose around the rehearsals. She reminisces, "Except for
the song lyrics, I recall the piece as largely nonverbal and probably as close
to performance art as anything Shepard ever authored. I discreetly watched from
the unfinished bleacher seating as he developed the piece, intently focused on
his intrepid cast (which included his gifted then-wife, O-Lan Shepard),
conferring with them in a soft reedy voice tinged with twang."
"Reflecting the eclectic theatrical inventions bubbling up in
San Francisco back then, 'Inacoma' emerged from movement and musical
improvisations, yielding images of spinning orderlies in white jumpsuits and a
Quinlan-like character who rose from her hospital bed to dance. What I gleaned
from that now-obscure production was that Shepard was a true seeker and
experimentalist, an artistic stretcher and prober, forever scouting for not just
his literary voice but his voices."
Berson also adds,
"Wearing leather jacket, blue jeans, and shades, his dark hair flopping over his
forehead, Sam was so cool he could've been an extra from the iconic hipster film
'Easy Rider'. But in the late 1970s he was already famous in his own right, at
least among theater folk, for his cowboy-beatnik charisma and his sui generis,
The play didnít become one of Samís most important works.
Chronicle theater critic Bernard Weiner interviewed Sam and described the
show as beginning with a series of visual images in the authorís mind, and
developing out of improvisational work with the actors and musicians.
"Many of my plays center around a character in a critical state of
consciousness. I like to operate off that dynamic," Sam said. "The comatose
state is especially fascinating because, from the outside, nobody really knows
whatís going on inside the person in the coma."
The play featured veteran Magic Theatre actors James Dean, Ann Matthews, O-lan
Shepard, John Nesci, Fred Ward, Sigrid Wurdchmidt and Jane Dornacker, most of
whom had been in his San-Francisco-produced plays.
San Francisco was a welcome fit for the playwright's creativity. "After years of
struggling to find an audience in New York, it's nice to find people here and in
London finally catch on to what youíre doing," Sam said. "Itís been good here.
Thereís more freedom to experiment, to breathe."
As an aside, Christopher Arnott of the Hartford Courant noted
this observation on Sam's death in 2017 - "One mark of how influential Shepard
was beyond the traditional boundaries of American theater is the number of
contemporary rock bands that have been named after his plays. These include
Savage Love, True West, Inacoma and, yes, Cowboy Mouth and Buried
Child... Sam Shepard's not dead. He rocks on."
* * * * *
As a kid, Sam had gone by the name "Steve Rogers" to distinguish himself
from his father.
In 1963 at the age of 20, Sam decided to re-invent himself by changing his given
name. He said, "I always thought Rogers was a corny name because
of Roy Rogers and all the associations with that. But Samuel Shepard Rogers was
kind of a long handle. So I just dropped the Rogers part of it... Now in a way I
kind of regret it. But it was, you know, one of those reactions to your
background. Years later, I found out that Steve Rogers was the original name of
Captain America in the comics."
June 9, 2020
Some critics consider true "True West" to be the third in a
trilogy including "Curse of the Starving Class" and "Buried Child", while others
consider it part of a quintet which includes "Fool for Love" and "A Lie of the
Mind". The play was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1983 and it
hasn't left the theatrical landscape since it first premiered with Peter Coyote
at San Francisco's Magic Theater in 1980. Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre's 1982
production with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise remains legendary and its
popularity continues with Broadway's outing with Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano
seventeen months ago at the Roundabout Theatre.
Set in 1980 in an out-of-the-way Southern California suburb, it remains a
visceral look at played-out Wild West stereotypes, familial envy and revenge,
and false value surfacing as Hollywood cliches. Today
I've updated the TRUE WEST page with
more information and photos. Though I had seen the stage performance with Sinise
and Malkovich on videotape, I hadn't been aware of the that production's
televised airings - first in 1984 on the PBS series - "American Playhouse" and
then in 1998 on "Great Performances". There was also a filmed version of an
Idaho production starring Bruce Willis in 2002 on Showtime.
* * * * *
Here's the cover of a 1985 issue of the Western Writers
series devoted to Sam's plays. The 50-page edition was written by Vivian Patraka
and Mark Siegel and published by Boise State University.
"Only the avant-garde had taken much notice of Shepard in his early years, and
even those who did write about him seemed to promote him without much exegesis.
However, by the early 1980s Shepard had been virtually canonized by the critical
establishment as the most important and interesting to analyze of contemporary
playwrights. Even when such critical powers of bourgeois culture, they found his
work fascinating and challenging. Elizabeth Hardwick, Susan Sontag, and Ruby
Cohen all championed Shepard against the few conservative figures, such as
Walter Kerr and Tennessee Williams, who still found Shepard an anathema... Again
and again, Shepard has been perceived by critics as both a truly American
playwright and a writer of universal value and distinction, as both 'ruthlessly
experimental and uncompromising' (John Lahr) and as a playwright who deals with
and illuminates traditional American and dramatic concerns."
June 7, 2020
Galisteo publisher John Miller created the book "Sam
Shepard; New Mexico" sharing Sam's writing with the photographs of Ed Ruscha.
It was published this past winter. Mr. Miller writes,
Sam Shepard had a deep bond with Santa Fe, where he lived in the 1980s and again
in 2010Ė2015. But Shepard had some nomad in him, and as he recorded in his Motel
Chronicles in 1982, he spent as much time crisscrossing the deserts of New
Mexico as he did living in any one city. As Shepardís friend Johnny Dark said,
ďHe lived in Santa Fe, but he also lived in hotels and on the road. . . . He
might have been running away or he might have been running toward something.Ē
Twenty years earlier, the artist Ed Ruscha, traveling from Oklahoma to Los
Angeles, traversed New Mexico and created ghostly photographs of New Mexico gas
stations. Together, Shepardís writing and Ruschaís images evoke a poetry of
Included in the book are quotes from Bob Dylan, Taylor
Sheridan and Josh Brolin.
You might ask what connection Josh Brolin has to Sam
Shepard and in this moving farewell that Josh shared on Instagram back in July
2017, he answers that question.
* * * * *
Taos-raised actor, writer, director, producer and poet
Arron Shiver recently mused on life under lockdown in LA. One of his poems
about Sam was published in the spring issue of the Taos Poetry Journal.
Shiver says, "I wrote
that poem 'My Hero' to commemorate one of my theater heroes. If I look back at
the bits of my own writing I'm proud of, and even some of the acting, to be
honest, I can see a direct link to Sam, so it shook me when he passed. I pretty
much had read all of his stuff, and it had a tremendous effect on me. formed me,
in a lot of ways. So when he passed away back in 2017, I was in LA, and we all
sat around drinking tequila and reading his lines out loud, and everything I
remembered about my interactions with him came out. This poem was an offshoot of
that. Stuff I remembered from that time. Funny stuff, mainly. Almost fights, a
lot of drinking, some wonderful advice he gave me about acting. At that time he
usually would rather talk about horses than acting. He had worked hard and he
had worked a long time, and all he really wanted to do by the time I met him, as
far as I could tell, was fish and ride horses."
The first verse reads -
* * * * *
DID YOU KNOW that when Warren Beatty was ready to cast "Reds",
Sam was considered for the role of "Eugene OíNeill" before Jack Nicholson was
offered the role. You may remember he played writer Dashiell Hammett in the A&E TV
production "Dash & Lily" in 1999.
July-August 31, 2017
January - June 2014
January - June 2011
July - December 2010
January - June 2010
July - December 2009
January - June 2009
July - December 2008
January - June 2008
November 2005 - December 2006