A college drop-out, Sam Shepard became involved in
fringe theatre and won plaudits for his high-octane
plays. Rock 'n' roll, drugs and the explosive tensions
of life on the American edge are his themes and he has
been hailed as the cowboy laureate, while as a Hollywood
actor he has been compared to Gary Cooper.
In Rolling Thunder Logbook (1977), his chronicle of Bob
Dylan's 1975 US tour, Sam Shepard writes: "Myth is a
powerful medium because it talks to the emotions and not
the head. It moves us into an area of mystery ..."
As he completes the 40-mile journey
from his Minnesota ranch to the city of St Paul for a
rare interview, these same observations seem applicable
to Shepard himself. Throughout his career, he has been
adept at creating mythic personae: the cowboy
playwright, the occasional rock star, the smouldering
all-American movie hero. And in the bland, mid-western
urban sprawl of St Paul, Shepard's iconic presence is
thrown into starker relief.
He's incongruously dressed in the
uniform of the authentic Californian ranch-hand: blue
jeans, cowboy boots and tan suede waist-coat. He drives
a white Chevy pick-up so gigantic that it seems to roll
down the streets like a stagecoach. Once parked, he
dismounts with a calculated sweep, as if slipping from
the saddle of one of his favoured quarter-horses.
Installed in a booth at the St Paul Grill, Shepard
reveals that he had been to a Dylan concert in the local
stadium the night before.
"He is an extraordinarily beautiful
writer of melody, but he is not afraid to really mess
things up. Like for instance 'Girl of the North
Country', which he obliterated in this concert. He's not
afraid to take it some place else. He is absolutely
He goes on to describe how he has
spent the morning working on his ranch.
"I keep endlessly busy with all kinds
of stuff, mostly horses, cattle, livestock, things like
that," he continues, "I've been into horses as far back
as I can remember. There is a particular kind here in
America called the 'quarter horse' that I'm very
interested in." Here he gallops with his fingers-tips
across the table to illustrate the unique mobility of
this breed; the horse can spin through 360 degrees.
"They came out of the southwest and were specifically
designed to work with cattle. These horses work like
He has chosen the restaurant, where
the decor features a mahogany bear sucking on a huge
cheroot, because of its authentic frontier cuisine.
"They do a great buffalo steak here,"
he says, in his buoyant western drawl, "it's the
tenderest meat you ever tasted in your life ..."
The Sam Shepard mythology is built on
an extraordinarily versatile talent, spanning an array
of performance and literary genres. It is as a film
actor that his persona has become known to a wider
public, first as the rugged young farmer in Terrence
Malick's Days of Heaven (1978) and later as the maverick
test pilot in The Right Stuff (1983), for which he was
nominated for the best supporting actor Oscar in 1984;
the mysterious, laconic Faber in Volker Schlöndorff's
underrated Voyager (1991) and, more recently, as the
gruff commander in Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down
At 59, with searing blue eyes and
classic jaw line, Shepard is still a startlingly good
looking man. Perhaps the real secret of his appeal,
though, are the flaws: the gnarly teeth and the
dangerous edge to his otherwise genial manner. His
achievements in other fields will prove more enduring.
As a screenwriter, he has been responsible for one of
cinema's undisputed classics, Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas
(1984). As a writer of prose he has ranged from the
beguiling fragments of Motel Chronicles (1982) and the
raw autobiography of Cruising Paradise (1996), to the
short-story collection Great Dream of Heaven, published
in November 2002 to highly favourable reviews. But it is
as a Pulitzer-prizewinning playwright that Shepard's
contribution has been most significant, leading the New
York Times to hail him as the "playwright laureate of
the west, consistently, ruthlessly true to his
experience of a wilderness where American has always
hidden its promise and its dream". Arguably his greatest
achievement is the so-called "Family Trilogy" of plays:
Curse of the Starving Class (1976), Buried Child, which
won a Pulitzer in 1979, and the explosive fraternal
confrontations of True West (1980).
"There is nobody else who writes his
kind of dialogue," says Wenders, "And nobody touches
these subjects, either. He makes a whole different kind
of 'America' visible behind the obvious, contemporary
Samuel Shepard Rogers III, called
Steve Rogers during his early years, was born on
November 5, 1943 in the military outpost of Fort
Sheridan, Illinois. His father, Samuel Rogers VII, was
an officer in the Army Air Corps, stationed in Italy
when Shepard was born, then afterwards in South Dakota,
Utah, California, the Pacific island of Guam and the
Philippines. Even when the family settled in the small
Californian town of Duarte, there was little in the way
of stability. Samuel Sr, according to Shepard, "a
drinking man, a dedicated alcoholic", was
"My father had a real short fuse,"
Shepard says. "He had a tough life - had to support his
mother and brother at a very young age when his dad's
farm collapsed. You could see his suffering, his
terrible suffering, living a life that was disappointing
and looking for another one. My father was full of
Shepard has two younger sisters,
Sandy and Roxanne. According to Roxanne, the tensions
between father and son often boiled over.
"There was always this kind of facing
off between them, and it was Sam who got the bad end of
that. Dad was a tricky character, because he was a
charismatic guy when he wanted to be. And at the other
side he was like a snapping turtle. With him and Sam it
was that male thing. You put two virile men in a room
and they're going to test each other."
As a teenager, Shepard gravitated
towards rugged, outdoor pursuits - rodeos and race
tracks. Two semesters into his course in animal
husbandry at Mount San Antonio Junior College in Walnut,
California, he experienced a revelation.
"I happened to get into a literature
class, I don't know how exactly," he says, "with a lot
of guys from that area whom I had never had any contact
with; for lack of a better word they were beatniks. They
lived in this big old house and one of them was a
painter and they were smoking a lot of dope out there,
and they had stuff lying around like Beckett plays,
Jackson Pollock reproductions, which I'd never heard of.
That was the first encounter I had with Beckett, with
jazz, abstract expressionism. And then I just left
Answering an advertisement in a local
newspaper, he went along for an audition for the
Bishop's Company Repertory Players.
"We did little short plays,
adaptations of literature mostly and we did them in
churches. It amazed me that you could just get a bunch
of people together and write some stuff and do it and
get an audience. People would actually come and see it.
From nothing, you could make something brand new."
During one of the company's
stop-overs in New York, Shepard decided to stay, and
looked up an old high-school friend from Duarte, Charles
Mingus III, son of the jazz legend.
"Sam said he needed an apartment,"
remembers Mingus, "and I said 'I got this apartment, the
rent is a little steep, 60 bucks. Let's split it, at
least it will save you from being on the street'."
Mingus also found Shepard a job as a
bus boy at the Village Gate, the well-known Bleecker St
"I was suddenly witness to the
greatest jazz players of that era," says Shepard. "One
night Cannonball Adderley, Thelonious Monk and Gerry
Mulligan were playing and the relief comedian was Woody
At the Village Gate, Shepard found
himself at the centre of the off-off-Broadway phenomenon
that was seeing the emergence of experimental,
underground venues such as Caffe Cino and La Mama.
Influenced by Beckett and Pirandello, Shepard began
"The head waiter was a guy named
Ralph Cook who was trying to open a theatre at St Marks
in the Bowery - it was called Theatre Genesis. He was
gathering actors. A lot of the waiters were actors and
he said I hear you are writing some plays and I said
'yeah', so I showed him a couple and he said 'let's do
them' - just like that - and a week later we were doing
The first, Cowboys, whose author now
styled himself Sam Shepard for the first time, baffled
critics. "It owes debts to such unlikely parentage as
Waiting for Godot crossed with Of Mice and Men,"
remarked the New York Post. Poor reviews and sparse
houses notwithstanding, Shepard was soon being hailed by
the New York Times as "the generally acknowledged
'genius' of the [off-off-Broadway] circuit".
Over the course of 1964-65, he
produced a succession of chaotic, high-octane pieces,
including The Rock Garden , an elongated domestic scene,
The 4-H club , based on life in the flat he shared with
Mingus, and Chicago , which was set in a bathroom and
written, according to Shepard, in just one frenzied day.
These works were often little more than drug-fuelled
visions, incomplete and frequently incomprehensible but
always with an undertow of brilliance.
"Sam was always taking chances,
always being original," says playwright Edward Albee.
"He was just one of the most exciting individual
talents, somebody who was willing to fail and fail
interestingly. And if you are willing to fail
interestingly, you tend to succeed interestingly."
In 1967, Shepard wrote his first
full-length play, La Turista, centering on an
unfortunate vacation in Mexico during which he and his
then girlfriend, the actor Joyce Aaron, were holed up in
"a tiny sweltering motel room in the Yucatan", stricken
by "a semidelirious state of severe dysentery". After a
two-year break from the theatre, during which he
co-wrote Zabriskie Point (1970) for film director
Michelangelo Antonioni and toured as drummer with the
cult "amphetamine rock band" the Holy Modal Rounders,
Shepard returned, in 1969, with the The Unseen Hand, a
rock opera about cowboy drifters.
During this period, Shepard's
personal life underwent upheavals. In 1967, among the
company of actors at Theatre Genesis, he encountered a
pretty, baby-faced actress named O-Lan Johnson, then
just 17. The first indication of Shepard's interest came
when she auditioned for a part in his play Forensic and
the Navigators (1967) only to find it contained a role
called Oolan, whose character mirrored her own. A
relationship soon developed, and with O-Lan
conspicuously pregnant, the two were married in St
Mark's Church in the Bowery on November 9 1969. The
following May their son Jesse was born, named after
No sooner had Shepard become a
father, however, than he embarked on what is perhaps his
most infamous liaison, with the poet and musician Patti
Smith. Their nine-month affair was intense and
destructive, but it also produced Cowboy Mouth (1971),
an absurdist theatre piece based largely in the room in
New York's Chelsea Hotel where it was composed.
"I'd never written a play with
somebody before and we literally shoved the typewriter
back and forth across the table. We wrote the whole
thing like that, in two nights," says Shepard.
The affair also appears to have been
remarkably open, with O-Lan apparently happy to play a
part in Shepard's play The Mad Dog Blues (1971) that was
based on Smith.
"Me and his wife still even liked
each other," Smith says, "I mean, it wasn't like
committing adultery in the suburbs or something."
By now, however, almost a decade of
excess, compounded by matrimonial discord and
fatherhood, was beginning to take its toll on Shepard,
and, after failing to turn up for the opening night of
Cowboy Mouth , he fled with his family to London.
"I was into a lot of drugs," he told
Time Out shortly after his arrival. "It became very
difficult, you know, everything seemed sort of
shattering. I didn't feel like going back to California,
so I thought I'd come here."
Shepard spent much of his time in
England, according to actor Tony Milner, betting at
dog-tracks and racecourses. He also submitted his
recently completed The Tooth of Crime , a surreal,
freeflowing reflection on American pop culture featuring
a strutting rock-star named Hoss, for production at
Charles Marowitz's Open Space theatre in London (it
premiered on July 17, 1972), and a new piece called
Geography of a Horse Dreamer, for the Royal Court. It
opened on February 21, 1974 with Stephen Rea and Bob
Hoskins. Shepard was the director. However, Shepard soon
became disil lusioned with London.
"Not long before he left, he said to
me that the critics didn't want to know about his work,"
says Milner, "but I think that the problem was that it
just went over their heads. You had critics like Harold
Hobson, all quite old chaps. And he's talking about
streetwise America and rock 'n roll and drugs - they
didn't know what he was on about."
On his return to the US, Shepard
settled with his family in Mill Valley, California,
moving into a 20-acre ranch called the Flying Y. It was
in this rural setting that his work began to undergo a
"It suddenly occurred to me that I
was mainly avoiding a territory that I needed to
investigate, which was the family. I was a little afraid
of it, particularly in relation to my old man and all of
that emotion. I didn't really want to tiptoe in there
and then I said 'well, maybe I better'."
Curse of the Starving Classes ( 1978
), the first work fully to reflect this shift and the
opening part of his "Family Trilogy", took a more
conventional three-act structure and infused it with the
Beckettian immediacy of the early plays to form what the
New York Times, in a review of the New York premiere in
1978 at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre, called a "style
that oscillates between realism and savage fantasy".
Shepard followed this up with Buried Child (1979), a
drama about a family destroyed by the secret inferred in
"This is the best Shepard play I have
seen in some time," wrote John Simon in New York
magazine, in one of a crop of overwhelmingly favourable
reviews. "It is powerful obsessive stuff, intensely
theatrical, not always disciplined but always wildly
poetic, full of stage images and utterances replete with
On April 16 1979, Shepard received a
telegram at the Flying Y congratulating him on winning
the Pulitzer Prize.
"The weird thing was that the
producers, for some reason or other, decided to close it
that same day," he recalls. "You get this sort of
medallion and then the play closes. I couldn't figure
that one out."
But when, in 1978, Terrence Malick's
Days of Heaven, in which Shepard co-starred, was
released to ecstatic reviews, overnight the playwright
was transformed into a top Hollywood name, much to his
own initial horror.
"I had all kinds of wild offers at
that time to be a movie star and I panicked. I was
turning down things like Warren Beatty's Reds , that
part of Eugene O'Neill [played by Jack Nicholson]. My
agent was going crazy. I hadn't realised what the
experience of it would be like - to be on the verge of
being a movie star. Because it's like you are the
hottest whore in town. Everybody wants you."
Shepard's first stage foray after
winning the Pulitzer, True West ( 1980 ), a tale of
raging fraternal rivalry, did little to allay these
worries. Against Shepard's wishes, Joseph Papp insisted
that the parts for the Broadway production in 1980 were
entrusted to upcoming stars Tommy Lee Jones and Peter
Boyle. From a film-set in Texas, Shepard blasted: "I
would like it to be known that the 'production' of my
play True West at the Public Theatre is in no way a
representation of my intentions." The play might have
been forgotten had it not been for the Steppenwolf
Theatre Company in Chicago , which revived it in 1982 in
a production with John Malkovich, directed by Gary
Sinise: " True West , revivified, should now take its
ightful place in the company of the best of Shepard,"
concluded the New York Times.
After True West, Shepard produced two
other important plays, Fool For Love (1982) a
claustrophobic trailer-trash love story which Jack Kroll
of Newsweek decreed "a classic rattlesnake riff by
Shepard" and A Lie of the Mind (1985) which won the New
York Drama Critics Circle award for best play but which
some critics felt betrayed early signs of creative
exhaustion. Around this time, Shepard's personal life
went through another upheaval, after he met actress
Jessica Lange on the set of the film Francis (1982).
"I'd seen Sam in Resurrection 
and there was something about him that struck such a
familiar chord," she recalls. "I immediately felt I knew
something about him, that wildness, that typically
American wildness, a no-restraints outlaw quality."
At the time, Shepard was still
married to O-Lan and Lange was involved with Mikhail
Baryshnikov. The relationship got off to a volatile
Lange says. "When we were together we
were so wild - drinking, getting into fights, walking
down the freeway trying to get away - I mean, just
really wild stuff. I didn't want to keep going in that
direction. So we quit talking. Then, through the work of
some good friends, we got back in touch and that was it.
He left his wife and we drove to New Mexico; and that's
where we settled."
According to Lange: "He's a great
man, a natural man, which is rare. I've known a lot of
men. And you know I've had romances with what you'd call
famous men, and none compares to Sam in terms of
He also has a reputation for
straight-talking and a disregard for protective social
"Here is a man who could see right
through you," says Wenders, "who would smell bullshit
from a mile. He'd rather hurt you than be dishonest.
There is no front. He is just all true. With a
dissecting sense of humour."
By the late 1980s, Shepard was
beginning to retreat from theatre, as his star began to
"Though there are moments in Lie of
the Mind  [which won the New York Drama Critics
Circle Award for Best Play, 1986] that are as powerful
evocative and touching as anything he's ever written,"
wrote the San Francisco Chronicle. "The play as a whole
seems to come from a seam that has been overmined by the
playwright. At times, the script even approaches the
outskirts of self-parody."
At the same time his increasingly
high profile as a film star was beginning to raise
"Once a mysterious presence behind a
wealth of cryptic plays," commented Robert Brustein in
the New Republic in 1996, "today he finds himself a
highly publicised celebrity, not through his theatre
work, which never managed to draw a mainstream public,
but largely as a result of his screen appearances,
beginning with The Right Stuff, which brought him
momentary fame as the new Gary Cooper. Shepard's movie
roles have been occasional, even desultory lately, and
the once prolific dramatist has only produced three
plays in over a decade." Shepard was terrified that his
status as film star would compromise his reputation as a
"There was this feeling that my
credibility as a writer would go in the toilet if I
suddenly became Robert Redford. I didn't want to be a
movie star. I didn't want to have that thing of being an
icon. It scared the shit out of me." He now admits,
however, that he has grown inured to the condition:
"It's like having a little oil well back there in the
backyard - you go and dip into it," he grins.
In the end, it wasn't Shepard's
burgeoning celebrity but his unwillingness to repeat
himself that led to an inevitable reduction of
theatrical output. Both States of Shock, premiered in
1991, a response to the Gulf war that echoed his early
work, and the uneven Simpatico (1994), a play
reminiscent of David Mamet in its partially submerged
narrative, were not particularly well received. And When
the World was Green , his 1996 collaboration with the
late Joseph Chaikin, which has just completed a run at
the Young Vic, led critics to suspect that Shepard's
light touch with mythology had faltered.
"It is a basic rule of drama that
mythic meanings grow from concrete situations," wrote
Michael Billington for this paper, "but here you feel
Chaikin and Shepard have started with universal ideas
about revenge and rebirth and invented a story to
Calls from reviewers for a return to
the familiar Shepard territory of the "Family Trilogy"
have gone unheeded. And producers must content
themselves with revivals from his back-catalogue, such
as the forthcoming new production of True West at the
Bristol Old Vic. Shepard is working on more stories and
a new screenplay with Wenders but there are no concrete
plans for further new plays.
"At the moment my ambition is to ride
some good horses," he says with a chuckle, "I would
still like to keep my hand in the acting deal, as a
character actor or in some way shape or form. And
writing wise, I'd like to keep all the doors open. I
would love to do another play, but I am waiting until I
encounter some material that is new. I don't want to
write the same shit over and over. I suppose that the
danger is that you can wait too long. But hopefully
there is something out there."