In "Blackthorn," Sam Shepard, as an aging Butch Cassidy,
rides in with all the grizzled wisdom and well-worn
danger of the true American West.
Director Mateo Gil's drama, now in theaters, imagines
the bandit as a refugee from his own myth, living in
Bolivia in the 1920s under the name James Blackthorn
while facing down an old foe (Stephen Rea) and a new
outlaw protégé (Eduardo Noriega).
It's a lion-in-winter turn, and though the
straight-shooting 67-year-old playwright and actor
researched Cassidy heavily, he says he approached the
role feeling no extra burden.
"I can't say I thought about Butch in terms of
mythology," says Shepard, relaxing in a booth at the
"The thing about going that route is, it takes on a
conceptual way of thinking, and takes you away from the
"After all, mythological figures don't walk around
knowing they're mythological.
The myth grows out of [their] sweat."
And what about feeling like he was treading on sacred
ground, given the Paul Newman/Robert Redford classic
"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"?
"Nope. I know what sacred ground is, and that aint't
Shepard himself has built his share of mythology and
walked plenty of sacred ground. The son of an Army
officer who grew up mostly in California, Shepard worked
on ranches and played music before coming to New York in
the '60s and waitering at the Village Gate.
He wrote his first plays while living on Avenue C.
"I arrived here almost at the very moment that Off-
Off-Broadway started," says Shepard. "La Mama, Theatre
Genesis, Judson Poets, the scene at St. Marks Church —
all of them exploded like mushrooms.
"As a writer, the great thing was I could literally
write something in a week, see it go into production the
next week, and the third week there was an audience!"
His "La Turista" at the Theater at St. Clement's Church
took a 1967 Obie for Distinguished Play. Later, as
Shepard played music with former girlfriend Patti Smith
and toured with Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue, plays
like "The Tooth of Crime" and "Curse of the Starving
Class" made his name.
He won a Pulitzer in 1979 for "Buried Child," a year
after he made his first major film, "Days of Heaven."
That led to "Frances" (where he met his future love,
actress Jessica Lange) and "The Right Stuff," which
earned him a 1983 Oscar nomination for portraying test
pilot Chuck Yeager.
"When I started acting, I had a tremendous fear of the
camera, so I'd try to hide from it, which is
impossible," he says.
"But the more I did it, I got away from that. Now, in
acting, I'm available to a lot of things that I wasn't."
Though Shepard only regrets turning down one project —
the seminal miniseries "Lonesome Dove" — he says in the
'80s, as he did more movies ("Country," "Baby Boom")
while writing his best-known plays ("True West," "Fool
for Love," "A Lie of the Mind"), he made a choice.
"I felt I had to make a decision, because I didn't think
I would be taken seriously as a writer if I became a
movie star," he says. "You don't want to be ignored as a
writer because you have this other thing.
"There was a review of a play of mine in London a few
years back that said, 'It's a pretty good play for a
movie star.' And I thought, 'Ugh! This is exactly what I
didn't want!' I also thought, 'Who does this motherf—
think he is?!' But that's the trap you start falling
Still, Shepard has remained onscreen, doing supporting
roles in films including "Black Hawk Down" and "The
Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"
while new plays have gone up.
And though he splits his time between Kentucky and New
Mexico, when he's in New York, he often sits in with his
son's bluegrass band at Jalopy in Red Hook, and advises
the experimental theater wing at NYU.
"It's surprising how many students are avidly interested
in the theater," he says. "You'd think everyone would be
interested in video or something.
"The difference between the '60s and now is that then,
the theater was on the street. But to see that
enthusiasm and energy is amazing."