Author Profile: Sam Shepard
By A Noise Within
October 11, 2019
Sam Shepard was born on November 5, 1943 at Fort Sheridan, a military base just outside of Chicago, Illinois. Shepard’s mother, Jane Rogers, was a schoolteacher and his father, Samuel Shepard Rogers, was serving in the United States Army Air Corps during World War II.
As he grew up, Shepard’s family life proved to be rather dysfunctional. Shepard said, “I was born into this family of cranky men.” These men were his father’s brothers: one who lost a leg when he was ten, one who married into the Chicago mob, and one who raised dogs. Shepard traced a lot of the anxieties and insecurities he felt later in his life back to his childhood, particularly back to his father’s alcoholism and abuse. In a 2010 interview, Shepard described the men who were present during his childhood: “The male influences around me were primarily alcoholics and extremely violent.”
Shepard graduated from high school in Duarte in 1961 and attended Mount San Antonio Junior College to study agriculture. However, he left the school after a year to join the Bishop’s Company Repertory Players in 1962. Shepard toured with this troupe for eight months before moving to New York City, where he became fascinated with jazz music and the works of Irish existentialist playwright, Samuel Beckett.
As the Off-Off-Broadway scene was just starting to take off in New York, Shepard began to write a series of avant-garde one-act plays that premiered in the Off-Off-Broadway circuit, receiving warm receptions from audiences. In 1969, Shepard married O-Lan Jones Dark, and in 1970, the two had a son, Jesse Mojo Shepard. Around this time, Shepard began to try his hand at writing for the screen. His first teleplay, Fourteen Hundred Thousand, was broadcasted on television in 1969.
In 1971, after having a high-profile affair with singer and poet Patti Smith, Shepard and his family moved to London. Shepard spent the late 1970s writing what have become his most revered family dramas, such as Curse of the Starving Class, True West, and Buried Child, which won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979. It was at this time that Shepard also returned to acting. In 1978, he appeared in the feature film, Days of Heaven. His performance in that film led to other roles, and soon, Shepard was acting on the big screen with great regularity. His tall, lanky, brooding, and weathered appearance served him well in his career on the screen. In 1983, Shepard’s appearance in The Right Stuff as Chuck Yeager earned him an Academy Award nomination.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Shepard’s career as a film actor flourished. He appeared in films ranging from Steel Magnolias in 1989 to Pelican Brief in 1993, from to Black Hawk Down in 2001 to The Notebook in 2004. However, his work on films left little time for writing. Around 2004, Shepard began to focus once again on writing for the stage. By this point, Shepard’s writing had become darker and more complex, reflecting the political change and turmoil he saw in the country at the time.
For the next 13 years, Shepard continued to act in films and write for the stage. In February of 2017, Shepard published his last work titled, On the Inside, a quasi-memoir in the form of a collection of vignettes and short stories. On July 27, 2017, Shepard passed away at the age of 73 on his farm in Kentucky. He died of complications with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. In his death, Shepard leaves behind an impressive legacy of work, earning him a spot among the most important American dramatists in the last half-century.