Samuel Shepard Rogers III (November 5, 1943 July 27, 2017) was an American playwright, actor, director, screenwriter, short-story author, musician, and perhaps the biggest badass you've never heard of. Let's just start at the beginning.
During his formative years, Shepard worked on a ranch in his hometown. Blue collar themes would figure heavily into his later work, and his genuine cowboy credentials figure heavily into his badass status.
His first brush with the mainstream came once he moved to New York City during the mid-sixties, when he served as the drummer for the highly eccentric psychedelic folk band Holy Modal Rounders around the time of their third album. The Rounders subsequently appeared in one of Shepard's early plays.
Drumming for a reasonably successful rock band is a career in and of itself for most, but for Shepard, this was barely a hobby. He was highly involved in New York City's off-off-Broadway theatre scene in the '60s and early '70s. His best-known plays were written in the late '70s and early '80s, at which time he had relocated to San Francisco. Some of his most notable works of the period are Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child (for which Shepard won a Pulitzer Prize) and True West. At the same time, he was collaborating with no less than Bob Dylan, helping him with his film Renaldo and Clara and co-writing Dylan's song "Brownsville Girl."
His plays are just as awesome as he was. Falling somewhere between Absurdism and Postmodernism, plays by Sam Shepard tend to be darkly funny and somewhat menacing. (Just read a synopsis of Tooth of Crime or Buried Child some time.) Also, if a play doesn't deconstruct The American Dream at some point, he probably didn't write it.
Did we mention that he was also an actor? He claimed to act simply to fund his playwriting career, but if you've ever seen one of his films, you know that he was a damn fine actor for someone who only really dabbled. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. (Think about that — Chuck freakin' Yeager. And he nailed it.) You may also recognize him from Black Hawk Down, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, or any number of other bit character roles he took over the years. (His choices in this regard seemed to defy categorization — e.g., he was Dolly Parton's husband in Steel Magnolias, like maybe tenth or eleventh in the cast of characters. But that's Sam for ya.)
And of course that's just his professional life; the company he kept privately was no less awesome. When Shepard first moved to New York, he lived with Charles Mingus Jr. (yes, the son of that Charles Mingus). He was briefly involved with Punk Rock legend Patti Smith before shacking up with Jessica Lange. The level of talent his productions attracted was also very high; for instance, his 2000 play The Late Henry Moss premiered with Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, and Cheech Marin in the cast.
To recap: cowboy, psychedelic rock drummer, playwright extraordinaire, actor (when he felt like it), and lived with one of the most beautiful actresses, ever.
To recap more succinctly: Badass.
Works by Sam Shepard include:
- Buried Child
- Cowboy Mouth (co-written with Patti Smith)
- Cowboys #2
- Curse of the Starving Class
- Fool for Love
- Paris, Texas
- Tooth of Crime: As well as updated rewrite, Tooth of Crime: Second Dance
- True West
Films featuring Sam Shepard include:
- All the Pretty Horses
- The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
- August: Osage County
- Black Hawk Down
- Cold in July
- Days of Heaven
- Hamlet 2000
- Midnight Special
- The Notebook
- The Pelican Brief
- The Right Stuff
- Snow Falling on Cedars
- Steel Magnolias
Tropes invoked by Sam Shepard:
- Absurdism: Kind of, almost. His earlier plays were more experimental and were heavily influenced by the Theatre of the Absurd. Later on, his plays took on a more serious, post-modern feel. Still influenced by absurdism, still punctuated by moments of gutbusting hilarity... but not quite Absurdist with a capital A anymore.
- Badass Bookworm: Yes, he dropped out of college to join a traveling actor troupe, but since then he has taught playwriting and other aspects of theatre at the collegiate level fairly consistently since The '70s.
- Black Comedy
- Cowboy: Of the "Philosopher Cowboy" type
- Danger Deadpan: Shepard's best known film role was playing the Trope Maker.
- Immune to Drugs: Shepard was drummer for the first band to ever use the word "psychedelic" in a song. Uh, yeah... he's done his fair share of drugs.
- To give you an idea of just how immune he is, he mentioned once in an interview that his drug of choice in the '60s was methedrine.note A few Google searches later, and you realize he was a casual user of methamphetamine.
- Incest Is Relative: What better way to illustrate the decay of the nuclear family ideal?
- Keith Richards: Crow from Tooth of Crime is described as looking like a young version.
- The Patriarch: As with The American Dream, the role of patriarch is often subverted or deconstructed.
- Dodge, from Buried Child, is a prime example. He's a deconstructed patriarch. He drinks plenty, wields zero power, has not tended to the family farm in years and is actively bullied by the rest of his family.
- The Power of Rock: Tooth of Crime takes place in some vague sci-fi future populated by badass "markers," which are some combination of rock star, cowboy and gangster. The markers battle each other using this trope... more or less.
- Space Cowboy: Ok, he's not a cowboy in space. But he is a cowboy, and a lot of his plays have a distinct sci-fi feel.
- Tooth of Crime plays this a little more straight. Still not technically "in space," but definitely features rock and roll cowboys in a futuristic setting... kind of...