Sam Shepard, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Oscar-nominated actor, died Sunday at the age of 73.
Shepard, who suffered from ALS in recent years, died at his home in Kentucky from complications from the disease, his rep told The Hollywood Reporter.
The winner of 13 Obie Awards, Shepard won his first six for plays he penned between 1966 and 1968. After his success on the off-Broadway stage, Shepard segued to screenwriting with credits on films like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriske Point and Robert Frank’s Me and My Brother.
During this time, Shepard also frequently performed alongside the psychedelic band the Holy Modal Rollers, as he once told Rolling Stone.
“In the early Seventies, I suddenly found myself having a kind of dry spell. It was difficult for me to write, so I started to read. And I read most of the Greek guys, Aeschylus, Sophocles. I studied up on those guys, and I’m glad I did,” Shepard told Rolling Stone in 1986.
“I was just amazed by the simplicity of the ancient Greek plays, for instance – they were dead simple. Nothing complex or tricky… which surprised the hell out of me, because I’d assumed they were beyond me. But now I began to comprehend what they were talking about, and they turned out to be accessible. They’re a lot about the family romance, aren’t they? They’re all about destiny! That’s the most powerful thing. Everything is foreseen, and we just play it out.”
In 1978, the multi-talented Shepard stepped in front of the camera for a pair of big-screen roles: As a land baron in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and the part of Rodeo in Bob Dylan’s experimental Renaldo & Clara, which Shepard penned with Dylan. Eight years later, Dylan and Shepard would co-wrote the Knocked Out Loaded song “Brownsville Girl”:
Patti Smith once said of Shepard in a 1971 poem, “He was a renegade with nasty habits / he was a screech owl / he was a man playing cowboys.”
While Shepard continued working as a character actor throughout the Eighties – highlighted by a Best Supporting Actor nod for playing Chuck Yeager in 1983’s The Right Stuff – he remained an essential playwright: His acclaimed Family Trilogy – 1978’s Curse of the Starving Class and Buried Child and 1980’s True West – have been widely revived and adapted, with Buried Child winning the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Shepard’s 1983 play Fool for Love was also adapted for the big screen, with Shepard in the leading role of the Robert Altman-directed film. Shepard also served as co-writer on Wim Wenders’ 1984 film Paris, Texas, winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
“I wouldn’t call Sammy easygoing and funny, but everybody has their dark side, and he always does it with a sense of humor,” Jessica Lange, Shepard’s partner for nearly 30 years, told AARP this month. Lange and Shepard had two children together.
Like all great character actors, Shepard had the unique ability to ripen small roles with personality and definition. Over the course of his acting career, Shepard appeared in films like Mud, Black Hawk Down, The Notebook, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, August: Osage County and Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking, which Shepard co-wrote.
“I still haven’t gotten over this thing of walking down the street and somebody recognizing you because you’ve been in a movie,” Shepard told the New York Times in 1994. “There’s this illusion that movie stars only exist in the movies. And to see one live is like seeing a leopard let out of the zoo.”