Getting to Know Sam Shepard

Feb 09, 2006

“I don’t want to be a playwright, I want to be a rock and roll star…I got into writing plays because I had nothing else to do. So I started writing to keep from going off the deep end.”
He’s written over 40 plays, produced more than 10 screenplays, won 11 Obie Awards, starred in over 30 major motion pictures, been nominated for an Academy Award, won the Pulitzer Prize Award, played drums for the rock group Holy Modal Rounders, toured with Bob Dylan and worked with The Rolling Stones. He’s Sam Shepard – a man of both highbrow literature and mass-media entertainment, and one of the most unique and important artists of our time.
Shepard’s plays use satire, myth, haunting language and, at times, gut-wrenching drama. He combines mysticism with images of the old west and a fascination with pop culture. Disguised on the surface as entertainment, Shepard’s plays always contain deeper meanings and ironies as they unravel.
Born Samuel Shepard Rogers III, Shepard grew up in small-town California. He had 25 head of sheep and was a registered member of the 4H Club. He planned on becoming a veterinarian and after graduating from high school was accepted into Junior College as an Agricultural Sciences Major.
At the last minute, Shepard changed his mind. He joined a touring acting troupe and ended up in New York City in 1963 – at the height of the arts revolution. Shepard got a job as a busboy at a downtown jazz club where all the waiters, cooks and cleaners were actors, musicians and writers. The headwaiter had just started a theatre company called Theatre Genesis and needed new work. Shepard jumped at the chance, writing his first two one-act plays, Cowboys and Rock Garden.
 The plays were panned by all critics – accept one: Village Voice critic Michael Smith – the earliest and most adamant supporter of Off Off Broadway Theatre. Smith gave the production and specifically Shepard, glowing reviews. After that Shepard was hooked – he wrote day and night, and by the end of the 60s had more than 15 plays produced, and by the end of the 70s won the Pulitzer Prize for his play Buried Child.
“…the mind of a Kafka in the body of a Jimmy Stewart…”
In his personal life, Shepard was married to actress O-Lan Jones for 15 years, with whom he has one son. He currently lives with Academy Award Winner Jessica Lange, with whom he has two children.
Professionally, Shepard has shifted back and forth between writer and movie star. Director Terrence Malick “discovered” Shepard after seeing his brief appearance in Bob Dylan’s movie, Renaldo and Clara. Malick cast him in the Oscar winning, Days of Heaven, and Shepard’s career as a Hollywood star took off. He’s most famous for his role as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, which lead to an Oscar nomination.
Today, Shepard lives a private life with his family on his ranch in Minnesota. Known as ‘The Cowboy of American Theatre’, he was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1994, solidifying his reputation as one of America’s most prolific playwrights.
Written by Nicole Moeller