“Is that a man?” “You damn right it is.” R.I.P. Sam Shepard

Maybe you’d have to be a theatre person to really – and I mean really – “grok” what Sam Shepard meant. It’s one thing to be an audience member, listening to his words, experiencing his plays, Fool for Love, True West, Buried Child (etc.), and it’s another thing entirely to be a part of that world, to have to grapple with his plays by actually PLAYING them, or directing them or – as a playwright – trying desperately to get out from under his awesome shadow in order to find your OWN voice, a voice AS indelible as his. You get to know a playwright on an intimate level when you get up in an acting class or a rehearsal studio and say his lines, be those characters, try to work stuff out, get into his dreamspace. Because it is a dreamspace. He is one of the dreamiest of playwrights. The yowls of pain from theatre people today have a particularly personal sound to it, one I share. It was already a bad morning because of the loss of Jeanne Moreau (not to mention the general state of the world: every morning is a bad morning), but Sam Shepard too? He was one of OURS. We grappled with him, loved him, were intimidated by him, NEEDED to work on his stuff … because if you’re an actor, you need to try Shepard, just like you need to try Chekhov, Shakespeare, and Williams.

I want to share one of my favorite things I’ve read today, from my friend Dan Callahan, actor, writer, theatre folk:

When I lived in the East Village, I would sometimes see Sam Shepard at Cafe Orlin off Second Avenue and St. Mark’s Place. He was always by himself, and always seated under the Brassai photograph of a man and an ecstatic-looking woman in a booth. Shepard was always reading a book, brow furrowed, unsmiling, very solitary, very romantic in the Eugene O’Neill sense of that word. He wrote many major and very funny plays; they’re tragic plays, but there’s usually a laugh every other line, too. When I saw him, I would often say under my breath, “Why Harry York,” which is what his long-time partner Jessica Lange says to him in the last scene of “Frances” (1982). I liked having my eggs and coffee near him because he was clearly not pleased about anything, and I felt like that was an example. He had our number.

There are a couple of famous productions I wish I could go back in time to see. Sam Shepard and Patti Smith in Cowboy Mouth is one of them.

Many have written gorgeous essays about his film career. His presence as an actor. The indelible mark he made whenever he appeared.

But the plays … THE PLAYS …

In that spirit, I want to point you to my pal Isaac Butler’s beautiful essay in Slate, told from a theatre artist’s perspective. The Genius of Sam Shepard Was Relentless, Without a Break

This entry was posted in Actors, RIP, Theatre, writers and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to “Is that a man?” “You damn right it is.” R.I.P. Sam Shepard

  1. Barb says:

    I served him breakfast, back in the late 80’s, when he was involved with a movie called Bright Angel. The production company took over the hotel I worked at as their offices, and most of the cast and crew stayed with us. I had the same experience with Mr. Shepard as your friend. He was always alone, often came in during the off hours of the day, always with a notebook. He didn’t even seem to like having his coffee cup refilled.

    For me he has always been a uniquely Western screen presence. I will never forget his Chick Yeager in The Right Stuff.

    • sheila says:

      I was saying on FB that his Chuck Yeager … it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone else doing that role without self-aggrandizement. Know what I mean? He just WAS that guy. That brave hero who didn’t see himself as heroic – he just did what he had to do, what he could do, with almost no sense that he was different from the rest of us. Just amazing.

      I love your memory of serving him breakfast. I love that it’s basically the same kind of moment.

      I will miss him.

      • Maureen says:

        The Right Stuff is one of my favorite movies, and he was the very best part of that. His laid back, laconic, but powerful persona was so perfect. The hero who also gave kudos to the other guys? Be still my heart.

        Sam Shepard was one of those actors, when he was on screen, you couldn’t take your eyes off him. Baby Boom-a fun movie where he was the love interest? When Diane Keaton fell for him, you had no doubt she was one lucky woman.

        I was so devastated to read of his death, he was one of a kind.

        • sheila says:

          I recently re-watched The Right Stuff and God – I almost can’t even believe it got made AND that it’s as good as it is.

          And his character … forget about it.

          What the movie had to say about the frontier … about guys like Yeager … about the LOSS of that frontier …

          It just gives me goosebumps. I never get sick of it.

          He was so handsome.

  2. SeanG says:

    Thanks for the Sam Shepard post Sheila. One of my favorite books is his Rolling Thunder Logbook about Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue on tour all over New England. Keep Rockin’ Sheila.

  3. Justin says:

    Last year, a mutual friend, Robert Hornak, suggested I share this Sam Shepard-related memory to your own remembrance. I bookmarked the page, then forgot about it. Since it came up exactly one year later, and it contains a mention of Harry Dean Stanton, who also now is no longer with us, I thought of this bookmarked page, and maybe about going back to watch Paris, Texas real soon. It’s been too long:

    “Two stories: First, when I was about 10 my mom and grandma took me with them to a romantic comedy of the time called Baby Boom, starring Diane Keaton as a late 80s career woman who “inherits” a baby from a deceased relative, gives up her lucrative advertising job in New York, and moves to rural Vermont, where she meets a handsome young veterinarian who helps her set up a gourmet baby food business. Silly, innocuous fun. However, at the end of the movie my grandma was in tears, describing as the lights went up how the actor who played the shy, romantic vet was *exactly* like her late husband, my grandfather whom I had never met and whom my mom had no memory of (he died when she was two). Next, twenty years later, my grandmother had been in assisted living and then a nursing home for about 5 years with daily worsening dementia. She hadn’t spoken in several months and no longer even responded to relatives’ visits. My uncle had then recently re-watched a favorite movie of his, 1983’s The Right Stuff, and was particularly struck by how Sam Shepard’s appearance, manner, and performance as Chuck Yeager reminded him of his earliest memories of growing up on US Army bases and watching his dad. He brought along a photo cut out of a film book of Shepard as Yeager — one that particularly reminded my uncle of his father who died when he was 7 — and showed it to Grandma on his next visit. Despite her worsening condition (this was only a few weeks before she died), she apparently also re-recognized a certain uncanny resemblance and said the first word she had in months (and possibly one of the last she ever would say): “Fran”.

    So I guess if I ever wanted to know what my maternal grandfather, who died 27 years before I was born, was like I need look no further than Sam Shepard, who sadly has now passed on himself. But I think it’s probably more than that: I think it’s maybe the passing of a certain strong, silent, Lincolnian masculinity that may in the American past have been embodied — at least in movies — by Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, or Spencer Tracy. Acting wasn’t Shepard’s main thing, but I think of the famous scene set in the porno booth from Paris, Texas — a scene from one of the all-time great movie scripts — and think of Harry Dean Stanton telling the story of his love and hatred for Natassja Kinski with his back to the glass partition as she listens silently on the other end of the phone line. If anyone wanted to know anything about life, love, passion, acting — and, above all, writing — it’s all there in that scene. Like the man who wrote it, he reveals by what he conceals, and Shepard’s uneasy, snaggle-toothed grin apparently had a lot going on behind it.”

  4. KathyB says:

    When he passed we learned that the turnoff to his small horse farm is about four miles down the road from our house. Now when we pass by one of us will often say “Hi,Sam.” We are 18 miles from downtown Lexington, closer to Midway than Frankfort.

    He seemed to enjoy it there. Made friends with some of the Midway people. Would drop in for lunch at one of the restaurants.Nobody caused a fuss. Just let Sam be Sam. He told people that the acting jobs kept the horses fed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.