This past summer, America lost one of its greatest artists: Sam Shepard. Most moviegoers know Shepard for his portrayal of Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff or Gen. Bill Garrison in Black Hawk Down. We’ll get to those roles and movies soon enough. Let’s spend a moment on the rest of Shepard’s remarkable career.
A pretty strong argument could be made that Shepard ranks with Tennessee Williams as one of the two most important post-World War II playwrights in American theater. In fact, let me make that argument right now. Williams’ deserved reputation rests on three plays: A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Certainly Williams has other significant plays, but these three are the ones that will be produced over and over as the decades and centuries pass.
Similarly, Shepard has three major plays that are remarkable in their richness, poetic language, and dramatic power: Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child, and True West. If you ever have the chance to see any of these performed, do not miss them. Then, there’s all the other things Shepard did. He collaborated with Patti Smith in 1975 to produce play Cowboy Mouth; his early science fiction play Unseen Hand influenced The Rocky Horror Picture Show; he won six Obie awards for his plays; toured with Bob Dylan, was a rock ‘n roll drummer for awhile, and studied animal husbandry.
But for now, let’s focus on his film work. Shepard acted in 56 movies. Yes, 56 movies! Here are my five favorites.
One of Shepard’s first leading roles, he played The Farmer, a moody and melancholy man who runs an immense wheat farm in 1916 Oklahoma. The Farmer falls in love with a runaway young woman, Abby (Brooke Adams) who marries him despite being involved with Bill (Richard Gere), a laborer on the run after committing a murder in Chicago. I know what you’re thinking: Brooke Adams got to play love scenes with Sam Shepard AND Richard Gere in the same movie?! I believe that’s the definition of unfair. This is a strikingly beautiful film, directed by Terrence Malick with breathtaking cinematography by Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler.
Based on Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction page-turner of the same name, Shepard is just great as laconic—and iconic—Col. Chuck Yeager, the Air Force test pilot who paved the way for the US space program with his daring feats testing new planes for the Air Force. Shepard was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, ironically losing out to Jack Nicholson, who played a retired astronaut in Terms of Endearment that year.
This movie is a taut crime mystery in which a young FBI agent (Val Kilmer) shows up on a reservation in South Dakota, investigating a murder there. Things just keep getting more and more menacing. Shepard plays Kilmer’s experienced partner in investigating the crime, who is a bit jaded by the experience. It’s a marvelously understated bad guy performance by Shepard. This movie also has one of my favorite lines ever. Kilmer’s character goes to see an old Lakota man who lives alone in a trailer and is some kind of spiritual leader. The old man doesn’t speak English, and is watching cartoons on TV when Kilmer and the local reservation police chief, Walter Crow Horse (Graham Greene) arrive to interview him. The old man says something in Lakota to the two, and Kilmer asks for a translation. Pointing at the TV, Crow Horse says: “He says Mr. Magoo is not to be trusted.” I burst out laughing when I saw that in the theater. Unfortunately, no one else laughed and I got shushed. I am giggling just thinking about that line. Perhaps I’m a little cuckoo, but that line just completely amuses me.
In 1983, the US sent troops to Somalia to help relieve mass starvation in civil war-torn Somalia. It sure seemed like a good idea at the time, but the adventure became yet another illustration of the limits of American power. Based on a 29-part series of articles by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden, this Ridley Scott war picture is a pulse-pounding tale of a raid in which everything went wrong. Shepard is Major General William F. Garrison, a legendary veteran of the Vietnam War. Shepard portrays Garrison as tense, impatient and hard bitten. Shepard has a commanding presence on the screen in this role.
Shepard has a small role in this revisionist version of the Jesse James story, but he still shines. Playing Frank James, the older brother of Jesse (Brad Pitt), Shepard’s character is aging, worn-out and not buying the hype of the James Gang. Casey Affleck is the groupie, Robert Ford, and he’s just perfect as a sleazy fan boy/criminal.
Shepard died of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a terrible and painfully fatal disease. His final performances were in the series Bloodline. He was just 73, and he was the kind of artist who makes me proud to be an American: gritty, honest, poetic, and true.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.