Sam Shepard (Samuel Shepard Rogers VII; born 1943) began his career as a playwright in the livelyoff-off-Broadway scene of the 1960s and became one of the United States' most prolific and acclaimed dramatists. He was also a rock music performer and a film actor.
Samuel Shepard Rogers VII was born on November 5, 1943, at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, the son of a career Army man whose assignments took him to many locations, including Guam, while his son was growing up. After his father retired from the service, the family settled on a ranch in Duarte, California, where they grew avocados and raised sheep.
Shepard (there is some debate as to when he dropped the Rogers from his name) worked as a stable hand at the Conley Arabian Horse Ranch in Chino, California, from 1958 to 1960. Upon graduation from high school he attended Mount Antonio Junior College for a year, majoring in agriculture with some thought of becoming a veterinarian.
When he left college, he joined the Bishop's Company Repertory Players, a touring theater group with which he spent 1962 and 1963. He went to New York in 1963, where he got a job as a busboy at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village, hung out with the son of the famous jazz musician Charles Mingus, and, encouraged by Ralph Cook, the founder of Theater Genesis, began to write plays.
In the 1960s the New York theater scene consisted of three levels. There was Broadway, the center of commercial theater; off-Broadway, which presented some new works as well as revivals of classics not economically viable on Broadway, such as those by Ibsen and Strindberg; and offoff-Broadway (OOB), devoted to experimental works and often housed in bars or lofts in Greenwich Village and on Manhattan's Lower East Side, with little or no admission charged. The most celebrated OOB groups, in addition to Theater Genesis, were the Caffe Cino, La Mama Experimental Theater Company, the Open Theater, and the Judson Poets' Theater.
Shepard debuted at Theater Genesis on October 16, 1964, with the double bill Cowboys and Rock Garden. In 1965 he presented Up to Thursday and 4-H Clubat Theater 65, Dog and Rocking Chairat La Mama, Chicagoat Genesis, and Icarus's Mother at the Cino.
In 1966 he received the first of several grants, this one from the University of Minnesota, and presented Fourteen Hundred Thousand at the Firehouse Theater in Minneapolis; that same year Red Cross was given at the Judson.
The Village Voice was the chief organ of the counter-culture in the 1960s and specialized in covering both off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway. From the start of Shepard's career, Voice critic Michael Smith had been an enthusiastic fan, writing that there was something so free and direct about those plays. They seemed to catch the actual movement of the minds of people I know. It was something I had never seen before." The Voice annually presented awards called Obies for work in the theater and Shepard was given an unprecedented trio of them in 1966 for Chicago, Icarus's Mother, and Red Cross.
The Voice's support was vital to the young playwright's career, because the mainstream critics, those from the major newspapers, ranged from lukewarm to hostile. Jerry Tallmer, the New York Post's eye on OB and OOB, could summon no enthusiasm, while Clive Barnes of the New York Times (later a supporter) called Shepard's early plays disposable … like Kleenex." Indeed, years later, in his introduction to The Unseen Hand and Other Plays (1986), Shepard himself wrote, Basically, without apologizing, I can see that I was learning to write," and confessed, some of that work is slightly embarrassing to me now."
In 1967 Shepard wrote La Turista, his first full-length play, which won a 1967 Obie; Melodrama Play, an Obie winner the following year; Cowboys #2, which premiered in Los Angeles; and Forensic and the Navigators, which also won a 1968 Obie. He also received two more grants, one from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1967 and one from the Guggenheim Foundation in 1968.
In 1968 Shepard began a three-year stint with the Holy Modal Rounders, a rock group, playing drums and guitar. Interestingly, in an interview conducted in 1971, he stated that he would rather be a rock star than a playwright, yet he did not abandon writing while he was playing, completing Holy Ghostly and The Unseen Hand in 1969, Operation Sidewinder and Shaved Splits in 1970, and Mad Dog Blues and Back Bog Beast Baitin 1971. He was awarded a second Guggenheim in 1971.
Leaving the Holy Modal Rounders, Shepard went to England, and his next five plays were premiered there: Cowboy Mouth (written with Patti Smith), The Tooth of Crime, Blue Bitch (presented on BBC television), Geography of a Horse Dreamer, and Little Ocean. When The Tooth of Crime, widely acclaimed in England, was presented in the United States, it won an Obie in 1973. That same year saw the publication of his first book of essays and poems, Hawk Moon. Two other similar collections followed in 1977 and 1982.
Back in the United States, Shepard became the playwright in residence at the Magic Theater in San Francisco, a position he held from 1974 to 1984. His plays Killer's Head and Action opened in New York in 1975, the latter winning an Obie that year. The year 1976 saw Suicide in Band Angel City; 1977, Inacoma, and 1978, The Sad Lament of Pecos Bill on the Eve of Killing His Wife and The Curse of the Starving Class, a critical success.
It was also in 1978 that Shepard began his career as a film actor, appearing in Renaldo and Clara and Days of Heaven. He also started his collaboration with Joseph Chaikin on the theater piece Tongues; this was a stage work, with music, heavily dependent on the theories of Antonin Artaud. Shepard and Chaikin collaborated on two more pieces, Savage/Love in 1979 and War in Heaven, presented on WBAI radio in 1985.
In 1979 Shepard achieved his warmest critical reception with Buried Child, which won both an Obie and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Writing in the Washington Post, critic David Richards said, Shepard delivers a requiem for America, land of the surreal and home of the crazed…the amber waves of grain mask a dark secret. The fruited plain is rotting and the purple mountain's majesty is like a bad bruise on the landscape."
Shepard continued to write plays, including Seduced in 1979; True West, which had a run of over 600 performances in New York in 1980-81; Fool for Love, which won him his 11th Obie in 1984; and A Lie of the Mind, which garnered the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1986. In 1987 the one-act True Dylan, was published in Esquire magazine.
At the same time, however, he was expanding his work in film, not only writing screenplays but taking on more acting roles. He appeared in Resurrection in 1980, Raggedy Man in 1981, Frances in 1982, The Right Stuff in 1983, Country in 1984, and Fool for Love in 1985. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of jet pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. He had worked on several screenplays, including Me and My Brother and Zabriskie Point, but achieved his greatest success in this genre with Paris, Texas, which was given a Golden Palm Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1984. He also wrote the script for Fool for Love in 1985.
Shepard continued to demonstrate his rich multi-dimensional talents during the 1990s. States of Shock was produced in 1991 and Curse of the Starving Class in 1997. The Signature Theater, in New York City devoted a whole season (1996-97) to plays by Shepard. He was awarded the American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for Drama in 1992.
Writing in the New Republic, Robert Brustein called Shepard one of our most celebrated writers," adding that his plays have overturned theatrical conventions and created a new kind of drama." And, in his introduction to Sam Shepard: Seven Plays, Richard Gilman writes, Not many critics would dispute the proposition that Sam Shepard is our most interesting and exciting playwright."
Further Reading on Sam Shepard
Books on Shepard abound, although many of them have a shrill, cheerleading tone. Probably the best is Ellen Oumano's Sam Shepard: The Life and Work of an American Dreamer (1986). Also worthwhile are Kimball King's Sam Shepard: A Casebook (1988) and Ron Mottram's Inner Landscapes: The Theatre of Sam Shepard (1984). Newer works on Shepard include: Leonard Shewey, editor, Rereading Shepard: Contemporary Critical Essays on the Plays of Sam Shepard, (1993); Don Shewey, Sam Shepard (1997); and Leslie Wade, Sam Shepard and the American Theater (1997). In addition, John Blackburn wrote a Master's Thesis Portrait of the Artist: Sam Shepard and the Anxiety of Identity (University of Virginia, 1996).