LOS ANGELES — No one really got to know Sam Shepard — and that was the way he seemed to like it. Despite dozens of blatantly personal plays to his name, movie stardom and the spotlight of celebrity and acclaim, Shepard remained throughout his life an inscrutable figure, an American myth in plain sight.
Tortured, private and transient in both life and career, Shepard, who died Thursday at age 73, was in some ways the quintessential American: Full of restlessness, contradictions, and mysteries — and as handsome as they come.
He wrote and lived like life was its own jazz composition — skipping from a post-war California avocado ranch to the experimental East Village theater scene of the 1960s, then to London and Hollywood and back again. He wrote a play with Patti Smith and a song with Bob Dylan, and was the drummer for the “amphetamine rock band” The Holy Modal Rounders. His screenplays include Wim Wenders’ western wander poem “Paris, Texas” and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Death Valley shocker “Zabriskie Point.” He also fathered three children, had a passionate 30-year relationship with movie star Jessica Lange, picked up a Pulitzer Prize for playwriting and an Academy Award nomination for acting along the way — and those are just a few of the highlights.
Shepard once said he did his best writing on the road — literally — one hand on the steering wheel and one holding the pen. He advised that this is best done on a wide open highway, and not in Manhattan.
Born Samuel Shepard Rogers VII in Fort Sheridan, Illinois, in 1943, Shepard was both ardently of his time, innovating new methods of storytelling to impact an anxious era, and also evocative of decades past — forever haunted by the men of his father’s generation of World War II vets who he described as “devastated in some basic way.” As a kid, he went by Steve Rogers, and claimed that he was unaware until much later that it was also Captain America’s civilian name.
Shepard spent his teen years generally apathetic toward school and looking for a way out of the banality of the post-war suburb. In his short stint in college in Walnut, California, he was exposed to the absurdist stylings of Samuel Beckett and decided to leave.
He had a difficult relationship with his father, who he called “a dedicated alcoholic” with a “real short fuse.” Although wary of picking at his own traumas, Shepard explored this and other themes in his “Family Trilogy” of plays including “Curse of the Starving Class,” ”Buried Child” and “True West.”
Shepard saw the absurdities in his own life too. In April 1979, Shepard was informed that he’d won the Pulitzer Prize for “Buried Child” on the same day it closed. Whether humble or a restless perfectionist, Shepard throughout his life would downplay his own accolades. Of “Buried Child,” Shepard said there were a number of lines he thought were “toe-scrunchers.”
Although well-versed in Beckett, Eugene O’Neill and Edward Albee, Shepard spoke of his career as a playwright as though it were an accident.
“I don’t know how I began writing plays,” Shepard said in the documentary “Shepard & Dark.” ”I certainly didn’t decide to, I just found myself writing plays.”
And he cringed at the thought of performing on stage in front of a live audience, which made his transition into film and being a public figure even more curious.
Sam Shepard as movie star and celebrity was perhaps the designation that embarrassed him most.
He made his film debut in Terrence Malick’s 1978 dreamy period piece “Days of Heaven,” as a wealthy, isolated farmer and romantic foe to Richard Gere. Although he had minimal dialogue, Pauline Kael wrote in The New Yorker that Shepard, “Makes a strong impression.”
He’d go on to embody classic masculinity as Chuck Yeager in “The Right Stuff,” for which he’d score an Oscar nomination, and charm Lange in the Frances Farmer biopic “Frances” and then Diane Keaton in “Baby Boom.”
Aside from his acting, his ideas left an indelible mark on cinema: He dreamt up “Paris, Texas” with Wim Wenders and L.M. Kit Carson.
It was almost ironic that later in life, Shepard occasionally found himself playing men like those in his father’s generation. He was memorable as the general in “Black Hawk Down,” the outlaw older brother of Jesse James in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” a hot-headed patriarch in the Netflix series “Bloodline,” and even as Ryan Gosling’s country father in “The Notebook.”
Shepard was that perfect bundle of contradictions that only an artist could ever justify: Someone who craved privacy and outwardly resented the opposite and yet acted in movies and revealed his rawest truths on the pages of his plays.
Or perhaps he wasn’t so oblique after all — just too complicated for the Hollywood celebrity machine.
“Here is a man who could see right through you, who would smell bullshit from a mile,” Wenders once said. “He’d rather hurt you than be dishonest. There is no front. He is just all true. With a dissecting sense of humor.”
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr