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Sam Shepard Biography


Home > Actors > S > Shepard, Sam > Biography


Birth Name: Sam Shepard
Born: 11/05/1943
Birth Place: Fort Sheridan, Illinois, USA


Born on Nov. 5, 1943 in Fort Sheridan, IL, Shepard was raised on several military bases by his father, Samuel, an Army officer and former Air Force bomber during World War II, and his mother, Jane, a teacher. The family finally settled in Duarte, CA, where Shepard graduated from high school in 1961. Shepard's father was also an amateur jazz musician who taught his son how to play drums. But the old man was also a voracious drinker, which led to major battles between the two. Though Shepard had started to act and write poetry in high school, he briefly attended Mount Antonio Junior College with his eyes set on becoming a veterinarian. After a year, he left school and moved to New York City, where he roomed with Charles Mingus, Jr., the son of the famed jazz bassist, and embarked on a hedonistic life of booze, drugs and women, but continued to work in the theater. To earn a little bread, he worked as a bus boy at a jazz club that featured such future stars as singer Nina Simone, and comics Woody Allen and Flip Wilson. Initially inclined to become an actor, Shepard joined the Bishop's Company, a traveling repertory theater that toured the boroughs and New England.

Back in New York, Shepard hunkered down and began writing a series of avant-garde one-act plays that were devoid of character motivation and conventional plotting. He eventually found his way through the exploding off-off-Broadway scene to Theatre Genesis, a ragtag group run by the headwaiter at a popular restaurant, Ralph Cook, in an upstairs room at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery. Though they had no money - Shepard resorted to picking up props off the street - they had a double-bill of the playwright's first produced plays, "Cowboys" (1964) and "The Rock Garden" (1964), up and running in a matter of weeks. After the University of Minnesota offered him a grant in 1966, Shepard won OBIE Awards for "Chicago," "Icarus' Mother" and "Red Cross" - an unprecedented feat to win three in the same year. In 1967, Shepard wrote his first full-length play, "La Turista," an allegory on the Vietnam War about two American tourists in Mexico, and was honored again with his fourth OBIE.

Following more OBIEs for "Melodrama Play" (1968) and "Cowboys #2" (1968), Shepard received grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. He put his music skills taught to him by his father to use by playing drums and guitar in the rock band, the Holy Modal Rounders, in which he played for the next few years while continuing to write plays. Also at this time, Shepard made tentative steps toward screenwriting, having his first teleplay, "Fourteen Hundred Thousand" (NET, 1969), broadcast on television. He dipped his toe further in Hollywood's waters when he was one of several screenwriters on Michelangelo Antonioni's interesting, if poorly received road movie, "Zabriskie Point" (1970). In 1971, after a high-profile relationship with singer-poet Patti Smith - despite being married to actress O-Lan Jones Dark - Shepard and his family moved to London, where he spent three years churning out some of his best work, including "The Tooth of the Crime" (1972), which depicted two men representing many facets of the American character - rock stars, gangsters, gunslingers - who duel to the death in an unrelenting project that cut to the heart of violence. The play crossed the Atlantic for a U.S. production in 1973, winning Shepard yet another OBIE.

In 1974, Shepard returned to the United States, where he was set up as the playwright in residence at the Magic Theater in San Francisco, a post he held for the next 10 years. Meanwhile, he joined Bob Dylan's "Rolling Thunder Revue," the singer-songwriter's traveling band of musicians who covered the northern hemisphere in the mid-1970s. Shepard was originally hired to write a movie about the tour, but instead produced a book later on called The Rolling Thunder Logbook. Despite his branching out into other avenues, playwriting remained his stock and trade. During this period, Shepard produced some of his best and most challenging work, including "Angel City" (1976), a satirical look at Hollywood that ironically attracted the attention of Tinseltown. He was brought aboard Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven" (1978) by writer Rudolph Wurlitzer, who knew Shepard from the "Rolling Thunder Revue." In the film, Shepard played a successful, but dying farmer enamored with a young woman (Brooke Adams) who flees to Texas with her boyfriend (Richard Gere) after he kills his boss at the steel mill in Chicago. Despite a tumultuous shoot, thanks to Malick's legendary indecisiveness, "Days of Heaven" helped Shepard raise his profile.

Returning to the theater, Shepard wrote some of his finest work, including several plays that later proved to be his most famous and revered. He produced the first two of a series of plays about families tearing themselves apart, which debuted off-Broadway, unlocking a Pandora's Box of patricide, infanticide, fratricide and incest. With "Curse of the Starving Class" (1978), Shepard launched a darkly comic exploration of the American psyche through a dysfunctional family consisting of a drunken father, a tired mother, a rebellious daughter and an idealistic son. He followed with perhaps his greatest effort, "Buried Child" (1978), a more realistic postmodern examination of a family suffering from disillusionment of the American dream during an economic slowdown that breaks down traditional family values. Though both plays added to Shepard's OBIE collection, "Buried Child" earned the playwright the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979. He also began his collaboration with actor-writer-director Joseph Chaikin of the Open Theater, with both contributing to "Tongues" (1978), a series of minimalist monologues regarding the concept of the voice set to music composed by Shepard with Skip LaPlante and Harry Mann. He further collaborated with Chaikin on "Savage/Love" (1979).

For the next installment of his family tragedy series that he started with "Curse of the Starving Glass," Shepard wrote "True West" (1980) using a more traditional narrative to depict a rivalry between two estranged brothers - one a Hollywood screenwriter; the other an aimless drifter and thief - who encounter each other at their mother's home after years of separation. First performed at the Magic Theater in San Francisco, "True West" was revived on numerous occasions and starred several high-profile actors over the years, including Gary Sinese, John Malkovich, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly. Meanwhile, thanks to his performance in "Days of Heaven," Shepard began landing other roles in features with greater regularity. Tall, lanky and brooding, he parlayed his weathered good looks into movie stardom playing primarily Western characters that represent a dichotomy for the artist. He had a small role in the Hollywood biopic, "Frances" (1982), which introduced him to star and future companion, Jessica Lange, with whom he began a relationship while divorcing his wife, actress O-Lan Jones, in 1984.

Despite being involved in theater for almost two decades at this point, Shepard had shied away from directing anything he wrote. That changed with "Fool for Love" (1983), which depicted a pair of quarreling lovers at a Mojave Desert motel and earned him his 11th overall OBIE award, but his first for Best Direction. Shepard next landed perhaps his most widely recognized film role, playing unflappable pilot Chuck Yeager in the epic drama about the birth of America's space program, "The Right Stuff" (1983). Shepard's restrained and minimalist performance - which mirrored the real life Yeager - was hailed by critics and audiences, including the man he portrayed on film. After starring opposite Lange in the rural drama, "Country" (1984), Shepard scripted Wim Wenders' atmospheric American odyssey "Paris, Texas" (1984), which won the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. He next adapted his own play, "Fool for Love" (1985), for director Robert Altman, in which he also starred as Eddie, a cowboy drifter who re-enters the life of his old waitress lover (Kim Bassinger), rekindling both the passion and heated violence of their shared past.

Shepard made another triumphant return to the stage as writer and director with "A Lie of the Mind" (1986), a gritty three-act play about two families suffering the consequences of severe spousal abuse that was first staged off-Broadway at the Promenade Theater. Once again, the playwright earned several awards and accolades, including a Drama Desk Award and a New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best New Play. As his career progressed, Shepard began exploring other avenues of creative expression with more frequency, which left less time to focus on the theater. While early in his career he had at least one play - if not several - released just about every year, Shepard began writing fewer plays by the late 1980s, although the material he did produce was as challenging and engaging as ever. After producing the lesser-known "A Short Life of Trouble" (1987) and co-starring in the comedy "Baby Boom" (1987) opposite Diane Keaton, Shepard made his feature directorial debut with "Far North" (1988), an elliptical drama he wrote about the return of a citified woman (Jessica Lange) to her dour, repressive rural home in Minnesota, where she reverts to her childhood role of trying to prove herself to her injured father (Charles Durning).

Following a small, but noticeable role in "Steel Magnolias" (1989), Shepard co-starred in the contemporary Western, "Bright Angel" (1991), a desolate road movie about a Montana teenager (Dermot Mulroney) and a transient woman (Lili Taylor) who embark on a journey of self discovery after escaping their separate, but similarly troubled paths. After writing the blackmail drama "Simpatico" (1993) for the stage, Shepard made a return behind the camera for the metaphysical Western-cum-Greek tragedy, "Silent Tongue" (1994), which featured Alan Bates and the late River Phoenix. Following his induction into the Theater Hall of Fame in 1994, Shepard reunited with Chaikin for "When the World Was Green" (1996), a play commissioned for the Olympic Arts Festival in Atlanta and reprised for the Signature Theater Company's 1996-97 season that showcased several of his plays. Though Shepard declared the retrospective a bust, the offerings represented a cross-section of his work from old to new, demonstrating his range as a playwright. He was much more satisfied with a 1996 restaging of "Buried Child" on Broadway, directed by Gary Sinese, which earned a Tony Award nomination. Meanwhile, he published Cruising Paradise: Tales (1997), a collection of 40 short stories that explored the themes of solitude and loss.

As the new millennium approached, Shepard found himself in demand more as an actor, which gave him greater exposure to audiences, but unfortunately also limited his stage output for a spell. On the small screen, he starred as famed noir writer Dashiell Hammett in the made-for-television biopic, "Dash and Lily" (A&E, 1999). He next played a sheriff of an Old West town that actual turns out to be "Purgatory" (TNT, 1999). Following a co-starring role in "Snow Falling on Cedars" (1999) and a big screen adaptation of "Simpatico" (1999), Shepard played the Ghost of Hamlet's father in the contemporary adaptation of "Hamlet" (2000), which he followed with a supporting turn in "All the Pretty Horses" (2000). Back on the stage, he wrote "The Late Henry Moss" (2001), a minor work that covered the old ground of brothers struggling through a volatile relationship, which debuted at the Magic Theater. Continuing to act more than write, Shepard was seen in numerous onscreen projects, including "Black Hawk Down" (2001), "Swordfish" (2001) and "The Pledge" (2001).

As time wore on and the world became more darkly complex, Shepard's writing started becoming more political as a reflection of the times. With "The God of Hell" (2004), the playwright sought to tackle what he deemed "Republican fascism" by depicting a peaceful Wisconsin dairy farmer and his wife whose lives are destroyed by an overzealous and patriotic government employee. On the big screen, he co-starred in the psychological thriller "Blind Horizon" (2004), playing a busy small-town sheriff in New Mexico who is warned by a mysterious man (Val Kilmer) without any memory that the president will be assassinated. Following a small role in "The Notebook" (2004), Shepard teamed up with Wim Wenders again, writing the script for "Don't Come Knocking" (2005), the director's dark drama about a man (Shepard) trying to turn over a new leaf. He next played the commander of a top secret Navy squadron in "Stealth" (2005), followed by a supporting role in the Mexican Western "Bandidas" (2006). After narrating the endearing "Charlotte's Web" (2006), Shepard earned a SAG nomination for his performance in "Ruffian" (ABC, 2007). He played Frank James in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (2007), subsequently unveiled the play "Kicking a Dead Horse" (2007), starring Stephen Rea, and later appeared in Jim Sheridan's war-vet drama "Brothers" (2009).

In 2010, Shepard separated from Lange after decades together, though the two managed to keep the split under wraps for a while. After a small part in the tense, real-life-based drama "Fair Game" (2010), he made the unlikely move of taking on a lead role for "Blackthorn" (2011), a Western where he played an aged Butch Cassidy who must confront his outlaw past. Before long, Shepard turned up in numerous high-profile films, with a brief appearance in the crime movie "Killing Them Softly" (2012), featuring Brad Pitt, and a small role in the thriller "Safe House" (2012). Following a notable supporting part in the Southern Gothic tale "Mud" (2012), where he played a reluctant father figure to Matthew McConaughey's trouble-prone title character, he portrayed another flawed patriarchal role in the film adaptation of Tracy Letts's acclaimed play "August: Osage County" (2013), which found him acting opposite no less than Meryl Streep.