News & Comment » Nation & World

Sam Shepard, Pulitzer-Winning Playwright and Actor, Is Dead at 73

by

Sam Shepard on a day of rehearsal for his play "Buried Child," which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979, at a studio in New York, Jan. 22, 2016. Shepard, the celebrated avant-garde playwright and Oscar-nominated actor, died in his Kentucky home on July 27, 2017, of complications from Lou Gehrig's disease, a family spokesman confirmed. He was 73. - CHAD BATKA/THE NEW YORK TIMES
  • Chad Batka/The New York Times
  • Sam Shepard on a day of rehearsal for his play "Buried Child," which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979, at a studio in New York, Jan. 22, 2016. Shepard, the celebrated avant-garde playwright and Oscar-nominated actor, died in his Kentucky home on July 27, 2017, of complications from Lou Gehrig's disease, a family spokesman confirmed. He was 73.

By BEN BRANTLEY
© 2017 New York Times News Service

Sam Shepard, whose hallucinatory plays redefined the landscape of the American West and its inhabitants, died Thursday at his home in Kentucky of complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a spokesman for the Shepard family announced Monday. He was 73.

Possessed of a stoically handsome face and a rangy frame, Shepard became a familiar presence as an actor in films that included “Days of Heaven” (1978), “The Right Stuff” (1983) and “Baby Boom” (1987). He bore a passing resemblance to that laconic idol of Hollywood’s golden era, Gary Cooper, and in an earlier age, Shepard could have made a career as a leading man of Westerns.

A reluctant movie star who was always suspicious of celebrity’s luster, he was more at home as one of the theater’s most original and prolific portraitists of what was once the American frontier. In plays like “True West” (1980), “Fool for Love” (1983) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Buried Child” (1978), he dismantled the classic iconography of cowboys and homesteaders, of American dreams and white picket fences, and reworked the landscape of deserts and farmlands into his own shimmering expanse of surreal estate.

In Shepard’s plays, the only undeniable truth is that of the mirage. From early pieces like “Chicago” (1965), written when Shepard was in his early 20s and staged in the margins of off-off-Broadway, to late works like “Heartless” (2012), he presented a world in which nothing is fixed.

That includes any comforting notions of family, home, material success and even individual identity. “To me, a strong sense of self isn’t believing in a lot,” Shepard said in a 1994 interview with The New York Times. “Some people might define it that way, saying, ‘He has a very strong sense of himself.’ But it’s a complete lie.”

That feeling of uncertainty was translated into dialogue of an uncommon lyricism and some of the strangest, strongest images in American theater. A young man in “Buried Child,” a bruising tale of a Midwestern homecoming, describes looking into the rearview mirror as he is driving and seeing his face morph successively into those of his ancestors.

As an actor he was Oscar-nominated for playing the aspiring astronaut Chuck Yeager in “The Right Stuff” and most recently portrayed the patriarch of a troubled Florida family in the Netflix series “Bloodline.”

Shepard is survived by his children — Jesse, Hannah and Walker Shepard — and his sisters, Sandy and Roxanne Rogers.