Sam Shepard and the Death of American Maleness

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Shepard in New York City in 1988.Ron Galella / Getty Images

Sam Shepard, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor, died on July 27 of complications of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, it was reported Monday. He was 73.

It only takes a glance to see that he packed several lifetimes into one, all of them cloaked in the mystery that comes with tight-lippedness and a penchant in his stories for mixing fiction with autobiographical detail (or the other way around). He liked the road. He knew the highways of the West as well as a long-haul trucker, and his stop-off points were no less obscure. If he wanted an experience, it appears he went and got it. The weird America was in his blood.

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At 19, he left his family’s avocado farm in Southern California for New York, thinking he might become a musician, and he did a stint as a port security guard before writing his surreal early plays. (In the late ’60s, he briefly played drums for bizarro-folk outfit the Holy Modal Rounders; later, he would tour with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue and collaborate on the lyrics to Dylan’s “Brownsville Girl.”) He won the Pulitzer for Buried Child in 1979, although True West (1980), the story of two warily reunited brothers, may be his most iconic play. Actors like Ed Harris and Fred Ward ate up his roles. Shepard himself got into acting in his mid 30s. He appeared in some 65 movies and TV shows since 1978, including his Oscar-nominated role as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff and, recently, Bloodline, as patriarch Robert Rayburn.

Jessica Lange, who had been his partner for 27 years, once said of him, to Vanity Fair: “He’s a great man, a natural man, which is rare. I’ve been with a lot of men and I’ve known a lot of men. And you know I’ve had romances with what you’d call famous men, and none compare to Sam in terms of maleness.”

That maleness — a specific kind of American maleness — showed up in his more than 50 plays and four story collections. Shepard’s characters are ghosts made flesh, cowboys out of time. Restless, they move through towns whose names seem to tell stories of their own: Winnemucca, Nevada; Papantla, Mexico. His portraits of maleness are ugly and true. He got at a sad secret of living that we don’t talk about, that everywhere you go there are thwarted lives, and were all just one wrong step away from joining the ranks. It would be too easy to call these battered souls man-children: Over time, they were simply shaped by the loss of hope, resurfaced later as bad-luck schemes and alcohol abuse.

His last book, and only novel, was published in February. The One Inside is about an old actor living in a motel room, estranged from his wife, sifting through his memories and half-wondering what was real. The closest he comes to bedrock is in his “sense of being ‘apart’ as a way of life,” a role he knows well. “I had this in me,” Shepard writes. “There was no need for preparation. My whole life was a preamble.”

In spirit, the greatest American playwright of the last half-century certainly lived apart. He could have been famous, but his particular talent and his own sense of self wouldn’t allow it. Fame didn’t cut any ice down at the docks, or in that hard American landscape he knew so well. He made of it a rough beauty, funny as a busted nose when it’s some other guy’s. He may have given the title Cruising Paradise to a story collection with something of a wink. But all told, it now seems he meant it. 

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