Although he brought a laconic cowboy style to his screen roles, Sam Shepard wore a number of different hats: Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Oscar-nominated actor, screenwriter and director.
Shepard, who died last week at 73, most recently co-starred in “Bloodline,” a Netflix series in which he played the father of Kyle Chandler – an especially good bit of casting, given that the two embody many of the same qualities.
A taciturn, Marlboro Man-type demeanor defined Shepard as an actor, including what’s likely his most iconic performance as test pilot Chuck Yeager in “The Right Stuff,” the 1983 movie that earned him an Academy Award nomination. The shot of Shepard as a bloodied Yeager, walking away from a crash, remains perhaps the film’s most indelible image.
“Is that a man?” a medic asks as they spot a silhouette driving toward the scene, to which his superior replies, “You’re damn right it is.”
Shepard’s writing – which explored dark issues surrounding American family life, in plays like “Buried Child” (his Pulitzer winner) and “True West” – didn’t completely mesh with the persona he projected on screen. After a splashy start in director Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven,” his good looks frequently cast him as a romantic interest for leading actresses, including Julia Roberts in “The Pelican Brief” and Jessica Lange in the 1982 movie “Frances,” which kicked off a long romance between them.
A number of Shepard’s plays were adapted either as movies or for television, and he even tried his hand at directing with “Far North,” which starred Lange; and “Silent Tongue,” a grim 1993 western.
Still, Shepard seemed to draw a fairly stark line between his prolific output for the theater and his equally busy calendar as an actor. Asked if he was good on stage in a New York Times interview last year, Shepard said, “Not as good as I am in the movies. You don’t have to do anything in the movies. You just sit there. Well, that’s not entirely true. You do less. I find the whole situation of confronting an audience terrifying.”
In truth, Shepard confronted audiences through different media over a career that spanned 50 years. And if the process wasn’t always easy for him, in terms of managing to make it look that way, you’re damn right he did.