It’s the birthday of American playwright and actor Sam Shepard (books by this author), born in Fort Sheridan, Illinois (1943), and best known for plays that probe the lives of people on the outskirts of American society, like Curse of the Starving Class (1976), Buried Child (1978), and True West (1980). He also appeared in more than 40 films as an actor, most famously in The Right Stuff (1983), in which he portrayed Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to break the speed of sound. Shepard had an intense fear of flying, but agreed to let Yeager take him up in a jet for research. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role.
Shepard’s father was an Air Force pilot and a Spanish teacher and the family moved a lot. He grew up in various towns in New Mexico and in California, where he graduated high school. He briefly thought of becoming a veterinarian, but after working on thoroughbred ranches throughout California, he moved to New York City to try his hand at being a drummer in a band called The Holy Modal Rounders.
His first job in New York City was working for a detective agency guarding coal barges on the East River. He didn’t have much to do, but he got to sit by himself in a little outbuilding, with an electric heater and a desk, so he read a lot of Eugene O’Neill and Samuel Beckett and began writing. He also worked as a busboy at The Village Gate, a famous jazz club on Bleecker Street, and the club’s headwaiter introduced him to the off-off Broadway theater scene, made up of tiny theaters of fewer than a 100 seats. It didn’t take long to get his first plays produced. Shepard said: “Things just took off. New York was like that in the ’60s. You could write a one-act play and start doing it the next day. Nothing like that exists now.”
About his early plays, which tended to be short and brutal, he said: “I didn’t really know how to structure a play. I could write dialogue, but I just sort of failed beyond that, and kind of went where I wanted to go.”
Shepard wrote over 40 plays and won the Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child (1979). His characters are often rootless and questioning. In the play True West, one characters says to another: “You can’t believe people when they look you in the eyes. You gotta look behind them. See what they’re standing in front of. What they’re hiding. Everyone’s hiding, Wes. Everybody. Nobody look like what they are.”
When Shepard lived in Minnesota with his fiancé, actress Jessica Lange, he wrote in a barn on a typewriter. The barn had a piano, old drawings on the wall, and lots of books. He began writing his play Simpatico (1994) in a truck on the way to Los Angeles, scribbling on paper against the steering wheel. He wrote 25 pages that way over 500 miles.
On writing, he said: “I hate endings. Just detest them. Beginnings are definitely the most exciting, middles are perplexing and endings are a disaster. The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap. Why not be more honest with the moment? The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning. That’s genius.”
And: “I’ve heard writers talk about ‘discovering a voice,’ but to me, it wasn’t a problem. There were so many voices that I didn’t know where to start. It was splendid, really, like I was a weird stenographer.”