Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Sam Shepard (1943-2017)

My first knowledge of Sam Shepard came while watching Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” (1983), in which he portrayed Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier and then some. Yeager was a hero of my father’s, who was a Marine Corps. fighter pilot during the Vietnam War. Despite the fact that the film was about much more than Yeager’s accomplishments and another American hero and fellow Marine, John Glenn, was also depicted, the movie was all Yeager for my father and I. As such, he became a hero of mine and in many ways so did the actor who portrayed him, who did so in such a cool, matter-of-fact manner that he may well have also informed the actor I would eventually come to be.
I really knew little else of Shepard upon entering my acting training at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY. Within days of meeting people who would become my peers for the next four years of my life, the name Sam Shepard kept coming up around me. Apparently, I looked like and even exhibited mannerisms of a playwright and actor named Sam Shepard. I’m not even sure if I realized it was the same actor who portrayed Yeager at that point, although since my obsession with films was already underway, I probably did. But I had to pretend that I already knew that he was also a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. As such, he probably also influenced me to become a writer as well.
Words like “stoic” were being used about him in reference to me. An accomplished upperclassman looked at me and said, “You’re so fucking aloof.” But there was no derision in his words. It was a compliment of uniqueness, which most certainly could’ve been said about Shepard in his professional life. His early career was ensconced in the New York music and theater scene, quietly hanging in the background and co-writing songs with the likes of Bob Dylan and John Cale, even playing drums for the group Holy Modal Rounders, who once opened for the progressive rock group Pink Floyd.
I heard the comparisons, but I couldn’t really see Shepard in myself, looks or otherwise, until mere weeks into my student tenure when I found myself in one of the top floors of the Hofstra library high-rise immersed in Shepard’s pen. I read them all in a way I had never consumed plays before. “Buried Child”, “A Lie of the Mind,” and “True West” became not just potential productions, but something that connected with me on a more visceral level. The way Shepard lived and spoke in his matter-of-fact, almost classical western way, but explored the extremes of drug culture and somewhat psychedelic themes in his plays and his life was very much where I found myself at that time. That Christmas I asked for every Shepard collection and tome I knew of. His memoir “Motel Chronicles” could’ve been an alternate life of mine, at least in an oddly messed up romantic sense.
I still didn’t see the look that everyone else was seeing though, until I found a picture of him at 16 wearing a trench coat that looked eerily similar to a Canadian Air Force trench I wore during my last couple of years of high school. It was like seeing yourself in a picture that was taken years before your birth. We were definitely doppelgängers as young adults. I’m not sure I’ve aged as gracefully as he did. I certainly don’t have his hair.
I was lucky enough to weasel my way into the lead of a student production of “Fool For Love” at too young an age due to some unfortunate back problems of an upperclassman. Sorry, Jason, but in so many ways it seemed meant to be. I think I was able to channel Shepard pretty well if not fully understanding the maturity of his themes. I was never threatening enough in the role, but damn, I did look like him. I also played Doc in two different productions of “Crimes of the Heart”, the same part played by Shepard in the 1986 film.
Later, another actor I knew from Hofstra was lucky enough to meet Shepard at a NYC coffee shop. Shepard forgave him the rights to a production of “True West” he had directed when my colleague confessed that he had yet to pay for them. He informed me of the location of the coffee shop where Shepard was a regular. I took the cue to meet the man myself in what might’ve been the ultimate meeting of stoics. I told him it was an honor to meet him and he said, “Likewise,” which I don’t imagine it really was for him, and that was about all that was said. I like that it went down like that, though.
After college, the comparisons disappeared, but my connection to his work remained. I sought out the films of his I’d missed, like Terrence Malik’s “Days of Heaven” (1978) and “Paris, Texas” (1984), for which he wrote the screenplay. I even revisited film’s I hadn’t really thought of as his work, like “Baby Boom” (1987). Any time he showed up in a new movie, I was eager to see it—great films like “Black Hawk Down” (2001) and “Mud” (2012), and even terrible ones, like “Stealth” (2005). I ate up his own directorial efforts, “Far North” (1988) and “Silent Tongue” (1993), and more recent screenplays, such as Wim Wenders’ “Don’t Come Knocking” (2005). I loved seeing him in the first season of Netflix’s “Bloodline” (2015-2017). Probably more so than his performances, I enjoyed seeing him be himself in the documentaries “Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction” and his nastier side in “Shepard & Dark”, both from 2012.

--> It seems we’re losing those psychedelic cowboys that refashioned the American western mythology into something much more complicated than a John Wayne film. First Dennis Hopper, now Shepard. Clint Eastwood, Kris Kristofferson, Stanton and Dylan are still with us, but when they go, there will be a huge hole left in the folklore of American entertainment. I feel like a part of me has died with this celebrity death, and it isn’t just because I looked like him a long time ago.

1 comment:

Sus'jolkottelee said...

Rip, light grounds to him..