Sam Shepard

He's become a legend over the last three decades, but the elusive cowboy of American theater is not going soft on us -- for damn sure.

Published January 2, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

Sam Shepard is wearing black slacks, a black mock-turtleneck sweater and a glossy black leather jacket. The legendary cowboy of American theater looks dressed up. Like he's heading down to the chapel on Main Street. In fact, what he's doing is looking nice for the theater donors milling about this San Francisco party, located in a chic restaurant on an industrial slice of the bay.

Outdoors on the patio, under an unusually clear night sky, Shepard stands by a heater that glows like a street lamp and chats with a covey of Armani-clad socialites. It's a stunning sight, really. For not only has Shepard steered clear of the public since gaining renown as the second coming of Gary Cooper in "The Right Stuff," he has made the pitfalls of fame a critical theme in many of his four dozen plays. After his "Buried Child" won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1979, he said he "got a greater feeling of accomplishment and pride of achievement" from winning a roping contest in a rodeo.

After three decades in the theater business, though, the 57-year-old playwright knows firsthand that private donations are what keep regional stage doors open. He knows a little celebrity glad-handing seems to loosen the purse strings of the well-to-do, especially the new media-doused generation of the young and the rich here in Yahooland.

Besides, he holds a genuine affection for San Francisco's Magic Theatre, which produced his new play, "The Late Henry Moss," and where he worked as playwright-in-residence in the late '70s, when he wrote his famous "family" plays: "Curse of the Starving Class," "Buried Child" and "True West." But even if this party is making him think he would rather be home on his Minnesota horse ranch with his partner Jessica Lange, their teenage daughter, Hannah, and son, Walker, he has plenty of celebrity support

As promised, the dream cast of "The Late Henry Moss" is here, too: Sean Penn is play-wrestling with his kids near a banquet table; Woody Harrelson is chatting up a female journalist as he lifts a beer off a waiter's tray; and Nick Nolte, decked out in a knee-length seersucker coat and ratty Panama hat, looking like he just washed out of a Thomas McGuane novel, is holding court with a story about, if my eavesdropping is accurate, the thrills of cross-dressing.

As the party swells with San Francisco's requisite band of stars -- Robin Williams, Don Johnson, Bob Weir -- it grows positively giddy with that strange celebrity vortex that sucks people toward the famous but stops us short of actually talking to them. As fans, our greatest fantasy about celebrities is that they would really dig us as friends if they could get to know us in casual conversation in some cedar Montana bar. But rather than risk discovering that Sean Penn or Sam Shepard doesn't care one way or the other whether we too love Cormac McCarthy and John Ford, we don't dare breach their personal spaces -- their auras, really. It would be too humiliating. It's safer to leave them framed in fantasy. And in most cases, rather than deal with the predictable anxieties of their audiences, celebrities prefer to circle in their own orbit.

Again and again, Shepard has written brilliantly about being trapped by the images others have given him, that he has given himself. "Keep away from fantasy. Shake off the image," lectures the gangster rock star Crow in "The Tooth of Crime." The inability to connect with others through the skeins of our illusions is a driving theme of Shepard's passionate, violent work.

But -- outside of his plays, anyway -- he has done little complaining or explaining about his image. Which is one reason why he remains such a magnetic presence in person. It's sentimental, a little hagiographic, probably, to call artists mysterious. But as Shepard drifts through this party, it's precisely his elusiveness that makes it so hard to take your eyes off him.

My curiosity finally gets the best of me and I walk over to Shepard to ask how he's holding up as the evening star. Besides, I have a special passport to cross the fan-celebrity threshold: A week before, I had interviewed Shepard on the telephone, so I have a painless excuse to introduce myself.

"Oh, pleased to meet you," he says in his dulcet, country-and-western drawl, remembering, I think, our previous conversation. At the time, he was staying at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, taking a break from playing a small role in a John Travolta spy movie called "Swordfish."

Up close, Shepard is tall, gaunt as an aging rancher and still as classically handsome as the moment he appeared on-screen as the laconic, fatally ill wheat farmer in "Days of Heaven." His hair is thinner now, more of his forehead is revealed, and his sharp nose and high, Native American-like cheekbones, along with the lines in his weatherworn face, deepen the wisdom of his sad blue eyes.

As friendly and accommodating as Shepard seems, though, his conversational manner is clearly schooled by his spiritual mentor, Samuel Beckett. Yes, he agrees, the celebrity thing does feel a little off the charts tonight. But he doesn't mind it for a while. "I think Armani put up a lot of money for the party," he says. Don't blame him, though, for jump-starting the celebrity machine to gain attention for his new play. "I didn't set out to cast movie stars," he says. "It just happens that every single one of them is a dynamite actor. The fact that they're movie stars is something else."

"The Late Henry Moss" hasn't opened yet. So I tell Shepard from what I've read about its plot -- two rival brothers trying to piece together the details of their alcoholic father's death in the New Mexico desert -- that it sounds like a dramatization of one of the stories from his collection, "Cruising Paradise." In that story, set in New Mexico, the author's father staggers out of a bar into the middle of a road and is killed by a car. Later, the author finds, among his late father's belongings, a pile of unmailed letters, one of which is addressed to him. It concludes: "See you in my dreams."

"Did that really happen?" I ask. "It did, yeah," Shepard responds. The 1989 story was indeed a blueprint for "The Late Henry Moss," which was inspired by his father's death in 1984. "It took me five years to even consider writing about it," he says. "Finally, I came to the point where I thought that if I don't write about it, some aspect of it may be lost."

Since the stories in "Cruising Paradise" aren't labeled as autobiographical, but read as if they're lifted out his journal, I can't help asking Shepard about the hilarious "Spencer Tracy Is Not Dead." The most underrated quality of Shepard's writing is that it is really, truly funny. So was he really driven to a movie shoot in Mexico in a metallic blue limo by a German named Gunther, who was wearing a tuxedo, cummerbund and fluffy shirt? Did they really get pulled over for speeding in El Paso and have the car stripped by the drug police?

Shepard smiles, crow's feet spreading across his temples. "Yeah. They let the air out of all the tires so we couldn't go anywhere. Popped the hubcaps. Went through all of our luggage. Yeah, that's true." The shoot was for the movie "Voyager," based on the novel "Homo Faber" by Max Frisch. "Have you read it?" asks Shepard. "I think Frisch is one of the best modern writers." In fact, I have. But before I say anything, I see Shepard is looking across the patio. "Well, I gotta go meet Sean," he says. "Nice talkin' to you."

As the party wears on, Shepard remains insulated by friends, eating dinner with Philip Kaufman, who directed him in "The Right Stuff," and talking with musician T-Bone Burnett, whom Shepard has known since 1976, when they were both members of Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue. "He's the only one on the tour I'm not sure has relative control over his violent dark side," Shepard would write about Burnett. "He's not scary, he's just crazy."

Toward the end of the night, Shepard and the lanky Burnett join the dinner jazz band, the Randy Scott Trio. A drummer since he was a wayward California teenager, Shepard gets behind the kit; Burnett commandeers a microphone and they knock out a version of the novelty country hit "Long Tall Texan." As the remaining partygoers head out the door for home, Shepard bangs his way through Chuck Berry's rickety classic "Too Much Monkey Business."

"I was never one to live in the past" is the first and last line of "The Late Henry Moss." In between, Shepard has crafted his most moving, certainly most tender attempt to resolve a son's agony over his abusive, alcoholic father's death.

The play actually caroms between two brothers who, contrary to their opening and closing line, live trapped in the past. One is pinched, nasty and repressed (Penn), the other sodden, pitiful and ultimately loving (Nolte). Their drive to piece together the arc and fall of their father's final bender is a desperate desire to spring themselves from the traumatic memories of him viciously beating their mother -- memories they blame for shaping the estranged courses of their own wanton lives.

"The Late Henry Moss" is fueled by Shepard's curt, charged dialogue and a boisterous, comic-relief performance by Harrelson as a bewildered taxi driver with clues to the patriarch Henry Moss' final days on a fishing trip. As Moss himself, who appears through flashbacks, veteran stage and movie actor James Gammon literally is the damaged alcoholic looking into the spiritual emptiness of his guttersnipe life. "I thought I'd killed her," he finally confesses of beating his wife. "But it was me I killed!"

In many ways, "The Late Henry Moss" reprises themes, characters and stage devices that have long defined Shepard's writing. But despite the critics who pounced on the parallels to bolster their dim opinions that Shepard was treading old ground, the play represents a beautiful, elegiac summary of the themes that have tortured Shepard to create one of the most prolific and original careers in the American theater.

"The Late Henry Moss" is not Shepard's best play. Penn either misinterpreted the role of Ray Moss, badly underplaying his simmering resentment, or Shepard needs to sharpen Ray's portrait as a control freak on the edge. The character never catches fire and so when he does erupt in anger the effect is a dud.

But no matter. Nolte's and Gammon's final showdown is spectacular. It begins as a squonking duet of guilt and regret and takes flight on a simple melody of forgiveness. The smoky, gravelly timbre of Gammon's and Nolte's voices is so eerily similar that during their emotional sparring they seem to change sides, to transpose into one another. The son becomes the father and in the process discovers his own heart.

After the anger and recrimination between them ebbs, Gammon collapses in bed. With what seems like his own last breath, an exhausted Nolte asks his father if he wants something, "a blanket, maybe?" It's heartbreaking. Earlier, Gammon had posed, "Peaceful, that would be something, wouldn't it?" But a son's peacefulness is what we take away from the theater, a gift from Shepard that has been a very long time in coming.

The New Yorker's John Lahr, who has written about Shepard for more than two decades, was alone among critics in pointing out that Shepard's fictionalized father made his first appearance in 1969 in "The Holy Ghostly," when he was called Stanley Moss. Lahr doesn't state as much, but "The Holy Ghostly" and "The Late Henry Moss" serve as perfect bookends of Shepard's plays. In between lies the evolution of the playwright's art, a search through pain and illusion, memory and history, for transcendence and peace.

"The Holy Ghostly's" plot can be summarized as: "Father? Yes, son? I want to kill you." With its loopy songs and syncopated language, mad witches and mean motherfucker sons, it's wonderfully representative of Shepard's early plays, the huge batch of one-acts that seemed to pour out of him before he settled into the more complex and reflective "Buried Child" in 1978.

Living in a cold-water flat on the Lower East Side and bussing tables at the Village Gate, Shepard at 26 years old was living and writing close to the bone. He didn't care if his work was perceived as autobiography. From the mouth of the horn-mad son to the father, who cries out that he's dead inside, these were the words that the young writer just had to say in "The Holy Ghostly":

For eighteen years I was your slave. I worked for you hand and foot. Shearing the sheep. Irrigating the trees, listening to your bullshit about "improve your mind, you'll never get ahead, learn how to lose, hard work and guts and never say die" and now I suppose you want me to bring you back to life. You pathetic creep. Hire yourself a professional mourner, Jim. I'm splitting.

Before he does, though, he pulls out a gun and shoots his father in the stomach.

Shepard these days advises fans not to get too excited about his early plays. Says he in "Sam Shepard: Stalking Himself," a fine video documentary that made the PBS rounds in 1998: "They were chants, they were incantations, they were spells, or whatever you want to call them. You get on 'em and you go. To say they were well-thought out, they weren't. They were a pulse."

And the erratic heartbeat in most of them was pumped by Shepard looking back in anger at his 1950s childhood on a small avocado ranch in Duarte, Calif., a town outside of Pasadena that was no more than a suburban remnant, thrown up with leftover building materials that developers had little use for. Duarte "was a weird accumulation of things, a strange kind of melting pot -- Spanish, Okie, black, Midwestern elements all jumbled together. People on the move who couldn't move anymore, who wound up in trailer parks," Shepard told Rolling Stone's Jonathon Cott in 1986.

Shepard's parents had always been on the move. His father was raised on an Illinois farm and later joined the Army Air Corps. Shepard was born Samuel Shepard Rogers IV in Fort Sheridan, Ill., in 1943. Following the birth of his two younger sisters, the family moved to South Dakota, Utah, Florida, Guam and South Pasadena before settling in Duarte. Shepard's mother was a teacher and his father held a series of odd jobs while he attended night school to also be a teacher.

"My father had a real short fuse," Shepard told biographer Don Shewey. "He had a really tough life -- had to support his mother and brothers at a very young age when his dad's farm collapsed. You could see his suffering, his terrible suffering, living a life that was disappointing and looking for another one. It was past frustration; it was anger."

More often than not, Shepard was the brunt of that anger. So when he read about a small traveling theater coming through Duarte, Shepard, who had become smitten with acting in high school, and had scratched out poems about despair in his dead-end town, signed on for the ride. Performing Thornton Wilder plays in New England churches? Sure, why not? When the Bishop's Company Repertory Players landed in New York, Shepard got off the bus.

Perhaps the one thing to know about Shepard's maturation as a writer is how diligently and obsessively he worked. It's something that seems to get obscured in all the romantic stories about his affair with blooming rock poet Patti Smith and their collaboration on the play "Cowboy Mouth," his stint as a drummer in the acid-dipped folk band the Holy Modal Rounders, in, really, all the ink spilled over Shepard's Hollywood image as an "intellectual loner," as "Voyager" director Volker Schlondorff described him.

In New York in the '60s, Shepard lived with the son of the great jazz bassist, Charlie Mingus Jr., who had also grown up in Duarte. "He never stopped writing," Mingus said of the times when Shepard wasn't reading Beckett, Pirandello, Edward Albee and Harold Pinter. Shepard "would walk into a room and close the door, with the clacking of the typewriter and all. Then he would come out with a play in a box that the paper came in, a ream of paper."

Dennis Ludlow, who helped build horse fences and a barn on Shepard's small Northern Californian ranch during the '70s (and who played supporting roles in Magic Theatre productions of "Buried Child" and "Fool for Love"), tells me his most indelible memory of Shepard is of the restless playwright writing in a pocket-size notebook. "He was always writing down what he heard in bars, stores, everywhere," says Ludlow. Later, one of Shepard's playwriting classes presented him with a carton of the tiny writing pads.

Still, Shepard's early plays were scintillating rock riffs without accessible verses and choruses until he met New York director and acting teacher Joseph Chaikin. He "had a tremendous influence on Shepard," writes Shewey. "The values he espoused -- his steadfast faith in the priority of art over glamour, show business, wealth, and fame" -- left a lasting impression. Shepard told the Paris Review that Chaikin helped him understand there's "no room for self-indulgence in theater; you have to be thinking about the audience."

Under Chaikin's counsel, Shepard began doing something he had never dreamed of before: rewriting. "Joe was so persistent about finding the essence of something," says Shepard. "He'd say, 'Does this mean what we're trying to make it mean? Can it be constructed some other way?' That fascinated me, because my tendency was to jam, like it was jazz or something. Thelonious Monk style."

Chaikin's influence blossomed in Shepard at about the same time the playwright was tiring of his ragged band of pop culture outlaws: drugstore cowboys and gunslinger rock stars, bluesy swamp rats and speed-freak gamblers. In the mid-'70s, after living for a year in London, Shepard settled in countrified Marin County, Calif., with his wife O-Lan, an actress, and young son Jesse. They shared a house with O-Lan's mother, Scarlett, and Scarlett's husband, photographer and writer Johnny Dark. With Magic Theatre actors and directors, writers and musicians coming and going, Shepard felt at home in this "very strong community of artists," he tells me. "It was energetic and intense in a way that I had missed from New York. I don't think I've really come across that situation again. There was something really great about the Magic experience."

At home on fertile new artistic ground, and committed to a new seriousness in his writing, Shepard stopped heeding every impetuous urge and began listening to voices arising from a deep and wide rift in his heart -- the emotional space surrounding his family, "particularly around my old man," he says. "I was a little afraid of it, a lot of that emotional territory. I didn't really want to tiptoe in there. And then I thought, well, maybe I better."

Of course, Shepard didn't exactly tiptoe in there. As everyone knows who has seen his trilogy of family plays -- "Curse of the Starving Class," "Buried Child" and "True West," which he wrote in a creative burst of three years -- Shepard ripped the door off the hinges, smashed the toasters and exposed an incredible torment at the core of postwar American families. Sons and fathers, mothers and daughters, aunts and uncles -- all were splintered by a never-ending race for never enough money, by base sex and ambition, by inevitably mounting layers of frustration. At least that's how it felt as we sat, awestruck, in the theater.

Most remarkably, Shepard forged his own concentrated, explosive language. The fury was still there, but now the words were stripped of pretension. Shepard created a colloquial poetry of exposure, rhythms rising in an endless crescendo. Here, in the crucial moment in "Buried Child," the diffident Tilden is telling his son's girlfriend about his sickly father Dodge:

Tilden: We had a baby. He did. Dodge did. Could pick it up with one hand. Put it in the other. Little baby. Dodge killed it....

Dodge: Tilden? You leave that girl alone!

Tilden: Never told Halie. Never told anybody. Just drowned it.

Dodge: Tilden!

Tilden: Nobody could find it. Just disappeared. Cops looked for it. Neighbors. Nobody could find it.

Dodge: Tilden, what're you telling her! Tilden!

Tilden: Everybody just gave up. Just stopped looking. Everybody had a different answer. Kidnap. Murder. Accident. Some kind of accident.

Dodge: Tilden you shut up! You shut up about it!

Tilden: Little tiny baby just disappeared. It's not hard. It's so small. Almost invisible.

In 1983, Shepard could admire the critical and popular success of his family plays. John Malkovich and Gary Sinise had mounted a daring production of "True West" that he truly loved. His romantic affair with Lange was deepening, and he was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor in "The Right Stuff." At the same time, from the set of "Country," which he was filming with Lange in Iowa, he wrote Chaikin a letter: "Something's been coming to me lately about this whole question of being lost. It only makes sense to me in relation to an idea of one's identity being shattered under severe personal circumstances -- in a state of crisis where everything that I've previously identified with in myself suddenly falls away."

When he lived in London, Shepard became enamored with the writings of Russian spiritual master G.I. Gurdjieff. So his sharp sense of being lost, of having his identity shattered, no doubt represented to him a kind of pure state of inner being. It is an empty place, a chaotic and frightening one, but it is a place free of illusion, a place where everything a public artist, a celebrity, has been told he is doesn't hold. The one predominant and enduring theme in Shepard's work is the agonizing struggle to fill that empty space with love.

Listen to him in his story, "You I Have No Distance From": "I can't remember what it was like before I met you. Was I always like this? I remember myself lost ... But you I have no distance from. Every move you make feels like I'm traveling in your skin."

The evolution of Shepard's personal life is shown in technicolor in the tract homes and desert huts of his plays. In the absence of love and connection, the booze flows; relationships come crashing down. The explosive "Fool for Love," in which lovers and half-siblings May and Eddie rage at each other in jealousy -- "You know we're connected May. We'll always be connected" -- can easily be seen as the end of Shepard's marriage. Indeed, that year (1983), he permanently left O-Lan to move in with Lange. His divorce was final in 1984.

Given the tempestuous turns his characters have taken under endless emotional storms, it's no wonder he has remained a relatively private man. The search for love and transcendence is a fragile business in the public world of movies and popular theater. Someone always wants to tell you where to go. The allure of Shepard's elusive nature is that he has never stopped searching alone.

And we can only admire his devotion. He tells me he acts in movies only to support his writing. "No way," I say. "You're Sam Shepard." Says he: "You can't make a living as a playwright. You can barely scrape by." He does at times enjoy sinking into a role, but, just the same, he would rather be on his ranch sinking fence posts, playing with his kids or writing in his small room next to the barn.

Like his characters in "The Late Henry Moss," Shepard is "not one to live in the past." He has not resolved the anguish that fathers and sons heap upon themselves, but he has peeled away a great deal of the despair, exposing an "ember of hope." Clearly, Shepard has traveled a long way from blasting his fictional father with a revolver to comforting him quietly with a blanket.

But at 57, the angular, elusive cowboy is not going soft on us. He is still riding alone across a mesa, it's just that now he believes that out there, somewhere, is a deep, enduring peace. In his great 1985 play "A Lie of the Mind," he seemed to doubt he would ever find it. But now, it appears, the winds of change have worked their wonders. "You know, those winds that wipe everything clean and leave the sky without a cloud. Pure blue. Pure, pure blue."

By Kevin Berger

Kevin Berger is the former features editor at Salon.

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