Many, Many Bewildered (and Sad) Breakfast Faces: RIP, Sam Shepard

There will be a general lack of toast in the neighborhood this morning. And by “toast” I mean theater-related joy. And by “the neighborhood,” I mean “American theater.” And by “this morning,” I mean… well, I don’t know how long, but it’ll be longer than a morning.

Actor, playwright, and director Sam Shepard has died at the age of 73.

I first learned about it in a piece in Broadway World, which is worth checking out. You can also read about his life and work in:

Many of us picked up this book yesterday and leafed through it.

I’m not the only one of my generation of theater folk who feel this loss on a personal level. There are many playwrights like Shakespeare or Pinter or Wilson of whom I’ve either read or performed or seen productions of nearly all their works. But Sam Shepard is somewhat different.

Shepard has a distinct, American voice that resonated with so many of us. It was years since I had read or seen all of Kaufman and Hart. It would be years before I would connect with the work of Eugene O’Neill (that’s another tale). Sam Shepard was alive now and pushing his creations out into the world, where we too were training and working to make our marks.

Decades before Neil Gaiman was to tantalize us with his tales of American Gods, Sam Shepard was constructing a uniquely American mythology with plays that were simultaneously gritty and real, yet surreal and absurd. His characters often lived on the edge of society and frequently violated societal norms. There were no gods so much as forces of nature and Fate that his fabulously flawed characters would contend against when they weren’t fighting with one another.

I had many classmates who never looked at me quite the same way after they had seen me play “Mike” in a college production of “A Lie of the Mind.” It’s a disturbing yet incredibly human fairy tale set in a immediately recognizable yet unknowable America. At first, Mike seems like a more sensible character than his parents or brain-damaged sister. By the time he carries half a deer carcass on stage, you realize just how quietly crazy and savage Mike might truly be (and his exit from the play, presumably to start a whole new dysfunctional family cycle, is uncomfortably real). Sam Shepard wrote characters that rich into which actors can dive and explore, with motivations so plausible, audience members can wonder where the character ends and the actor begins (hence my classmates’ apprehension).

And those plays are still with us, thank goodness. If you haven’t checked any of them out (or any recently), do as Craig Mazin advocates: locate a copy of True West and read it out loud. His many parts in films are likewise, thankfully preserved for the ages — and his appearance always bodes well for whatever film in which he appears. Outside of Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch, is there a better film icon for American manhood than Sam Shepard’s Chuck Yeager?

(Come on! I can’t be the only guy who watched The Right Stuff repeatedly growing up).

Yeah Harold Pinter had acting turns too, but he subverted the sound barrier with pauses, not breaks. You see, I’ve studied Shakespeare, I’ve enjoyed Pinter, but with Shepard, you had someone to aspire to, with a voice from your tribe. On the one hand it’s silly and illogical and not something to motivate you… but in the best tradition of so many of his characters, by God it did.

He was inspirational as a playwright. He was moving as an actor. As both, he connected story to audience in a way you long to do as an artist.

Is that a man? Damn right it is.

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