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Sam Shepard, Esteemed Playwright and Actor, Dies at 73

Sam Shepard, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, author, director, screenwriter and Oscar nominated actor has died at the age of 73 at his home in Kentucky from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Funeral arrangements remain private, and no plans for a public memorial have, as of yet, been announced.

Born on November 5, 1943, in Fort Sheridan, Illinois, Shepard started his career as a playwright in New York in the 1960s off-off-Broadway at theaters such as Theatre Genesis, Caffé Cino, and Judson Poets’ Theatre, to name a few. Shepard’s first full-length play, La Turista, was presented for the first time at the American Place Theatre, which Shepard cut from three-acts to two not long before it was due to open. After winning six Obie Awards between 1966 and 1968 for his stage work, Shepard began writing for the screen, first credited as a screenwriter for Robert Frank’s Me and My Brother (1968) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970).

An affair with punk rock musician and poet Patti Smith resulted in the release of the play Cowboy Mouth (1971), which was only performed once at The American Place Theatre before Shepard left town, finding the experience too personal. Throughout the 1970s, Shepard’s dual careers in screenwriting and playwriting continued to flourish. He contributed to the screenplays of Jacques Levy’s Oh! Calcutta! (1972) and Bob Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara (1978), which was also co-written by Dylan. In 1975, Shepard was named playwright-in-residence at the Magic Theatre, where his Family Trilogy was performed; one of the plays in the trilogy was Buried Child (1978), which won the Pulitzer Prize.

It was also in the 1970s when Shepard’s acting career took off, beginning with Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) and continuing throughout the rest of his life. Shepard, with his snaggle-toothed grin, dark blue eyes, and deep set wrinkles was a very in demand character actor, appearing in films as varied as Steel Magnolias (1989), Black Hawk Down (2001) and The Right Stuff (1983). Throughout his career as an actor, Shepard was often cast as men who had been weathered by time and exuded weariness. 

As Shepard’s film acting career was rising, for many, his greatest contribution to cinema came in 1984, a year after his Academy Award nomination, when he wrote the screenplay for Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. In 2006, the film was screened at the Sundance Film Festival, 25 years after it first screened there, as part of the Sundance Collection category and in 2010 the film was released on DVD as part of the Criterion Collection.

His partner from 1982 through to 2009 was Jessica Lange, with whom he had two children. He is survived by his children, Jesse, Hannah and Walker Shepard, and his sisters, Sandy and Roxanne Rogers.