Pulitzer-Winning Playwright Sam Shepard Has Died

Mourn him, remember him, or learn about him for the first time with these eight videos

Sam Shepard, the visionary playwright, actor and storyteller, died last Thursday from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. In his 73 years, Shepard won a Pulitzer prize for drama (in 1979, for “Buried Child”), was nominated for an Oscar (for his turn as astronaut Chuck Yeagar in “The Right Stuff”), helped to define and cultivate a new wave theater scene in New York, and memorialized his bleak and moving vision of the American West in a string of chiseled short story collections. In the modern history of American literature, he was without peer — a matinee idol who bled for his art; a star capable of baring his soul on screen, stage or page.

Shepard came up as a playwright in the downtown New York scene in the late 60’s and was a fixture of the Chelsea Hotel, among the first of that generation to achieve international prominence. He eventually settled in California and married actress Jessica Lange, with whom he had two children. Throughout that time, with the ups-and-downs of fame and literary fashion, Shepard kept writing, authoring a new play or story collection at nearly an annual clip, all the while returning to to the screen to steal the occasional scene — from Frank James in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” to the Rayburn’s patriarch in “Bloodline.”

Shepard was a preternatural talent and dedicated to his art. In one of his greatest stories, “Remedy Man,” a horse-breaker arrives at a rural outpost to deal with a troubled stallion and invites a young boy to join him in his work. The breaker gives the boy a piece of hard-earned wisdom: “Horse is just like a human being. He’s just gotta know his limits. Once he finds that out he’s a happy camper.” Yet Shepard never did seem to recognize limits himself, or maybe he just didn’t see the difference between one form of story and another. Calling him a renaissance man would be cliche or worse. Calling him a man of letters, one of the last of the American greats, seems true enough. To remember the man and his work, here’s a sample of his career:

— A PBS Great Performances interview about the dark themes of American family life in his plays:

— A rather dreadful quality video of a production of “True West,” starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich, available in multiple parts on YouTube:

— The “Buried Child,” performed by a company in Indonesia. We can’t vouch for the acting on this one.

— That time Shepard (Yeager) broke the sound barrier.

— The trailer for Zabriskie Point, the film Antonioni asked Shepard to pen.

— This trailer for a documentary about his friendship and correspondence with Johnny Dark.

—A story about a horse. (Most of his stories were about horses in some way.)

— Or some very rough footage from the time Shepard and his former lover and longtime collaborator, Patti Smith, played the Abbey Theater.

RIP, Sam Shepard.

More Like This

March Madness: Book-to-TV Adaptations Edition

Forget basketball and help us choose the best literary television

Mar 24 - Electric Literature

7 Novels Narrated by Ghosts

Cecile Pin, author of "Wandering Souls," recommends stories of the dead caught between the living and the afterlife

Mar 31 - Cecile Pin

A Love That Will Bury Me Alive

"The Bones of Cristóbal Colón" from The Faraway World by Patricia Engel, recommended by Cleyvis Natera

Jan 25 - Patricia Engel

A Love That Goes Bone Deep

"The Bone Friend," flash fiction by Zebbie Watson

Oct 31 - Zebbie Watson
Thank You!