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Celebrated Playwright And Actor Sam Shepard Dies


Actor and playwright Sam Shepard has died.


SAM SHEPARD: (As Chuck Yeager) I think I see a plane over here with my name on it.

CORNISH: That's from his Oscar-nominated performance as test pilot Chuck Yeager in the 1983 movie "The Right Stuff." Shepard was also a leading American playwright. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his play "Buried Child." He died last Thursday at his home in Kentucky of complications from Lou Gehrig's disease. Here's NPR's Neda Ulaby with our remembrance.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Who would have guessed Sam Shepard was afraid of flying? In 1998, Shepherd told WHYY's FRESH AIR about meeting the real pilot who broke the sound barrier.


SHEPARD: I got to talking to him about flying and all that. And he says, you know, fear is part and parcel of the thing that you take on. It's that you're able to face it. To me, that's the interesting part about courage, you know? It's not that you don't have fear. It's that you look it in the eye.

ULABY: Shepard was a famously masculine theater presence, a craggy cowboy who infused off-Broadway with a tough Western virility in the 1960s. His plays like "Buried Child" were about struggling families, addiction and deception. A recent Broadway revival featured Ed Harris, Shepard's co-star in "The Right Stuff," as a vitriolic father scolding an adult child for coming home.


ED HARRIS: (As Dodge) You're a grown man. You shouldn't be needing your parents at your age. It's unnatural. There's nothing we can do for you now anyway. Couldn't you find a way to make a living down there? Couldn't you find some way to make a living and support yourself?

ULABY: The playwright grew up bouncing from Army base to Army base with a strict military dad who imposed a lot of rules.


SHEPARD: Never show any feeling was one of the rules.

ULABY: The family eventually settled in rural California. At one point the future playwright planned to be a veterinarian. But it was partly because of his father's alcoholism that Shepard moved out to join a travelling theatre troupe. Predictably, his dad was furious.


SHEPARD: Broke windows and tore the doors off, stuff like that.

ULABY: But Shepard started touring the country, performing in clubs and churches before moving to New York City in 1963.


SHEPARD: I was suddenly on the Lower East Side, on Avenue C and 10th Street, living with jazz musicians.

ULABY: Shepard embraced the avant garde. He hung out with the likes of Patti Smith. He played drums with the psychedelic folk group The Holy Modal Rounders.


THE HOLY MODAL ROUNDERS: (Singing, unintelligible).

ULABY: That's from a 1968 appearance on the TV show "Laugh-In." By then Shepard was hitting his stride with a series of plays that tapped into a suppressed fury and a Bohemian sympathy for drifters, losers and other people scrabbling on the margins. His play "Fool For Love" was revived on Broadway in 2015. It concerned an explosive couple clashing in a cheap motel.


NINA ARIANDA: (As May) I am smarter than you are and you know it. I can smell your thoughts before you even think them.

SAM ROCKWELL: (As Eddie) May, I'm trying to take care of you, all right?

ARIANDA: (As May) No, you're not. You're just guilty. You're gutless and guilty.

ROCKWELL: (As Eddie) Good combination.

ULABY: It was easy to imagine Shepard playing one of his own earthy, craggy characters. But Shepard said he never liked to act in his own plays.


SHEPARD: It seems like the height of vanity to me, acting and writing and - you know what I mean? Just - it's embarrassing.

ULABY: Shepard went on to write screenplays and act in dozens of movies, some good, some less so. In 1998, Shepard told NPR there was a reason he played tough, rugged characters whose damage seeped through a hard-boiled veneer.


SHEPARD: It's very difficult to escape your background, you know? And I don't think it's necessary to even try. More and more I start to think that it's necessary to see exactly what it is that you inherited on both ends of the stick - your timidity, your courage, your self-deceit and your honesty and all the rest of it. You know, it's necessary to include all of that in order to be able to accept oneself.

ULABY: Sam Shepard wrote 44 plays, books of short stories and a memoir. He was 73 years old. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEOLA BEAMER'S "'IMI AU LA 'OE - INSTRUMENTAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.
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