The last chapter or so of John J. Winters’ “Sam Shepard: A Life,” gives one the feeling that perhaps he or his publisher knew something, and rushed this biography of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Oscar-nominated actor and iconic Man of the West into bookstores.
The secretive Shepard had been sick, looked awful in his last TV appearance and had retreated to solitude for what turned out to be his last days. Winters noted that there were no booked acting gigs, no publication dates for new work (his last plays were from a decade before) and no production of his most acclaimed works that would require his attention, and hadn’t been for the last two years. Shepard died July 27.
But as an actor, at least, he went out in a blaze of glory. His last ten years included searing, compact work in “Cold in July,” “Blackthorn,” “Midnight Special,” “August: Osage County,” “In Dubious Battle” and “Out of the Furnace,” mostly smaller films where his character actor gifts — lean, Dustbowl Okie looks, man of few words Westerner — were put on display. Check out his cult-leading preacher in “Midnight Special” and you get him — not an electric public speaker, but a charismatic one — magnetic.
I’ve seen a lot of his plays over the years and the assessment of such American masterworks as “True West,” “Curse of the Starving Class,” “Buried Child” and “Simpatico” seems spot-on. Vivid, harrowing, character and dialogue and surprise/shock driven, thin on narrative.
But there’s a lot one doesn’t know about Shepard, things he wouldn’t reveal himself, in print (earlier biographies), in a somber documentary of a few years back. And there’s more that we might have forgotten.
His real name, growing up? Steve Rogers. That’s right. The Inland Empire native who lit up the theater with his words and the screen with his looks, had the same name as Captain America.
He was a near lifelong adherent of the teachings of a Russian guru who died in the ’40s. There are some who regard G.I. Gurdjieff as a self-help seer, and cling to his insistence on doing “The Work” to achieve your best self and happiness. And there are many more who see him as a con-artist.
He’d take most any acting role that put him on horseback. He turned down scores of great films, and even turned down “The Right Stuff” because he didn’t think he looked or sounded anything like Chuck Yeager, whom Winters says “he knew.” And once he had played the role that made him, refused to help publicize the movie (which needed it) and skipped the Oscars, where he was nominated.
He hung with Dylan, co-wrote a song with him and tried to script the unscripted “Renaldo & Clara” Rolling Thunder tour docu-drama. Mainly what he took from that experience was how to maintain an air of mystery, as Dylan had.
The book is built largely on the vast collections of letters Shepard exchanged with intimates — especially those he wrote to theater mentor Joseph Chaikin and his ex-fatherin-law, Johnny Dark (the best documentary on Shepard might be “Shepard & Dark,” built on those letters and those two men), and on the sparse interviews he gave over the decades. There aren’t a lot of revelations from those who knew him just for work (film colleagues) or love (Jessica Lange, Patti Smith).
But for being a quick read and a bit of a surface-skimmer (Perhaps a rush job?), it’s a pretty fair picture of a writer, actor, drinker, lover, brooder and significant observer of the American scene, the American family and a nation, culture (Hollywood) he spent a lot of decades shaking his head over.