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Goin’ Upstairs Like a Bat Out of Hell: The Stirring Work of Sam Shepard

Goin’ Upstairs Like a Bat Out of Hell: The Stirring Work of Sam Shepard

Actor, author, playwright, screenwriter, and director Sam Shepard died last Thursday, leaving behind a peerless legacy as a passionate, brilliant artist. He was also that exceedingly rare craftsperson who was so prolific, and in so many fields, that very few of us could fully appreciate the full scope of his accomplishments.

At the top of the cinephile list is his Oscar-winning role as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, offering an earthy gristle to his performance that would become a mainstay of his persona. He embodied a soaring sense of independence, wits, and strength. A cowboy intensity with the mind of a scientist. With a homespun anchor of earnestness, Shepard displayed a natural knack for sinking into characters like Yeager.

His walk across the open desert after nearly buying the farm in a high altitude crash, face ashen with chemical soot, carrying his parachute in one hand and helmet in the other, smoke rising fatalistically in the background, is the stuff of cinematic iconography legend. As Yeager, he jokes about the kind of man who would raise his hand for a televised suicide mission, but Shepard had to portray that unique mix of bravery and adrenaline addiction.

From his Aw Shucks charm in Crimes of the Heart to his zero nonsense General in Black Hawk Down, Shepard excelled at elevating ensembles, not only because of his effortless-seeming acting skill, but also because he regularly sharpened dialogue. His best modern role is either his turn as Frank James in The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, a figure who gives us the weight and measure of all the others; Tom in Mud, a replacement father who shored up the moral center of the film; or Hamlet’s father’s business savvy ghost hassling Ethan Hawk in the modern-set riff on the play. Ask someone else, they’ll give you three other roles. Shepard was consistently outstanding.

He was also the screenwriter of the Palme d’Or-winning ode to loneliness Paris, Texas. Directed by Wim Wenders, the film is either a road trip movie or a western depending on how you squint, chronicling a salty drifter (played by Harry Dean Stanton) reuniting with his family after four years in the desert.

Those themes of loss and reconnecting echoed throughout his work, including his other film with Wenders, Don’t Come Knocking, about a regret-filled cowboy movie star (which Shepard portrayed), and Far North, which Shepard also directed, about a family coming back together after horse carriage accident. Shepard’s films hummed with a matter-of-fact melancholy that searched for human connection.

All told, he had acted in 68 movies, wrote 26, and directed two.

And that’s just his film career. His time in Hollywood came after establishing himself as a fresh, smoldering voice in American theater in the 1960s. The same year he appeared in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, Shepard launched the play Buried Child, which would win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979. The play, which focuses on a rural family led by a drunk on a farmstead where nothing is planted, painted with themes of the crippling of the American Dream and the breakdown of functioning families. He wrote 43 plays throughout his life.

But the towering numbers are obviously not the whole story. This was a man who wrote with Patti Smith, hung with Bob Dylan, and influenced the style of the Rocky Horror Picture Show stage play. He won an insane (and appropriate) amount of awards, and meant a lot of different things to a lot of different fans. Those that knew him as a steely actor with range, those that knew him as a percolating playwright mind, those that knew him as a screenwriter and director who married theatrical talents to the screen.

Hip as they come in his youth and leather-faced in his wizened years as elder statesman, Shepard will be remembered as a fierce, dedicated artist who wore an impressive amount of hats.

Image: Walt Disney Pictures

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