November 5, 1943, marks the birthday of enigmatic actor and playwright Sam Shepard. Born Samuel Shepard Rogers VII in Fort Sheridan, Illinois, he was the son of an Air Force career man who had been a bomber pilot in World War II. After the war, Rogers moved his family around between various army bases until he decided to retire and try his hand at ranching. The family raised sheep and grew avocados on their property in Duarte, California, where Shepard watched his father's slow, methodical decline into alcoholism.
Shepard entered San Antonio Junior College, where he intended to study agriculture. But fate intervened when, a year later, he joined a touring troupe of Nomadic thespians. "That was one of the most exciting times of my life..." he said. "We never spent more than one or two nights in the same place, and our stages were always the altars of churches... We crisscrossed New England, up into Maine and Vermont. The country amazed me, having come from a place that was brown and hot and covered with Taco stands. Finally we hit New York City and I couldn't believe it. I'd always thought of the 'big city' as Pasadena and the Rose Parade. I was mesmerized by this place."
He was mesmerized, as well, by the stage. At the age of 19, he supported himself by serving tables at the Village Gate while pursuing his theatrical interests. His first complete play, the autobiographical Cowboys, received a favorable review in The Village Voice. The bug had bitten. Hard.
Shepard gradually built his theatrical reputation upon a series of one act-plays produced in off-off-Broadway theatres. He worked at experimental spots like La Mama, Cafe Cino, the Open Theatre, the American Place Theatre, or any company he could find that would produce his work. He shared an apartment with the son of jazz legend Charles Mingus, who once remarked that, whenever Shepard wasn't reading Samuel Beckett or working, he would go into his room with a ream of paper, close the door, and emerge some time later with the same box of paper, holding a new play.
In 1971, Shepard told an interviewer, "I don't want to be a playwright, I want to be a rock and roll star..." Regardless, by the time he turned thirty, he had more than 30 New York productions to his credit.
Shepard's early plays were innovative, influenced by early experiments as a rock musician. His settings are often a type of No Man's Land on the American horizon, his characters, typically loners and drifters caught between a mythical past and the technological present. His works often explore the relationships within deeply troubled families. In 1979, his Buried Child, dealing with the deterioration of the traditional American family, won the Pulitzer Prize.
In 1983, Shepard divorced his wife and began a relationship with actress-producer Jessica Lange. Two years later, he adapted his play, Fool for Love, into a script and starred in the film with Kim Basinger and Randy Quaid. Shepard's A Lie of the Mind (1986), a poetic look at the American West, won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. That same year, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Among his works from the 1990s are Simpatico (1994), which he started to write while he was driving to Los Angeles, and Cruising Paradise (1996), which contains 40 short stories exploring the themes of solitude and loss of angry and anguished men.
After a hiatus of 20 years, Shepard directed his play, The Late Henry Moss (2000) in San Francisco at the Magic Theatre. It starred Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, and James Gammon. The play is about the conflict between two brothers and their dead father. Since then, Shepard has gone on to become the most widely produced American playwright in history. His latest play, God of Hell, came out in 2004.
Sam Shepard said, "The work never gets easier. It gets harder and more provocative. And as it gets harder you are continually reminded there is more to accomplish. It's like digging for gold. And when you find the vein, you know there's a lot more where that came from."