Biography of Sam Shepard

Sam Shepard was an American playwright, actor, and director. Over the course of a prolific career, he earned a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the play Buried Child and was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in the film The Right Stuff. He is considered one of the greatest American dramatists, known for his tough, often absurd and poetic plays about American identity and alienation.

Shepard was born in Illinois to two teachers; his father was an alcoholic. While working on a ranch as a high schooler, Shepard thought he would study animal husbandry, but was turned on to Samuel Beckett and abstract expressionism in college. After dropping out, he began working at the Village Gate nightclub and working on off-off-Broadway theater. In the mid-1960s and early 1970s, Shepard began producing his plays at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, mounting productions of The Unseen Hand, Shaved Splits, Melodrama, and The Tooth of Crime.

Shepard was firmly situated in the downtown art scene in New York at this time, and collaborated with his then-lover, the as-yet-unknown poet and rockstar Patti Smith, on Cowboy Mouth, a play based on their relationship, at The American Place Theatre. During the time, Shepard was also married to actress O-Lan Jones, and Patti Smith knew little about Shepard's prestige as a playwright. After this, Shepard abruptly sought out a more rural life, accompanying Bob Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Revue of 1975 and setting up a ranch in Mill Valley. After settling in San Francisco, Shepard became the playwright-in-residence at the Magic Theatre, where he wrote many of his most well-known plays, including Buried Child, True West, Fool for Love, and A Lie of the Mind. Buried Child won the Pulitzer and was nominated for five Tony Awards. The others also received very positive attention. True West and Fool for Love were also nominated for Pulitzers.

In addition to writing, Shepard had a successful career as an actor, appearing in such films as Days of Heaven directed by Terrence Malick, Resurrection directed by Daniel Petrie, and The Right Stuff directed by Philip Kaufman, for which Shepard was nominated for an Academy Award. Towards the end of his career, he starred on the television series Bloodline.

Over the course of his life, Shepard had many notable relationships and affairs. His relationship with actress Jessica Lange lasted for 26 years, and he had an affair with songwriter Joni Mitchell, who wrote the song "Coyote" about Shepard. In 2017, Shepard died at home at 73 of complications from ALS.

Study Guides on Works by Sam Shepard

Sam Shepard wrote Buried Child, perhaps his best-known play and the play that won him the Pulitzer in 1979, while he was the playwright-in-residence at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco. It is the play most widely credited with turning Shepard...

True West premiered on December 23, 1980 at Joseph Papp's Public Theater in New York. But, it came to prominence when it was revived by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago who would later bring it back to the New York before performing a...