Sam Shepard was more than just the epitome of the strong silent type; he was a creative dynamo and a living, breathing emblem of old-school American masculinity. After his family announced that the 73-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright had died on July 27 from complications related to ALS, a wave of reactions rolled across the EW offices, notable for how both female and male staffers expressed their earnest admiration and affection. The term man-crush would not be out of place.
It’s a reaction that’s not limited to journalists and fans. Director Jeff Nichols was still in college when he was toying with the script that became Mud, the 2012 Matthew McConaughey film that also featured Shepard as Tye Sheridan’s taciturn neighbor. It’s the type of character that Shepard played frequently in the long last chapter of his movie career, cinematic cousins of his 1983 portrayal of Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff: men who’d chased their demons in their prime, whose faces wore that weight, and whose well-measured wisdom made audiences lean-in for fear of missing a single word.
At Sundance in 2013, I interviewed Nichols about Mud. The film made a huge impression on me, and the main media narrative of the moment was the nascent McConnaisance. But Nichols and I shared a mutual love of Shepard’s work — his entire essence, really — and the relatively brief interview turned into a geek-fest about the elder actor, which proved absolutely useless for my Mud story but was nevertheless one of the highlights of my Sundance that year. That conversation was the first thing I thought of this morning when I heard the sad news.
Nichols, Jan. 20, 2013:
Rest in peace, Sam Shepard.