Sam Shepard looked like a cowboy and wrote like a poet. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, who died July 27 at the age of 73 after battling ALS, became an unlikely movie star. Ethan Hawke, who worked with him on both stage and screen, told us the following:
For my generation, there’s a bit of hero worship that went along with Sam. He was someone who could act and direct and write at such a high level. He’s a poet of the first order. I first saw a production of True West when I was 14. That production did for my generation what Brando and Streetcar had done for a generation earlier. It was the same time he was in The Right Stuff. Playing Chuck Yeager is one of the coolest performances this side of Rebel Without a Cause. The first time I met him I was 24. I was at a urinal during intermission of the first read-through of [Shepard’s prize-winning drama] Buried Child in Chicago. I later told [film director] Richard Linklater, and he said, “Well, you’re pissing in the tall grass with the big dogs now!”
What a lot of young people get wrong about Sam is that he wasn’t just cool. When you worked with him, he was a very serious person. He’d come to rehearsal and talk about Greek myths and weird obscure playwrights. I once went into a bookstore and found him in the Spanish section, poring over how to learn Spanish in six weeks or less. He was disarmingly humble and wildly self-serious. He could walk that razor’s edge.
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Here’s one of my favorite stories: I was living at the Chelsea Hotel, and I had to wake up at dawn to walk my puppy. Outside was Sam Shephard reading all the famous artist plaques on the wall. We’d worked together a bunch already, and I invited him in for coffee. We were heading to the elevator, and Sam was telling me about how he used to live there and wrote with Patti Smith there, when we run into the owner of the Chelsea — Stanley Bard, this old-school New Yorker. Sam said hi and then, “What do you gotta do to get a plaque on the wall? I did some good writing here!” And Stanley said, “Well, unfortunately, Mr. Shepard, you have to die.” And Sam went, “I see Arthur Miller’s got one out there, and he’s not dead.” And Stanley went, “Well, Mr. Shepard, I’m sure I’m not the first to tell you you’re no Arthur Miller.” Sam burst out laughing so hard.
In the years I knew him, he could be many different people. He was a complicated person. He was wise, and I think he got wise fighting a lot of things about himself. He was a deeply curious person, always learning, always staying interested. He was writing beautifully at the highest level even at the end. I wish he hadn’t been sick, and I really wish we could have worked together again. It was always an honor.