Sam Shepard, who died last week at 73, was a true renaissance man. As a playwright, he was the toast of Broadway and a Pulitzer Prize recipient. And he had no trouble making the transition to screens small and large, winning over audiences as an actor and earning respect within the industry as a skilled pen-for-hire. His body of work, rich and varied as it is, reveals a man with infinite empathy and intellectual curiosity. Here is a small sample of his works and appearances:
‘Days of Heaven’
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Shepard made his big-screen debut in this gorgeous Terrence Malick film. The director has never been big on narrative, and this moody, terse love triangle — between characters played by Shepard, Richard Gere and Brooke Adams — is an opportunity to bask in the immensity of nature and the openness of the prairie. The New York Times’s review of the film, in 1978, said of Shepard, “He has a tall, rangy figure, a broodingly intense quality, and his work comes as a welcome surprise.”
‘The Right Stuff’
Where to watch: Amazon Video, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play
Shepard earned an Academy Award nomination for his performance as Chuck Yeager, a dedicated astronaut who would never let something like safety stop him from breaking his own speed records. Shepard invested that jock-ish character with a sincere and noble drive to do right by his country and humanity, turning Yeager’s inspiring journey to space into a rousing story of someone who transcends his humble beginnings. Yeager’s final flight (and his insistence on walking himself to the ambulance after his jet crashes and burns) forms the emotional crux of the film, a stirring testament to what brave people can accomplish through sheer force of will.
Where to watch: Amazon Video, iTunes
Shepard shared screenwriting credit for this Wim Wenders film about an existential road trip of penance. The script is somewhat sparse, but every word the characters speak is packed with meaning. In one of cinema’s greatest monologues, the haunted Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) finally reunites with his long-lost lover, Jane (Nastassja Kinski), and retells the story of their troubled, tragic relationship through a one-way pane of glass. Feelings of longing, regret and intimacy are seldom transmuted into language so purely.
Where to watch: Amazon Video, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play
Even in comparatively minor roles, Shepard always found a way to excel. For Michael Almereyda’s modern-day reimagining of “Hamlet,” Shepard stepped in to portray the spectral apparition of Hamlet’s deceased father. The part is small but significant, effectively setting the entire plot in motion, and Shepard brought all the required gravitas to his warning from the great beyond. Appearing first as an eerie ghost on a closed-circuit TV loop, he comes to his son as a source of strength and wisdom.
This revisionist Western by Andrew Dominik may revolve around the complicated dynamic between the two title characters, but Shepard proves invaluable as James’s coolheaded big brother, Frank. He’s the linchpin of an early, breathtaking scene in which the James Gang fleeces a money-freighting train in the dead of night; just as crucially, Frank recognizes that the time has come to quit while they’re ahead. His decision to split cements his reputation as the brains of the outfit, the only one who can see the big picture of crime and how short its shelf life really is. Shepard exuded a sense of savvy in the role, and his steady self-assurance as a screen presence made it feel genuine.