Sam Shepard, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Oscar-nominated actor, dies at 73


Sam Shepard, the experimentalist cowboy-style poet who became one of the most significant American playwrights of the 20th century, honored with the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for drama for his play “Buried Child” and with an Oscar nomination for his acting role as aviator Chuck Yeager in the 1983 film “The Right Stuff,” died July 27 at his farm in Kentucky. He was 73.

A family spokesman, Chris Boneau, confirmed his death and said the cause was complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Mr. Shepard came of age in the 1960s, as alternative experimentation transformed the theater scene. In his theatrical works both poetic and mythical, he explored the intersections of an unruly American West and the deep complexities of the fracturing American family.

His best-known plays — including “True West” (1980, about two warring brothers), “Fool for Love” (1983, about a tortured romance) and “A Lie of the Mind” (1985, about a battered woman psychologically tethered to a man) — were packed with physical fights and lyrical, sometimes inscrutable monologues. The visceral power and intriguing subtext of his plays made him a staple on the country’s stages through the 1970s and well into the 1990s.

Mr. Shepard’s output, and his standing as a pivotal theatrical force, declined in the new century, though he continued to act, direct and write. His 2004 “The God of Hell” directly took aim at U.S. policy on torture, with a mysterious governmental agent sending electric current through a suspect as American flags proliferated on the stage.

Mr. Shepard with his longtime partner, Jessica Lange, in 2006. (Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images )

Mr. Shepard was better known beyond theater circles for his movie acting, notably for his Academy Award-nominated performance as test pilot Chuck Yeager in “The Right Stuff” (1983). His rugged good looks and plain-spoken style made him magnetic on screen in roles ranging from Diane Keaton’s love interest (a farm veterinarian) in “Baby Boom” (1987) to the brooding Eddie opposite Kim Basinger’s tough May in the 1985 Robert Altman film of Shepard’s “Fool for Love.”

Early credits included a leading role as a farmer in the nearly wordless Terrence Malick film “Days of Heaven” (1978). He played the husband of Dolly Parton’s character in “Steel Magnolias” (1989) and appeared in “Black Hawk Down” (2001), about the 1993 raid in Mogadishu, Somalia.

More recent screen credits included “August: Osage County” (2013) and the Netflix TV series “Bloodline,” in which he portrayed Robert Rayburn. He directed two films, “Far North” (1988) — starring his longtime partner Jessica Lange — and “Silent Tongue” (1993).

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