Sam Shepard was a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose contributions to the theater world spanned decades; by the time he started acting in movies, his career had already taken off. As such, even as he landed an Oscar nomination for “The Right Stuff” and continued to be a regular presence in front of the camera, the multi-talented writer-performer remained primarily associated with the stage. Nevertheless, Shepard remained a major figure in American cinema for 40 years in more ways that one: It’s his tender screenplay that makes Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas” such an emotional powerhouse, and he even directed two features, but it’s Shepard’s acting credits speak to his astonishing range — and the way he continued to evolve his skills as the decades wore on. Here are five standouts from a career so rich with talent that we can only begin to explore it with this limited sampling (sorry, “Black Hawk Down” and “Steel Magnolias,” but we love you, too).
“Days of Heaven”
Terrence Malick has always had a flair for faces, he’s always been able to see poetry in people who had yet to visualize it for themselves. And so when Malick met Sam Shepard — a handsome young writer whose genius had already manifested itself in a series of acclaimed plays — he wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. Shepard simply had play the unnamed farmer in “Days of Heaven;” he was a man as beautiful and haunted as the wheat fields of Texas, lonely in his perfection and perfect in his loneliness. Shepard acquiesced. He rented a Ford Mustang, drove up to the film’s Canadian set, and began his life as an actor. The movies would never be the same.
Malick envisioned “Days of Heaven” as something of a silent film, or at least a movie in which nature would do most of the talking, but that wasn’t a problem for an actor who had won a Pulitzer Prize for his way with words. Shepard immediately recognized that Malick’s films were more visceral than anything else, that they were meant to be felt and not solved. Playing a creature of solitude who lives in the center of a swarm, Shepard focused on the friction between the immortal ruggedness of the farmer’s image and the frailty of his body (and the pettiness of his jealousy). Shepard’s performance made a nameless man feel larger than life, and the great shock of the movie is the realization that someone so monolithic could still be so mortal. Even now — especially now — it’s hard to make sense of that fact. — DE
“The Right Stuff”
“The Right Stuff” soars above most historical dramas because the filmmaking exudes the same qualities that the film itself exists to celebrate. It’s bold, it’s courageous, it reaches for the sun and almost gets there. Most of all, it’s one of the few movies in which one great American hero has been played by another. How do you inspire jaded audiences to awe at Chuck Yeager, the fearless test pilot who became the first person to exceed the speed of sound? You cast Sam Shepard in the role and let him do his thing. Even then, he was a man who didn’t believe in barriers — a man whose stoic expression exuded a palpable sense of infinite potential.
When you watch Shepard wedge himself into the cockpit of an experimental death trap and spit out lines like “Anybody that goes up in the damn thing is gonna be Spam in a can,” you’re not watching a proxy for Yeager’s heroism, you’re watching the real thing in a different form. “Sam [Shepard] is not a real flamboyant actor,” Yeager said after he saw the movie, “and I’m not a real flamboyant-type individual … he played his role the way I fly airplanes.” And nobody flew airplanes better than Chuck Yeager. — DE
“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”
He sees it coming before anyone else. Upon meeting the coward of the title, Shepard’s Frank James — older brother to Jesse and co-leader of the James gang — expresses his distaste immediately: “I don’t know what it is about you, but the more you talk, the more you give me the willies.” That line comes 10 minutes into a two-and-a-half-hour movie that culminates in Frank’s younger brother being murdered. Shepard wasn’t the star of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”; he wasn’t the star of most of the movies in which he appeared. But he was always a compelling presence on the periphery, adding eloquence and grit to whatever role he inhabited. You couldn’t help remembering that Shepard was a playwright whenever you saw him onscreen — not because there was anything theatrical or stately about his performances, but because his nonpareil mastery of language was evident in every word he spoke, whether it be a warning, a lamentation, or both. —MN
Commitment to family, no matter the cost, was the dominant theme of “Bloodline.” The Rayburns were more than a tight-knit group; they were an indelible institution of the Florida Keys, and leading them to such prosperity was Robert Rayburn. But as the series began, secrets started to spill out. The idyllic image Robert had constructed began to fall apart. His sons and daughter failed him out in the open, but only because he had already failed them in private.
Played by Sam Shepard, this patriarchal figure shouldered more baggage than anyone could be expected to emote in the few episodes featuring Robert. He was a walking contradiction: happy and carefree while harboring long-buried pain. But Shepard, a master of conveying oceans of information with just a drop of dialogue, provided the poised father figure with an aura of accessibility. Described as “an old hippie,” Robert sat there on the beach, staring at the ocean or strumming his ukulele, and it was easy to understand why a town would adore him, even as his children feared him. Shepard knew what Robert’s want for fun was masking, but he also knew better than to pull down that mask too far. Shamed fathers don’t do that, not when the family name is at stake. —BT
“Cold in July”
Jim Mickle’s underrated noir finds Shepard playing against type as Ben, the creepy father of a robber killed by another man (Michael C. Hall) in the midst of a break-in. The initial setup seems poised to cast Shepard as a maniacal, revenge-seeking villain — until it turns out that the deceased may not have been his son, as evidence points to a thorny police cover-up. From there, Shepard is cast as the victim of a much bigger conspiracy, and a grief-stricken man driven to unearth his son’s true fate. The rare thriller to let an older actor take centerstage, Mickle’s stylish mystery provided Shepard with a terrific late period showcase for his capacity to exude a range of fragile emotions festering beneath a stone-faced surface. His character’s bloody heroics in the finale give Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino” a run for his money, and it’s basically the ideal career capper for an artist who excelled (both as actor and playwright) at exploring the contradictory emotions of a dysfunctional family. —EK