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Who is Sam Shepard?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Sam Shepard is an American playwright, novelist, screenwriter, and film actor born in 1943 in Illinois. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his play Buried Child. He is a prolific playwright, with more than forty plays to his name, and has also written extensively for Hollywood.

Sam Shepard moved to New York City in his late teens, working Off-Off-Broadway. He began writing early, and was produced a number of times by Theatre Genesis at St. Mark's Church. Although he appeared on stage a bit during this period, it wasn't until quite a bit later that he fully entered the scene as an actor.

In the mid-1970s Sam Shepard moved to San Francisco, becoming associated with the Magic Theatre. It was there, in 1978, that Sam Shepard premiered Buried Child, which would garner him a Pulitzer Prize, becoming the first Off-Off-Broadway show to win the honor. Following Buried Child, Sam Shepard continued writing at an accelerated pace. Some of his most notable creations include Curse of the Starving Class, Tongues with Joseph Chaikin, Fool for Love, Simpatico, and A Lie of the Mind.

In 2001 Sam Shepard wrote The God of Hell, an indictment of the Republican response to the tragedy of September 11th. The God of Hell follows a rural farming family whose life is thrown into turmoil by an overly-zealous patriotic employee of the United States government. In 2007 Sam Shepard released his most recent play, Kicking a Dead Horse, which premiered at the Public Theatre.

Buried Child, the play that made Sam Shepard famous, follows a family as it falls apart in the context of the 1970s economic troubles of the United States. The family sons, expected to take over the family business, are in fact not capable of doing so, and watch as the farm fails and the family slowly degenerates. It explores the theme of disillusionment, especially with the American Dream, and the failing of modern Americans to fulfill the American Dream and live up to the mythology of America, as well as America’s failure to make those dreams possible.

This theme is recurring in the works of Sam Shepard, and as time has passed has only become more pointed, with Kicking a Dead Horse a deeply-sorrowful look at America's drifting from its core ideals and romance. At the same time, Sam Shepard paints comic and poignant scenes through which to tell his tales, and most of his plays and screenplays are laugh-out-loud funny at times.

Since the late-1970s Sam Shepard has also been a regular staple of Hollywood films. He has appeared in films such as The Right Stuff, Steel Magnolias, The Pelican Brief, Snow Falling on Cedars, Michael Almereyda's Hamlet, and Stealth. He has also received recognition for his acting from a number of venues, most notably an Oscar nomination in 1984 for his portrayal of Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff.

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