It’s been said that there are no second acts in American lives: Nobody told Sam Shepard. A farmer’s son who drifted from Illinois to California, Shepard — who passed away at the age of 73 Thursday due to complications of Lou Gehrig’s disease — made his way to New York in the early ’60s, where he was seduced by the burgeoning counterculture art scene. He made his film breakout in 1978 in Days of Heaven, at which point he had already made his mark on New York’s theater scene as part of Ralph Cook’s experimental off-off-Broadway collective Theatre Genesis; played drums for a proto-freak folk band; collaborated with the great Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni on the screenplay for the epochal post–Summer of Love blowout Zabriskie Point; cowritten and acted in a live show with his lover — who, by the way, was Patti Smith; accompanied Bob Dylan on his Rolling Thunder Revue tour; and written a play, the magnificently bleak family melodrama Buried Child, which would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
At 34 years old, Shepard had done enough living for several lifetimes and and made enough vanguard art to fill a career. But the key to his performance in Days of Heaven is that he seems to come out of nowhere. In a movie as beautifully attuned to landscape as any film ever made, Shepard’s unnamed character is like a phantom materializing out of the dusty Texas Panhandle air.
Terrence Malick’s second feature is the first of his films to overlay exquisitely lyrical images over a sturdy love triangle structure (an arrangement replicated in this year’s Song to Song), and Shepard’s presence as the physically frail, prematurely weathered farmer being duped by his new ranch hand (Richard Gere) and his girlfriend (Brooke Adams) — who has married the older man in a scheme to steal his land and his money — keeps the director’s lofty aesthetics tethered to something solid and human. The effectiveness of Shepard’s performance is doubly impressive considering his near-total lack of dialogue. Although he was only six years older than Gere, Shepard evinces the fatigue and sadness of a man several decades his senior. His intertwining of decency, weakness, and rage gives Malick’s heartland melodrama its sense of tragedy, as well as its soul.
Critically acclaimed but a commercial underperformer, Days of Heaven didn’t quite make Shepard a star, but he wasn’t the leading-man type anyway. His above-the-title stardom came as a writer. He scripted Wim Wenders’s 1984 Palme d’Or winner, Paris, Texas — an iconic art film featuring Harry Dean Stanton as a disheveled wanderer — and authored a run of stage plays in the ’80s, evincing a phenomenal talent for sharp, plain, everyday dialogue smuggling an achingly poetic worldview. "The days of champagne are long gone," mutters the drunker of the bickering brothers in True West, an agonizing depiction of sibling rivalry that doubles as a brilliantly embittered depiction of the creative process.
One of Shepard’s biggest theatrical hits, True West has been mounted over the years with a rotating murderers’ row of actors, including a legendary Chicago production with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise and a 2000 Broadway revival featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly (who swapped parts throughout the run).
At the same time Shepard was staking his claim as a playwright, he was perfecting self-effacement in his movie acting. He ably supported his partner Jessica Lange in her star turn as Frances Farmer in Frances (the pair met on set), as well as Country and Crimes of the Heart, and also popped up in popular hits like Baby Boom and Steel Magnolias, providing little dabs of authenticity around the edges.
The notable exception to his run of making others look good was his Oscar-nominated role as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, Philip Kaufman’s dazzling adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction novel about the salad days of the American space program. For Wolfe, Yeager’s fearlessness as a test pilot made him "the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff," and yet Shepard wisely dialed back on the flamboyance. In an ensemble with 134 speaking parts and cameos by ace comedians like Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum, Shepard, who was reluctant to play a living historical figure and had a phobia of flying, projects a quieter kind of cockiness: He made the man who broke the sound barrier into the strong, silent type. And, as a reward, he stepped forward at the end of a crowded three-hour epic for a thrilling, near-fatal solo flight topped off by a triumphant strut away from a desert crash site — as indelible an image of frontier heroism as anything in an old Hollywood Western.
Shepard would give other wonderful performances as he aged gradually into the gravitas he’d already shown in Days of Heaven. He was great as the ghost in Michael Almereyda’s underrated modern-dress version of Hamlet (where he played his one scene opposite Ethan Hawke, arguably the heir apparent to Shepard’s easy finesse) and presided magisterially over the Malickian homage of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Jim Mickle’s vicious, cynical crime drama Cold in July gave him an atypically ferocious role as a dangerous parolee. Even in sun-bleached, coastal-soap-opera dreck like Netflix’s Bloodline, playing a wizened patriarch much less complicated or credible than the dysfunctional fathers in his own plays, he mustered up enough of that old, effortless skill to steal each and every one of his scenes.
The irony of Shepard’s greatness is that it stemmed from his ability to make acting look effortless. The movies will be poorer without him around to take for granted.