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Pulitzer Prize Winning Playwright Sam Shepard Dead At 73

Posted: Monday, July 31, 2017 – 12:08 PM

Sam Shepard, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Oscar-nominated actor celebrated for depicting a darkness behind contemporary American life, has died, a family spokesman said Monday. He was 73.

The actor, director and writer passed away at home in Kentucky surrounded by his family on Thursday of complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, the spokesman confirmed to AFP. 

Shepard, who wrote nearly 50 plays, won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1979 for his play “Buried Child” and was nominated for an Academy Award in 1984 for best actor in a supporting role for “The Right Stuff.”

He went on to star in dozens of films with acting credits on the likes of “Steel Magnolias” with Dolly Parton and Julia Roberts, 2001 war drama “Black Hawk Down,” and 2013 family saga “August: Osage County” with Meryl Streep.

His Hollywood writing career included “Zabriskie Point” in 1970 and the screenplay for “Paris, Texas,” which won the Palme D’Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival.

On television, his most recent work was in the first two seasons of Netflix series “Bloodline,” which marked his final on-camera appearance. 

“Sam Shepard is one of the greats,” said Beau Willimon, creator of US television drama “House of Cards” on Monday. “He wrote of what he saw with fearless, timeless honesty. RIP maestro,” Willimon wrote on Twitter.

Gary Grant, professor of theatre at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, paid tribute to the enormity of Shepard’s contribution to drama.

“In my opinion, time will sort him out as one of America’s most significant voices who told the American tale with a profound insight and with an ear for the expression of our deepest hopes and fears,” Grant told AFP.

The characters he portrayed and the plays he wrote often depicted lost souls struggling to find their place in contemporary society.

“He has devoted himself to American themes — perhaps more self-consciously than any of his colleagues, he has taken for his subject the nature of contemporary American life,” wrote the Pulitzer nominating judges in 1979.

– Bob Dylan –

“He is preoccupied with the question of our relationship to the past; he explores with a lyrical exuberance the moral and spiritual values to which as Americans we continue to subscribe.”

After his win in 1979, Shepard was twice more a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama — for “True West” in 1983 and “Fool for Love” in 1984.

Born in Fort Sheridan, Illinois in 1943, he was the son of a teacher mother and Army officer father, who was a bomber pilot during World War II. 

As his father struggled with alcoholism, Shepard had a nomadic childhood, moving from base to base around the country before the family relocated to a farm in California and he graduated from high school in Duarte.

After school he spent a year studying agriculture before joining a traveling theater company and moving to New York, aged 19, where he began writing plays.

His first New York productions, “Cowboys” and “The Rock Garden” were produced in 1963. Since then, his work has won numerous awards, and been performed on and off Broadway and in theaters across the United States.

He lived in London for several years in the early 1970s before moving back to the United States.

He played the drums into adulthood, playing with bands such as the Holy Modal Rounders and also collaborated with Bob Dylan in writing the 11-minute song “Brownsville Girl,” which appeared on Dylan’s 1986 album “Knocked Out Loaded.” 

Shepard was in a long-term relationship with the actress Jessica Lange for many years. The couple had two children. Shepard is also survived by a son he shared with actress O-Lan Jones, to whom he was previously married.

His final play, “A Particle of Dread” premiered in 2014 in New York and his novel, “The One Inside” was published in February this year by Knopf.

The family spokesman said funeral arrangements were private, and that plans for a public memorial had not yet been determined.

In 1986, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and in 1994, he was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame. In 2009 he received the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award as a master American dramatist.


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