I will never forget when I first saw Sam Shepard’s play Buried Child on stage.
The year was 1979, the evening was cold, the small theater in the West Village was drafty, and the stage was well heated. Using perfectly crafted words, this young playwright captured the essence of the anger people feel when institutions let them down. And he won the Pulitzer Prize.
Over the next 38 years, in addition to writing 43 more plays, Shepard appeared in more than 60 movie roles on screen and television. But he rarely played the lead. Instead he was that reliable supporting player who adds texture and meaning to any story. In each Shepard performance, his eyes reach through the screen to make him impossible to forget, no matter how brief the role. Because his eyes cannot lie. Here are some of my favorite performances from Shepard, who died July 27.
Days of Heaven (1978)
The actor first grabbed movie attention when director Terrence Malick cast him as a Texas farmer struggling with a complicated romantic trio. The actor’s eyes tell us everything we need to know about this man, his love for a woman, his struggle to accept her inability to commit. Shepard’s instinct to say so much with so few words perfectly matches Malick’s visual approach. The actor finds his voice by rarely using his voice.
Shephard shines as a friend of actress Frances Farmer in this biographical look at a roller-coaster Hollywood life. While the actor only has a few scenes, his presence grounds the film and the performance from Jessica Lange. They would soon begin to share almost 30 years off screen, too. Yes, the script gives Shepard little to do beyond showing support. But he does so with credibility and subtle restraint.
The Right Stuff (1983)
The Academy awards Shepard an Oscar nomination for playing aviation hero Chuck Yeager in this study of daring and ambition when the United States tests its dreams to travel through the sky. While Shepard lost the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Jack Nicholson (for Terms of Endearment) his brooding persona becomes the conscience of a film that candidly questions our country’s commitment to heroism in the skies.
Baby Boom (1986)
The actor reveals his humorous side, and his tenderness, as a small-town veterinarian in this comedy from Charles Shyer and Nancy Myers. While Diane Keaton is clearly the star, playing a single woman who suddenly finds herself caring for a small child, the movie relies on Shephard to humanize what could be an overly exaggerated narrative. Yes, Keaton is Keaton, and Shepard is Shepard, and their on-screen relationship benefits from his authenticity.
Steel Magnolias (1989)
As a saddened man named Spud, married to a hairdresser played by Dolly Parton, Shepard is at his most endearing in a drama about small town life in the South. While his role is limited to a few scenes, he makes us believe in a man who struggles to define what this woman means to him. The actor doesn’t need any long speeches to convince us. It’s all in his eyes. And the sincerity he brings to each moment.
August Osage County (2013)
Shepard briefly appears at the opening of this movie adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts. But what a scene. His presence, as a man who can’t handle his life, sets the tone for the family dysfunction the movie explores. The actor’s timing with costar Meryl Streep is so precise that he reminds us, no matter the part, that he knows what it takes to make any character memorable and any performance believable.
To read more about Shepard’s work in The Right Stuff, see The Reel Dad at below.
Sam Shepard shines in The Right Stuff
by Mark Schumann
The Reel Dad
Of Sam Shepard’s memorable film performances, The Right Stuff endures with its candid exploration of heroism in the skies.
And, for Baby Boomers, the days the movie recreates defined our view of American potential. Because, when I was growing up, the space program captivated every child’s imagination.
I well remember the evening of that day that John Glenn became the first to orbit the earth.
That evening, as the images of his historic flight filled the television stations in Denver, in living black and white, my father appeared in a panel discussion on accounting practices on the local educational network. He was not too happy that, when he came home and asked what we thought of his television debut, to learn that we hadn’t watched. John Glenn was more exciting.
When I introduced The Right Stuff to my children, I wasn’t concerned about its length (almost three hours) or the expanse of its story (from the 1940s through the 1960s). As a child who remembers the excitement of the US space program in its early years, I wanted them to experience the thrills we shared each time a rocket successfully launched; and the worry we felt as we waited for astronauts to safely return. The space program in the 1960s symbolized everything the United States could achieve. Despite the challenges of the times, we felt as if our world was in front of us. While we set our boundaries, and defined our challenges, no one in the world could tell us what we could be. We knew what destiny promised and what people would deliver.
What’s meaningful about The Right Stuff is how it beautifully captures the arrogance and ambition of this decade. Just look at the expression of LBJ’s face as (supposedly, as staged by Hollywood) rides through the Astrodome (itself a symbol of the decade’s reach). Or the faith in Sam Shepard’s eyes as he stares at the skies he knows he can conquer. There is little that people cannot accomplish. Everything feels possible. Nothing can stand in our way. Certainly not the logical points of view of how much meaning actually comes from little capsules hurling through space.
What those little capsules, and the men who fly them, accomplish is at the core of this expansive film. But what gives the movie its unique edge is how creator Philip Kaufman compares what these new-age heroes accomplish with what the pilots of sound-breaking airplanes actually achieve. And that’s the magic that Shepard contributes. By telling the earlier story of the incredible feats that men accomplished when pushing machines to their limits, Kaufman accentuates the technology feats that define human accomplishment in the space age. And what an age it is.
When I first shared this films with my sons, then, perhaps, less than 10 years old, they asked me why the movie spent so much time on the early pilots. I said, truthfully, because if we did not appreciate what men can accomplish, we cannot evaluate what machines can achieve.
That did quiet them. For a spell.