By Robert Heide
The memorial for Sam Shepard, who was called ‘the greatest American playwright of his generation’ by New York Magazine, was held at the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club on Saturday, October 7th in the Ellen Stewart Theatre on East 4th Street.
This Coffeehouse Chronicles series (#143) was an amazing and heartfelt homage and celebration put together by the director/curator Michal Gamily, with the playwright Jean Claude van Itallie acting as the moderator. Panelist speakers included the actress/producer Angelina Fiordellisi, co-founder of the Cherry Lane Theatre; actor/director/teacher Joyce Aaron Funk; Charles Mingus III; Mia Yoo, La MaMa’s Artistic Director since 2009; and Sam Shepard’s sister Sandy Rogers. Sandy is an established country blues singer who wrote the soundtrack for her brother’s movie based on his 1982 play Fool for Love in which Ed Harris performed.
It is no news to the world that goes to the movies that Sam, who won the Pulitzer Prize for playwriting in 1979 for the remarkable Buried Child, which first premiered at the Theater for the New City and eventually landed on Broadway in 1996, became a bonafide Hollywood movie star. Sam’s rugged good looks and shy, understated manner found many comparing him to that other super-duper movie actor, Gary Cooper. And guess what? Sam once told me that Cooper was a hero for him when he was a kid, particularly in the Wild West movie High Noon. “I saw that one many times,” he remarked. He was also a fan of Roy Rogers and James Dean, both of whom he discussed in his play Heartless, which was presented at the Signature Theatre in 2012. Heartless starred the great Lois Smith who played a bar maid opposite Dean in East of Eden. In Sam’s play, she is an old woman who falls from a tree while watching this film (Eden) at an outdoor screening. After breaking her back, she winds up a cripple in a wheelchair. Some of movie star Sam’s favorite Shepard films were Days of Heaven; Francis (starring Jessica Lange); The Right Stuff, which portrayed an astronaut (the film for which he was nominated for an Academy Award); and Resurrection, which also starred Ellen Burstyn, Eva Le Gallienne, and Penny Allen.
Sam (whose birth name was Samuel Shepard Rogers III) wrote 44 plays and won many honors, which included a record 11 Obie Awards. Some of my own favorites were True West (1982), starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich; A Life of the Mind, starring Geraldine Page; and Heartless. The night I went to see Heartless, Sam was there. Afterwards, we had drinks at the bar and reminisced about the good old days at the Caffe Cino, La MaMa, and the other Off-Off venues like Theatre Genesis on St. Marks Place and Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square South. “Those were really the best days,” Sam said, and I agreed. He introduced me to his Heartless director Daniel Aukin to whom he said, “Robert is one of the important downtown writers.” I wondered what he meant but it felt good to hear him say it.
At the La MaMa memorial, the beautiful and wonderful actress Jessica Lange showed up with her children. Sam and Jessica lived as partners from 1982 to 2009, many of those years in a leased brownstone on West 11th Street (between Waverly Place and West 4th Street) and later at 1 5th Avenue. Previously, Sam was married to the actress O-Lan Jones. O-Lan could not make the memorial but their son Jesse did.
The Obie Award-winning actress Mari-Claire Charba (she won for Birdbath by Leonard Melfi) was in attendance and we chatted about one of Sam’s hit plays Chicago in which she starred with the late, great Kevin O’Connor. “It was a big success at La MaMa in 1966 but before that I did it all over Europe, in Paris, Denmark, and in Scandinavia as well.” Sam’s Melodrama Play written in 1967 was done on a double bill with my own play Moon (with a cast that had just performed Moon at the Washington National Cathedral).
I can only say that Sam Shepard was and still is an inspiration to me. I think this is also true for the other writers of that time who came out of the experimental Off-Off Broadway scene, including: Jean Claude van Itallie, Paul Foster, Lanford Wilson, John Guare, Leonard Melfi, Robert Patrick, and Michael Smith.
Sam Shepard suffered for a long time with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease.) Online at The New Yorker Culture Desk, you can read Patti Smith’s My Buddy—an account of her time with Sam in Kentucky at his farm where she helped him through the ordeal. Miraculously, he completed, with Patti at his side, his last work—a novel published by Knopf in 2017 called The One Inside. Michael Riedel, writing about Sam in his column in the New York Post after he died at age 73, quoted this writer about the early creative days at the Caffe Cino and La MaMa, hanging out in Village coffee shops, discussing everything from Samuel Beckett (Shepard’s favorite) to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and poets like Gertrude Stein. Read the whole article at: http://nyp.st/2vlQYor.
Breaking News: It was just announced that, in the last few months of his life, Sam Shepard, with assistance from his sisters, daughter, and friend Patti Smith, completed a novel entitled Spy of the First Person. It will be published by Knopf in December 2017.
The book Robert Heide 25 Plays is now available on amazon.com.