Saturday, August 5, 2017

Sam Shepard: Actor, Playwright, Risk-Taker and Dylan Confederate

"I hate endings. Just detest them. Beginnings are definitely the most exciting, middles are perplexing and endings are a disaster. … The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap. Why not be more honest with the moment? The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning. That’s genius." 
--Sam Shepard

I'm not sure how it happened by over the course of a lifetime there have been so many good books I read that later became Hollywood films. Among them, Andromeda Strain, Fantastic Voyage, Planet of the Apes, Charlie Wilson's War, The Godfather and many others. One book that I thoroughly enjoyed at the time when I read it was Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff. Like all great books, especially those with massive page counts, translating them to the screen has to be a challenge as there are so many details and in a Hollywood film so little time.

Though the film is purportedly a story of the first seven astronauts who helped propel the United States forward toward that impossible dream of landing men on the moon, it turns out that an eighth superhero memorably emerges, a man who diligently risked all behind the scenes, or above and beyond them, to set the stage for those other seven men who essentially rode tin cans into outer space during the Mercury program. That man was Chuck Yeager. As Johnny Cash might drawl, "Here was a man."

When the film was released in 1983 there were stars a-plenty, a first-rate screenplay and technical excellence in every aspect of the production. In the end they garnered 4 Gold Statues and a number of other nominations that showed the film, too, had the right stuff.

One of these nominations, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, went to Sam Shepard for his role as the now renowned Chuck Yeager.

When I think about the making of this film, I ask myself if the three major characters made jokes about their names and roles. Here's why. The role of Alan Shepard, the first American astronaut, was played by Scott Glenn. The role of John Glenn, first American to circumnavigate the globe in outer space, was played by Ed Harris. So Harris played Glenn, and Glenn played Shepard, while Shepard played this unknown character who might be best characterized as the daringest space cowboy of them all.

* * * *

So Sam Shepard has passed away -- an actor, playwright, director, author and screenwriter. As a playwright he earned a Pulitzer Prize. As an actor he starred in at least 25 films, most memorable for me being the film cited above, plus Black Hawk Down, Paris Texas, All the Pretty Horses and August: Osage County. He was also the evocative narrator in that classic E.B. White story Charlotte's Web.

* * * *

Dylan Collaborations
I've lost track of how many articles and stories that mention Dylan and Shakespeare in the same breath. Earlier this week I read the 1986 Rolling Stone interview titled Sam Shepard on Working With Dylan, Why Jim Morrison Has No Sense of Humor in which the leadoff question had to do with playwright Sam Shepard being compared with Shakespeare, and Shepard asserting Shakespeare didn't exist.

It's not listed in most of Shepard's credits but in addition to everything else for which he's known, he was also a songwriter, co-writing "Brownsville Girl" with Bob Dylan, which uses a Hollywood film starring Gregory Peck as a touchstone for its storyline, and was later included on Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Volume III. This is just one of many Dylan intersections in the course of a lifetime.

Shepard's early years in New York included a relationship with Patti Smith, who last December read Dylan's acceptance speech at the Nobel Academy and sang "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall."

In the early 1980's Shepard began a relationship with Jessica Lange, who played Nina Veronica in Dylan's 2003 film Masked and Anonymous. Lange, for what it's worth, is a Northlander who was born in Cloquet, Minnesota, about 15 minutes south of here, and graduated from Cloquet high school.

Shepard's most extensive involvement with Dylan was as co-writer of Renaldo and Clara, described alternately as an incoherent four-hour flop or a coherent creative endeavor blending three different ways of telling a story.

* * * *

And now, an unusual twist on this story. I was born in Cleveland, Ohio in the early Fifties. When I was two years old the Cleveland Plain Dealer began covering a murder case in which a doctor named Sam Sheppard allegedly murdered his wife. I doubt that I would remember this incident except that years later, after Sheppard spent many years in prison, Dr. Sheppard's case was returned to the courtroom amidst much publicity and public outcry. It was a brutal murder and though it seems everyone knew he was guilty, in the re-trial he won is freedom because the first trial should have been thrown out of court as a mistrial.

I was an impressionable 14-year-old when the Supreme Court weighed in. The name Sam Sheppard had become so embedded in my mind as a doctor who murdered his wife and won release from prison that when the writer/actor Sam Shepard's name began to emerge in the 70's I mistakenly thought that this was the same man. It was quite some time before the fog cleared on this matter for me.

* * * *

Sam Shepard the author/actor/playwright passed away on July 27. For an extensive tribute see this July 31 N.Y.Times story.

For me the biggest takeaway was reading again how productive he was. I'd be interested in learning more about what drove him. He undoubtedly wasn't doing it for the money. He had enough money to live comfortably. It's clear he had an artist's drive, the need to produce.

I'm going to close with this statement that Shepard made once that I can totally identify with. Jonathan Winters once said something nearly identical about painting (being an artist.)

"Being a writer is so great because you're literally not dependent on anybody. Whereas, as an actor, you have to audition or wait for somebody else to make a decision about how to use you, with writing, you can do it anywhere, anytime you want. You don't have to ask permission." 

Rest in peace, Mr. Sam.

No comments: