If there is such a thing as the ultimate honorary Texan, well, we could all do a lot worse than Sam Shepard.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Oscar-nominated actor, author and embodiment of a singular kind of American Western intellectual masculinity has died at the age of 73 from complications of Lou Gehrig's disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Seriously, every MFA program west of the Mississippi should have their flags at half-staff and parade around a riderless horse.
Shepard had one of those careers where it was almost hard to believe he was a real person. He wrote 44 plays, plays that made viewers hear the American language anew. “Buried Child” is the one that won the Pulitzer in 1979, but also he was nominated for “True West” and “Fool for Love.”
He wrote letter and poems, monologues and screenplays. He was Patti Smith’s boyfriend for a spell -- they wrote “Cowboy Mouth” together. He was Jessica Lange’s partner for 17 years -- they had two kids and lived all over the United States.
Shepard, Dylan and Allen Ginsberg at Jack Kerouac's grave from the "Renaldo and Clara" period. Photo by Ken Regan
He wrote the film“Renaldo and Clara” with Bob Dylan, one of the only Americans whom you could call cooler than Sam Shepard. Shepard also wrote “The Rolling Thunder Logbook,” a really cool little book about Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour.
About 10 years later, he wrote "Brownsville Girl” with Dylan, a decent if slightly overrated song with ugly production that showed up on the otherwise staggeringly flushable “Knocked Out Loaded.”
And he also starred in movies, because plays are wonderful but, if you look like Sam Shepard did and were as smart as he was, you should really be in a couple of movies. OK, you should be in a bunch of movies.
Hee showed up in Texas filmmaking legend Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven,” and this is more or less where the whole honorary Texan thing starts.
He co-wrote “Paris, Texas” with L.M. Kit Carson, one of the coolest movies about Texas ever made. He showed up in “All the Pretty Horses” based on a Cormac McCarthy novel and “Streets of Laredo,” a Larry McMurtry joint.
A very creepy Shepard in "Midnight Special"Ben Rothstein
More recently, he had big roles in Austin filmmaker Jeff Nichols' “Mud” and “Midnight Special,” playing the head of a fundamentalist Mormon-style church/cult.
And then in the non-Texas category there’s the "The Right Stuff," for which Shepard was nominated for an Academy Award playing Chuck Yeager, the man who broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1. Given that Yeager is one of the coolest non-Shepard Americans of the 20th century, this was a match made in cinematic heaven.
“The Right Stuff” was probably the first time anyone born in the 1970s had ever heard of Shepard, and man alive, did he make an impression.
Yeah, it's a fuzzy screen grab bu there's Shepard with Levon Helm as fellow test pilot and engineer Jack Ridely. These two should have made like six more movies together, maybe just sitting around reading things in their respective incredible accents or solving mysteries on horseback.
Horse-riding, jet-flying, Barbara Hershey-kissing, and sporting a fake West Virginia accent that was not very West Virginian but incredibly cool nonetheless, Shepard was pretty much everything you wanted to be as a 10 year old.
Then you got to be older and started reading his stuff and he was everything you wanted to be as a 30 year old, a 40 year old and on and on.
The right stuff