Sam Shepard, America’s ‘cowboy playwright dramatist,’ dead at 73

Sam Shepard, dubbed a “cowboy poet” who bridged the worlds of theatre and film as an accomplished playwright, actor, and author, is dead at 73. 

Shepard died at his Kentucky home last Thursday of complications from Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS), according to Chris Boneau, a spokesperson for the Shepard family.

“The family requests privacy at this difficult time,” Boneau said in a statement.

Born in Illinois and raised on a ranch in California, Shepard was an award-winning playwright (his Buried Child earned a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1979), accomplished writer and celebrated actor, picking up an Oscar nomination for The Right Stuff in 1984.

People Sam Sheppard

While perhaps most famous for his plays, Shepard was also an actor. Here, he arrives for a Venice Film Festival screening of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. (Andrew Medichini/Associated Press)

Since the 1960s, Shepard had published dozens of plays that made their way to the stage, developing a reputation for bleak stories about troubled families on the fringes of U.S. society. Cowboys, A Lie of the MindFool for Love and his trilogy Chicago, Icarus’s Mother and Red Cross are among his many noted stage productions.

Across the past three decades, he also developed a career as a popular actor in Hollywood, with credits including Days of Heaven, Steel Magnolias, Frances, All the Pretty Horses and August: Osage County., as well as Netflix’s recent series Bloodline.

The multi-disciplined artist earned praise as a screenwriter (his Paris, Texas, directed by Wim Wenders, was a Cannes Film Festival winner) and for teaching playwriting and leading theatre classes and workshops at universities. He published his most recent book — a novel called The One Inside  — in February.


Shepard poses with Canadian actress and director Sarah Polley, his co-star in Don’t Come Knocking, at Cannes in May 2005. (Bruno Bebert/Associated Press)

Shepard was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1986. Other career accolades include induction into the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1994, and receiving the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theatre Award recognizing him as a master American dramatist.

Shepard split from his longtime partner Jessica Lange, with whom he had two children, in 2009. 

His survivors include their children Hannah and Walker, his son Jesse from his earlier marriage to actress O-Lan Jones, and his sisters, Sandy and Roxanne Rogers.

Funeral arrangements remain private, and plans for a public memorial have not yet been determined, according to Boneau.


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