2018-01-11 / Opinions

Book Review

Sam Shepard: A Life
Reviewed by

In Sam Shepard: A Life, John Winters provides a detailed and comprehensive biography chronicling the life of Samuel Shepard Rogers III, known professionally as Sam Shepard. I was familiar with Sam Shepard the actor, but was not aware that he was also a prolific and accomplished writer. Described by New York magazine as “the greatest playwright of his generation,” Sam Shepard wrote 44 plays as well as short stories, essays, and memoirs. He received the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1979 for his play “Buried Child.” In addition, he was a songwriter, poet, fiction writer, and musician (playing with a 60s folk band, the Holy Modal Rounders).

This is not an authorized biography. Winters based his book on his knowledge and research of various Shepard archives and interviews that Shepard gave regarding his life and career. Born in 1943, Sam Shepard died in July 2017 at age 73, from complications of ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Sam Shepard: A Life begins in 1964 in Greenwich Village when Shepard was 20 years old. It describes how, when he arrived in New York, Shepard was so broke, he had to sell blood to buy a cheeseburger. Then, Winters goes back to Shepard’s childhood and chronicles his life providing details about people, places, and events that influenced Shepard including his romantic relationships with Rock Singer Patti Smith and Actress Jessica Lange.

Shepard’s early life seemed fairly normal. He was an active young man – working the family farm, playing music, sports, and participating in the local 4-H club. Sam claimed he wanted to be a veterinarian but he drifted toward the theater in high school and college. By the early 1960s, Shepard’s father had become an alcoholic and in 1963 after a violent confrontation, Sam left home. He took a job as an actor with a travelling troupe, eventually landing in New York. It was here that he began writing plays for off Broadway and began his career as a playwright.

Although he had about 50 roles in major films, Winters indicates that writing was always Sam Shepard’s passion and acting was just a way to pay the bills. The book analyzes Shepard’s relationship with his alcoholic father and his own battle with the bottle and points to this as a recurring theme in Shepard’s work. Winters describes Sam Shepard as a complex man who is “often uncomfortable in his own skin, who admits to needing alcohol to socialize with and fit in with others, and who writes, he says because he finds it easier than talking.” The author explains that the initial casting of Sam Shepard in movies as a “strong silent type” was because he could actually ride a horse and wasn’t very good with speaking parts in the beginning.

Sam Shepard: A Life provides insight about a very private man, his life, his relationships and his demons.

If you are interested in Sam Shepard, the playwright, this book is for you. It spends a great deal of time analyzing each of his plays. I enjoyed the parts about Sam Shepard, the man and his life.

This book is available at the Mary Willis Library.

Return to top