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Fresh Air Remembers Pulitzer Prize-Winning Playwright And Actor Sam Shepard


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Sam Shepard, playwright, actor and an icon of understated cool, died last week at the age of 73 due to complications from Lou Gehrig's disease. Shepard grew up on his family's avocado farm in California but moved to New York as a young man and began writing plays. He wrote more than 55, many dealing with the American West. Among his plays are "True West," "Fool For Love," "Cowboy Mouth" and "Buried Child," which won the Pulitzer Prize. Shepard was also a compelling if reluctant screen star, appearing in more than 50 films, including "Steel Magnolias," "Days Of Heaven," "Country" and "The Pelican Brief." His breakthrough role was in the 1983 film "The Right Stuff." He played Army test pilot Chuck Yeager, who in 1947, became the first person to break the sound barrier. In this scene, Yeager's having a drink in a desert bar. A couple of Army Engineers who are working on a new aircraft are sitting nearby. They've heard about this pilot, Yeager.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) Hey there, Yeager.

SAM SHEPARD: (As Chuck Yeager) Sir?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) We were just talking to Slick here about the sound barrier.

SHEPARD: (As Chuck Yeager) Is that right?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) And we feel that the X-1 is ready to have a go at it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As character) We think the X-1's got the answer to go beyond Mach 1.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) If there is any beyond. So what do you think, Yeager?

SHEPARD: (As Chuck Yeager) Well, I tell you what, half these engineers ever been off the ground, you know. I mean, they're liable to tell you that the sound barrier is a brick wall in the sky. It'll rip your ears off if you try to go through it. You ask me, I don't believe the damn thing even exists.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) Waitress, a drink for Mr. Yeager here.

SHEPARD: (As Chuck Yeager) No, thanks. I got one.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As character) So do you think you want to have a go at it?

SHEPARD: (As Chuck Yeager) I might.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As character) But since, as you say, this sound barrier doesn't really exist, how much...

SHEPARD: (As Chuck Yeager) How much you got? I'm just joking. The Air Force is paying me already, ain't that right, sir?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) Why, sure, Yeager, but...

SHEPARD: (As Chuck Yeager) So when do we go?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) Well, how about tomorrow morning?

SHEPARD: (As Chuck Yeager) I'll be there.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) See you there.

DAVIES: Terry spoke to Sam Shepard in 1998. One of the subjects Shepard wrote about was his fear of flying, hardly in keeping with his rugged image or his portrayal of test pilot Chuck Yeager.


SHEPARD: I got to meet Chuck Yeager, you know, when I was shooting "The Right Stuff." And he's a man who's known for impeccable courage and all the rest of it. And I got to talking to him about flying and all that. And he says, it's not true that you don't have fear. You know, fear is - part and parcel of the thing that you take on is that you're able to face it, you know. To me, that's the interesting part about courage, you know. It's not that you don't have fear, it's that you look at in the eye, you know.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: But Chuck Yeager went on to be, you know, a famous test pilot. You played him in "The Right Stuff," but you don't go up in planes yourself, right?

SHEPARD: I do occasionally, yeah. I'm getting better at it, actually. I go to Mexico once a year and stuff like that. It's just that I'm not crazy about it, you know. And it's a funny thing because I grew up in a kind of rural situation. Most of the people that I've talked to from that kind of background are terrified of flying. And I always thought that was curious, you know, that people who had a background of being sort of stuck in the land don't like to get up in airplanes. And I don't know if that's just a coincidence or - you know what I mean? I have a farmer friend of mine who once a year flies to Las Vegas to have a go at the one-armed bandits. And he can't stand airplanes. He hates them but he goes, you know.

GROSS: Now, did playing Chuck Yeager have any effect on you and flying?

SHEPARD: Any effect on me and flying? No. I went up with him actually once in a little Piper Cub over the desert because, you know, if I'm going to crash, I might as well go down with the world's greatest pilot. So we went to this hangar. And he took this little hook - it was like - looked like an umbrella handle - and pulled this airplane out of the hangar by hand. And it was a single-prop plane. We jumped in the damn thing and took off. And I couldn't believe it. It felt great. It was just a - it was a great feeling. We kind of hovered over the desert. And he showed me different stuff, you know, where he hung out in his Air Force days. And that was fun.

GROSS: Now, I know your father was a bomber pilot in World War II. I'm wondering if that had any impact on you? And if you heard...

SHEPARD: Oh, I'm sure it did (laughter).

GROSS: Did you hear a lot of scary stories about nearly being shot down during the war?

SHEPARD: Well, he - yeah, he had he had quite a few scrapes. He had a bunch of shrapnel hit him and stuff. And one time they had a belly gunner. You know, in those old big planes, they had these glass turrets underneath the fuselages with the machine gun turret. And he - one of his buddies was in that while he was flying the bomber. And the turret got shot off. And he saw his pal go down, you know. Stuff like that. I don't know. I guess it gives you little nightmares when you're a kid and stuff. I suppose it does - it has affected me but I'm not sure how.

GROSS: Now, some of your plays have dealt with family upheaval, family violence. You left your family. As a teenager, you left home.

SHEPARD: I did. I was driven out.

GROSS: Driven out by your parents?

SHEPARD: Well, that's unfair to say. I mean, I left in a kind of holocaust of my old man. You know, he destroyed the house. And I decided it was time to go.

GROSS: What did your father do that destroyed the house?

SHEPARD: What did he do?

GROSS: Yeah.

SHEPARD: Broke windows, tore the doors off, stuff like that.

GROSS: Oh, literally destroyed the house?

SHEPARD: Yeah, physically.

GROSS: Did - how did your mother handle that? She didn't run away with you.

SHEPARD: She's a very brave soul.

GROSS: Was your father very strict when you were growing up? Were there were a lot of rules you were supposed to follow?

SHEPARD: Yeah, he was.

GROSS: What were the rules?

SHEPARD: He was a Air Force guy, you know.

GROSS: Right.

SHEPARD: Crew cut, all that stuff.

GROSS: So what were the rules you were supposed to obey as a kid?

SHEPARD: What were the rules I was supposed to - never show any feeling was one of the rules (laughter).

GROSS: Well, that's interesting. Let me stop you there because in several of your roles, you're a character who doesn't show his feelings. Even in the new movie, it's clear how much he feels for the Diane Keaton character, but he's kind of in her eyes unwilling to demonstrate it enough.

SHEPARD: Yeah. I think you can't - it's very difficult to escape your background, you know? And I don't think it's necessary to even try, you know, to escape it. More and more, I start to think that it's necessary to see exactly what it is that you inherited on both ends of the stick - your timidity, your courage, your self-deceit and your honesty and all the rest of it.

You know, it's necessary to include all of that in order to be able to accept oneself because if I - you know what I'm saying? And the fact that the characters that I portray have to do with that kind of dilemma is fine by me because I know what that is, you know? And I suppose the way it's expressed is part and parcel of who I am. I can't get away from it, you know?

GROSS: No, I think there's a kind of hard-boiled quality about some of your characters so that even if they don't kind of openly express a lot of emotion, they're also - they're vulnerable but in a hard-boiled way as opposed to in a way where they don't express emotion but, you know, behind closed doors, they'd be crying or something. Do you know what I mean? There's - and I'm wondering if you thought of yourself as having that hard-boiled quality when you were still in the house with your parents, kind of in a house ruled by your father.

SHEPARD: No. I never as a kid thought of myself as hard-boiled. That came later. Under the influence of my old man and the family situation and all that, I never for a second believed that I was (laughter) that tough, you know? You can't - as a child, you don't think of yourself as tough. I mean you may be able to bear certain things, but I just never had that kind of image of myself as a tough kid.

GROSS: When your father was tearing doors off hinges and breaking windows, was he beating you up, too?

SHEPARD: Now and then, you know, yeah. But I mean I wouldn't say that I had a particularly horrendous childhood compared to the modern kids. You know, I think the modern kids probably have it worse, you know, having sometimes no fatherly influence at all, you know?

GROSS: When you were young, did you find any resonance in books or movies? You know, with the situation that you were in, did you gravitate to books or movies that seemed to describe families similar to yours? Or did you look for something completely different in books and movies?

SHEPARD: Well, no, I was - it was funny. When I was in high school - again, we were out in the middle of the boondocks, you know? And there was a little, bitty art house theater I remember out in a place called Cucamonga.

GROSS: Oh, wow. You really lived in a place called - near Cucamonga?


GROSS: Do you remember in the "Jack Benny" show? It was always...

SHEPARD: (Laughter) Right.

GROSS: The bus announcer was always singing Cucamonga.

SHEPARD: Yeah, there really is a Cucamonga. It was surrounded by vineyards, you know? And for some reason, there was this little, bitty art house there. And they'd show foreign films, which was just unbelievable in those days 'cause there wasn't anything around but "Ben-Hur" and, you know, "Cleopatra" and all those kind of things.

So me and a couple of buddies of mine would go out there and - I saw a film called "400 Blows" by Truffaut - black and white film. And that really stunned me, you know? I was like, wow, you know, this kid - I saw a lot of similarities in that between my situation and that, you know?

GROSS: He was sent to reform school in that.

SHEPARD: Yeah. I mean, yeah, he had a pretty rough deal.

GROSS: So you were seeing art films in Cucamonga, wow (laughter).

SHEPARD: Yeah, art films - imagine that.

DAVIES: Sam Shepard speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1998. We'll hear more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to Terry's 1998 interview with actor and playwright Sam Shepard. Shepard died last week at the age of 73.


GROSS: You started off acting in - I think it was a repertory company - a small repertory company that basically...


GROSS: ...Toured churches.

SHEPARD: Yeah. When I first left home, I got this paper route. And I was delivering papers all over the - I had a '51 Chevy, and I was throwing papers all around the houses and stuff. And at the end of the day, I started going through this paper. And the end of it, in the work section, there was this little ad that said actors wanted.

And I went in and auditioned for this company. It was called the Bishop's Company. And the great thing about it was that it was a traveling company. It was going to get the hell out of there, you know? So they hired me, and the next day, I was on a Greyhound bus to Bethlehem, Pa., and joined up with the company there. And we toured all over the place and did these one-night stands in churches, which was my first real experience with theater.

GROSS: It's funny 'cause you went, you know, from churches eventually to off-Broadway at a time when off-Broadway was, you know, very avant-garde for its time. So it's an interesting contrast. Doing the - playing the church circuit must have been an interesting to see the country and to get started acting.

SHEPARD: Yeah, and also to see this - probably the last of that kind of '50s culture. Although it was the '60s, you know, there was still a '50s feel about it - you know, that culture in small-town America. It was pretty amazing.

GROSS: So you went to New York. I think it was in 1963.


GROSS: What was it like to be - I think you were living or at least working in Greenwich Village. Was this your first exposure to an avant-garde and to a bohemian life, to a life that was radically different from the kind of military life that you grew up in and also radically different from the churches that you were touring?

SHEPARD: Yeah, it was. I was suddenly on the Lower East Side, on Avenue C and 10th St., living with jazz musicians (laughter).

GROSS: Well, I think your roommate was Charles Mingus's son.

SHEPARD: Yeah, yeah. I'd gone to high school with him. And he was working at a place called The Village Gate and got me a job there as a busboy. So that's how I got initiated into New York.

GROSS: Were you a good busboy?

SHEPARD: Oh yeah, excellent. I got fired, though, because I dropped a - knocked over a candle on a guy's suit. And that was the end of that job.

GROSS: Right, right.

SHEPARD: But in the course of that, I got to see probably the most amazing musicians of their time - you know, like the Adderley brothers and Mingus and Thelonious Monk and Gerry Mulligan. It was just a free show, you know?

GROSS: Yeah, because The Village Gate was a club.

SHEPARD: Yeah, yep.

GROSS: Do you - when you're writing lines for a play, do you speak the lines out loud to just hear how they sound spoken?

SHEPARD: Sometimes, sometimes, yeah.

GROSS: Now, when you're writing dialogue for play, do you ever hear a certain musicality in a line, like, where you hear the accent, where you hear the emphasis as being and then the actor does it completely differently than that?

SHEPARD: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: And maybe it works, but maybe it doesn't work for you. Maybe you feel like your intention was kind of lost. Will you say something to the actor about that if you do feel that the music you're hearing is lost?

SHEPARD: Well, yeah. But I think more often, particularly if you have good actors like, for instance, Malkovich and Ed Harris and Jim Gammon and these great actors that I've had the good fortune to get, they often will land things in an unexpected way that's not only surprising but right, you know, I mean, much more right than you could have intended. You know, in other words, bring the intention of the writing into another domain. Malkovich has an uncanny ability to do that.

GROSS: Any general impressions about most screenplays that you read now about how well they're written?

SHEPARD: (Laughter) Oh, boy. Well, my main problem with screenplays nowadays, you know, that most of the ones I've seen is that there are no characters whatsoever in them.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SHEPARD: That's my main problem. You just don't find any characters, you find these formulas. You find these sort of Hollywood rituals going on, but you don't find characters everywhere. Every once in a while you do. I mean, I don't want to be too harsh. Like this "Snow Falling On Cedars" that I'm doing in Vancouver has very clear characters in it and actual human beings in it.

But many, many of the characters don't even feel human. They feel computerized or faxed or, you know, somebody's mailed it in. And they all kind of sound like the same - they come from the same person. I don't know if it's a secretary out there who's doing it or what.

GROSS: That's the secret (laughter).

SHEPARD: Very weird, you know.

GROSS: You must be able to read screenplays with confidence because you write plays. I mean, I know - like, for me, for instance, it's very hard for me to read a play or a screenplay and really be able to kind of stage in my mind how it would look and sound together.

SHEPARD: Well, screenplays are easier to read because if you can't get past the first five pages, you might as well throw it in the fire, you know. That's it, five pages.

GROSS: Well, I really want to thank you a lot for talking with us about your life and your work, appreciate it very much.

SHEPARD: You bet.

DAVIES: Actor and playwright Sam Shepard speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1998. Shepard died last week at the age of 73. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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