Review: Sam Shepard, an Unreliable Narrator of His Own Life, Gets a New Biography by Robert Greenfield

It’s appropriate that True West: Sam Shepard’s Life, Work and Times by Robert Greenfield ends with the 2019 Broadway staging of True West, Shepard’s iconic play about the American West, manhood and brotherhood. It was 17 months after Shepard’s death. New York Times critic Ben Brantley, who in 2000 reviewed another production of the play, called it “a great American play, arguably Mr. Shepard’s finest.“ He described it in 2019 as “a play that seems to grow in disturbing depth every time it comes back to haunt us.” 

Shepard, the great American actor and playwright, was a local boy. At least we’ll claim him as one. He was born on November 5, 1943, in a hospital at Ft. Sheridan, where his mother was living in the officers quarters while his father served as a bomber pilot in Europe. Ft. Sheridan, in Highland Park, was then the US Army regional training and induction center. (The base closed in 1993, and it’s now a residential area within Highland Park and Lake Forest.) 

Greenfield, a veteran music writer, is known for his biographies of the Rolling Stones, Jerry Garcia, rock music promoter Bill Graham, record company executive Ahmet Ertegun, and Timothy Leary. His book is a complete story of Shepard’s life with significant focus on his father’s influence and his relationships with Patti Smith and Jessica Lange. It’s highly readable and properly annotated but offers few insights that have not been covered in other works.

Throughout the book, Greenfield chronicles how the various personal and cultural influences on Shepard’s life formed his creative vision of a new frontier in American life—deeply influenced by the West where he grew up, saturated with alcohol and violence, and written in a language that throbs with the beat of mid-century American music. Theater critic Hilton Als called him “this nation’s first hip-hop playwright … he merged his love of jazz and jazz culture with his stories about impossible love affairs and male competitiveness … His real terrain was black music.”

Shepard’s own stories about his life vary from verifiable to wildly mythological. He’s the classic example of the unreliable narrator and considered truth to be fungible. Greenfield says, “In the world according to Sam Shepard, reality was not just fungible but also always subject to his own form of artistic embellishment.” 

Three other biographies of Shepard have been published (and Greenfield frequently quotes them), so one could argue that there’s no need for a fourth—although Shepard is clearly an entrancing subject for a journalist/historian.

Shepard’s father, Samuel Shepard Rogers Jr., was a Midwesterner, born in Crystal Lake and raised on a farm near McHenry. His months as the commander of the crew flying B-24s (not heated, pressurized, or insulated) were a peak life experience that he was never able to match in civilian life. He also was never able to adjust to people in positions of authority over him—a trait his son also exhibited, according to Greenfield. Rogers probably suffered from what is now called PTSD; alcohol became an important part of his life. 

Jon Michael Hill as Austin with Namir Smallwood as Lee in the 2019 Steppenwolf production of True West. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

In life after wartime, Rogers and his wife, the former Jane Schook of a well-to-do Lombard family, moved to Pasadena and then to Duarte, California, with their two children—five-year-old Sam and his baby sister Sandy. Both parents taught in exclusive schools while Sam was growing up. Sam was named Samuel Shepard Rogers III after his father but he was called Steve Rogers throughout his early years.

During his brief time in college, Sam became involved in theater and was already writing plays. He auditioned to join a local theater group known as the Bishop’s Company Repertory Players on its cross-country tour, performing one-night stands. For eight months, they traveled all over the US in two station wagons, each pulling a trailer loaded with scenery, props and costumes. Greenfield speculates that Shepard gained his obsession with driving all over the country from this experience. 

In early November 1963, at the age of 19, he left the company and took a bus to New York, where he got a job as a busboy at the Village Gate. His California school mate, Charles Mingus III, was there and helped Sam get settled. 

In 1964, already involved in theater in the Village and on the Lower East Side, Steve Rogers changed his name to Sam Shepard. His early plays—short plays titled Cowboys and The Rock Garden—were staged at a new venue called Theatre Genesis, formed by Ralph Cook, the headwaiter at the Gate. The reviews were mixed but Sam kept writing—and writing. 

He has told interviewers that his original influences were Samuel Beckett and Waiting for Godot and Eugene O’Neill’s family tragedy, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which Sam saw in the 1962 black-and-white film version. He read the play, Greenfield says, and found an “odd connection” with the subject matter. “… there was a demonic thing going on (with that family) that nobody could put their finger on …” Something about that felt similar to Shepard’s own background and he felt he could use some of it. 

Critic Alexis Soloski, writing for the Guardian in 2019, said, “Shepard is the great poet of wounded masculinity, of men who would be cowboys if the world would only offer them territories, frontiers, wildernesses. Instead they ride in circles, tearing up their own internal turf.”

Scene from AstonRep's 2022 staging of Buried Child. Dodge, on the left, played by Jim Morley, was patterned after Shepard's father. Roberto Jay as Vince on the right. Photo by Paul Goyette.

For 15 years, Shepard wrote plays, struggling to master the craft of playwriting. His mature and greatest plays are considered to be those he wrote between 1977 and 1985: Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child, True West, Fool for Love and A Lie of the Mind, many about wildly dysfunctional families in bleak surroundings.

Shepard, whose acting success was certainly enhanced by his height and good looks, had a significant movie career too. His first film role was in Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven in 1979, and then he played opposite Ellyn Burstyn in Resurrection in 1980. His most notable role was as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (1983) for which he won an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor. He played the patriarch, Beverly Weston, in the 2013 film version of Tracy Letts’ August Osage County. Shepard also was a musician, playing drums occasionally with a band known as the Holy Modal Rounders in the 1960s.

A timeline of Shepard’s relationships with women could fill pages—and it does fill chapters in Greenfield’s biography. He lived with actor Joyce Aaron in New York in 1965–67. He met actor O-Lan Jones in the 60s and they were married from 1969 to 1984. During that time, he had an affair with Patti Smith in 1970–71. Shepard is credited with convincing Smith, who thought of herself as a poet, to perform her poetry in front of a loud and rowdy rock and roll band; she thus became a rock star herself. While he was part of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue on the road in 1975, he had relationships with both singer Joni Mitchell and Chris O’Dell, a tour staff member. 

His longest relationship was with actor Jessica Lange—27 years from 1982 to 2009. They met on the set of the film Frances, with Lange cast as Frances Farmer, the Hollywood actor who battled the studio system, only to be declared legally insane and committed for six years to a mental institution. Lange grew up in northern Minnesota. Her father was a “powerful and charismatic figure” with an alcohol problem—like Shepard’s father, Sam Rogers.

Greenfield interviewed 38 people for the book—but his list does not include most of Shepard’s female connections. There are interviews with Joyce Aaron and Chris O’Dell, but none with O-Lan Jones, Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell or Jessica Lange. The other three Shepard biographies are Don Shewey’s in 1985, Ellen Oumano’s in 1986, and John J. Winters’ in 2017. 

Shepard died at age 73 at his home in Midway, Kentucky, in July 2017. The cause was complications of ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. But his decades of smoking caused other problems. He needed a stent for a blocked artery and carried an oxygen machine.

True West, probably Shepard’s best-known play, was my own introduction to his work. I saw the notable Steppenwolf Theatre production in 1982, starring Gary Sinise and Jeff Perry as the two brothers, in the former St. Nicholas Theatre on Halsted Street north of Diversey. That production was Steppenwolf’s first to be transferred to New York where it played at the Cherry Lane Theater with John Malkovich replacing Jeff Perry. I’ve seen True West many times, most recently in the Ethan Hawke/Paul Dano teamup on Broadway in 2019, Steppenwolf’s updated production starring Namir Smallwood and Jon Michael Hill later that same year, and Shattered Globe’s 2016 version

True West: Sam Shepard’s Life, Work and Times by Robert Greenfield is available from the publisher or from your favorite bookseller. 

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.