Sam Shepard was more than just the epitome of the strong silent type; he was a creative dynamo and a living, breathing emblem of old-school American masculinity. After his family announced that the 73-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright had died on July 27 from complications related to ALS, a wave of reactions rolled across the EW offices, notable for how both female and male staffers expressed their earnest admiration and affection. The term man-crush would not be out of place.
It’s a reaction that’s not limited to journalists and fans. Director Jeff Nichols was still in college when he was toying with the script that became Mud, the 2012 Matthew McConaughey film that also featured Shepard as Tye Sheridan’s taciturn neighbor. It’s the type of character that Shepard played frequently in the long last chapter of his movie career, cinematic cousins of his 1983 portrayal of Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff: men who’d chased their demons in their prime, whose faces wore that weight, and whose well-measured wisdom made audiences lean-in for fear of missing a single word.
At Sundance in 2013, I interviewed Nichols about Mud. The film made a huge impression on me, and the main media narrative of the moment was the nascent McConnaisance. But Nichols and I shared a mutual love of Shepard’s work — his entire essence, really — and the relatively brief interview turned into a geek-fest about the elder actor, which proved absolutely useless for my Mud story but was nevertheless one of the highlights of my Sundance that year. That conversation was the first thing I thought of this morning when I heard the sad news.
Nichols, Jan. 20, 2013:
“I’d written the role for him — because I like to write parts for people I don’t know and have no real option of getting. [Laughs] But they just showed it to his agent, and one of the best days of my life is [the phone call where I heard], ‘We got a response from Sam’s agent, from Sam: He said not to change a word.’ That’s Sam Shepard — Pulitzer Prize winning writer Sam Shepard!
“And he was awesome. He showed up. He’d just seen Take Shelter and really loved it. We just had this really great initial conversation. We talked about music, we talked about books. I felt like we were just kinda fast friends — which you don’t expect from Sam Shepard. I had to pinch myself every once and awhile. There was this one day, in particular. Sam wasn’t working that day. It was one of his off days, and we were on the island in the middle of the Mississippi River. And I’m sitting in the sand, eating lunch, and I look over and Chuck Yeager’s just walking up, wearing aviator sunglasses. And he walks up and he goes, ‘Hey Jeff, can I sit with you?’ And I was like, ‘Yes. Yes you can.’ And he sat down and we talked a little bit about Andrew Dominik, from The Assassination of Jesse James. And we talked a little about Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote The Book of Imaginary Beings. We talked about books for a little bit. He had just showed up because he liked being on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River. And he liked us, and he just wanted to be around. I called my wife that night and said ‘I’ll never be cooler than this day.’
“He was great. And I think he’s really great in the part. One of my favorite scenes in the whole movies is the scene between he and Tye, where he kind of has that speech where he lays out what’s going on. Talk about a slow-hand scene. It takes forever for that scene to play out, but personally, I can sit and look at Sam Shepard’s face for a long long time, and he just lets these kinds of words come out. I was very flattered that he liked the material so much.”
Rest in peace, Sam Shepard.