If Steve Rogers had gotten his heart’s desire, he would have become “a veterinarian with a flashy station wagon and a flashy blonde wife, raising German shepherds in some fancy suburb.” Instead, he became Sam Shepard, the actor-playwright who won the Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child and earned an Oscar nomination as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff.
Born Sam Shepard Rogers, he spent his first 17 years as Steve Rogers so he wouldn’t be confused with his dad, Sam, an abusive alcoholic. A father-son falling-out sent the youth barreling out of small-town California into the unknown in his beat-up ’51 Chevy. He literally acted his way to the East Coast with a traveling troupe, and, on arriving in New York City, quit to write one-act plays that were presented on the second floor of St. Mark’s Church. He debuted with Cowboys and The Rock Garden while still a Village Gate busboy couch-surfing around town. Spilling candle wax on a customer ended his last regular job, but by the age of 22, the New York Times was calling him Off-Off-Broadway’s “generally acknowledged genius.”
Written by John J. Winters, Sam Shepard: A Life (available April 11) is more a literary fact-finding mission than your garden-variety meticulous biography. A sometimes scribe for the Boston Globe, Winters stumbled across and then totally absorbed the Sam Shepard archives at Boston University. He embarked on a three-year road trip to all of Shepard’s ports-of-call, interviewing at every stop friends and associates who knew a different Sam Shepard than the one lodged in the public consciousness, partly thanks to Shepard’s self-mythologizing.
He was hardly the rampaging delinquent who, fueled on booze and “bennies,” raised teenage hell. The terrible truth: He was a school cheerleader who was bright, polite, and pleasant. His troubled childhood left him feeling permanently paranoid. Physically, this never showed. Shepard never looked like “Gary Cooper in denim” who was coming apart at the seams—but that troubling inner unrest was ever-present in his plays, making him one of the greats.
Watch highlights from the 2015 Broadway outing of Shepard’s Fool For Love: