Sam Shepard Passes: A Look at His Three Top Performances

The artist, only 73, was an accomplished actor and writer — and his best work is worth another look

by Zachary Leeman | Updated 31 Jul 2017 at 1:53 PM

Acclaimed playwright and actor Sam Shepard has passed away. The 73-year-old artist died on July 30, surrounded by his family at his home in Kentucky.

Shepard had been suffering from ALS for some time, and leaves behind a unique and unmatched artistic legacy. He was accomplished both as a storyteller and as a performer.

Shepard won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979 for his play "Buried Child," and he was nominated for the Academy Award for best supporting actor for 1983's "The Right Stuff."

Shepard's writing was sharp, realistic, and deeply poetic. He authored over 40 plays in his lifetime.

As an actor, he had a screen presence few possess. He could steal a movie with only a handful of scenes.

Here's a look at three of the great actor's best contributions to film.

1.) "The Right Stuff" (1983). Shepard was nominated for an Oscar for his work as real-life astronaut Chuck Yeager. "The Right Stuff" depicted all that went into the first manned spaceflight by the United States.

Related: A Navy SEAL's Unusual Journey to Hollywood — and Faith

The movie was a critically acclaimed hit at the time of its release, and it's only grown in popularity since. It was preserved in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2013.

Shepard was an incredibly strong actor, but he was usually stuck in underwritten roles — to which he then brought extra weight. "The Right Stuff" gave him a fully fleshed out role, and he ran with it and was rightly nominated for it. "The Right Stuff" is proof the performer should have been getting far more lead roles during his career.

2.) "Fool for Love" (1985). This film gave Shepard the rare opportunity to perform his own words on film. He wrote the original play and the adapted screenplay. It was a unique drama that captured the intricacies and complications inherent in human relationships, which Shepard was so good at finding and articulating.

"With 'Fool for Love,' he [Shepard] has succeeded on two levels that seem opposed to each other. He has made a melodrama, almost a soap opera, in which the characters achieve a kind of nobility," wrote the late film critic Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun Times.

The story followed May (Kim Basinger) as she flees to a southwest motel from her old flame Eddie (Sam Shepard). It's a film with plenty of surprises — and a brilliant performance and screenplay from Shepard.

3.) "Black Hawk Down" (2001). Shepard was not the center of "Black Hawk Down." He wasn't even the third or fourth person on the call sheet. However, the film is a perfect illustration of how the actor brought so much to the table despite being given so little.

Other actors simply would have played the generic "military leader" — but Shepard brought an impressive dramatic weight to his role as Major General William F. Garrison, who watched remotely as Army Rangers were surrounded in the city of Mogadishu, Somalia.

Through Shepard's reactions to events as they played out on screens in front of him, audiences were given a window into the intense world presented in the film — as directed by Ridley Scott.

Perhaps it was his background as a writer, but "Black Hawk Down" was the perfect evidence that Shepard only needed a handful of lines and scenes to steal our hearts and own our attention.

(photo credit, homepage image: Warner Bros.; photo credit, article image: U.S. Navy)

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