Thursday, November 5, 2009

Notes For November 5th, 2009

This Day In Writing History

On November 5th, 1943, the famous playwright, screenwriter, director, and actor Sam Shepard was born. He was born Samuel Shepard Rogers III in Fort Sheridan, Illinois. His parents were teachers. After graduating from high school, Sam briefly attended college, then dropped out to join a traveling theater group.

In 1963, Sam Shepard was working as a busboy in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. He delved into illicit drugs and for a time became a drummer for the eccentric folk-rock group The Holy Modal Rounders, which were featured in the classic movie, Easy Rider (1969). He avoided the draft for Vietnam by claiming to be a heroin addict.

Shepard returned to the theater, becoming involved with New York's off-Broadway theater scene. Although he acted occasionally, he was primarily interested in writing. His plays were staged at several different off-Broadway venues, mostly at the Theatre Genesis in the East Village. Richard O'Brien, author of the musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which would be adapted in 1975 as one of the greatest cult classic films of all time, cited Shepard's 1969 science fiction play The Unseen Hand as an influence. Though Shepard wrote for the stage, he also earned some impressive early screenwriting credits, contributing to the screenplays for Robert Frank's indie classic Me And My Brother (1968) and Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point (1970).

In the early 1970s, Sam Shepard lived in England for three years, then moved back to the United States, where he settled in the San Francisco Bay Area and became playwright-in-residence at the Magic Theatre, which produced his works. Some of his notable plays from this period include Geography Of A Horse Dreamer (1974), Suicide In B Flat (1976), and Angel City (1976). Shepard's 1978 play, Buried Child, won him a Pulitzer Prize for drama the following year and brought him international fame. It was the first time that an off-Broadway play won a Pulitzer Prize.

Buried Child debunks the mythology of the American Dream in its tale of Dodge, the aged, failed patriarch of a dysfunctional Midwestern farm family. A weak, sardonic alcoholic who is bullied by his wife and children, Dodge represents the archetypical American father's failure to create the environment of "family values" idealized by the American Dream. Dodge's sons, Tilden and Bradley, are also failures. One is handicapped physically, the other emotionally. They are unable to take over the family farm or care for their parents in their old age.

Never able to make a success of his farm, the now elderly Dodge sits in his living room and decays, his immobility a metaphor for his disappointment and disillusionment. Dodge's wife Halie, now in her mid-60s, still worships her third son Ansel, whom she idolized as an All-American hero. Ansel was a star basketball player who was found dead in his motel room under suspicious circumstances.

Other characters in the play include Father Dewis, the family minister - a married man who drinks and carouses with women and once had an affair with Halie. A subplot finds Shelly, the girlfriend of Tilden's son Vince, (who hates being at his grandparents' house) uncovering the shocking family secret - Vince is the child of an incestuous union between his father and grandmother.

Although Sam Shepard's film career began as a contributing screenwriter, he would turn to acting, debuting as the wealthy farm owner in Terrence Malick's 1978 epic film, Days Of Heaven. Shepard would follow his debut with a memorable role in the 1980 movie, Resurrection. It was about a woman, Edna (Ellen Burstyn) who miraculously survives the horrific car accident that kills her husband. Paralyzed from the waist down, Edna soon discovers that she has gained the power to heal herself and others. Her new boyfriend Cal (Shepard), a young hellraiser, begins to believe that Edna represents the second coming of Christ. He becomes a born again Christian. Edna fails to see what her survival and healing powers have to do with religion, and this disturbs Cal to the point that he becomes dangerously unbalanced.

In 1983, Sam Shepard co-starred as astronaut Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, a performance that earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Although he had a fear of flying, he allowed the real Chuck Yeager to take him up in a plane in preparation for the role. Shepard appeared in memorable supporting roles in numerous films. Most recently, he was the voice of the narrator in the 2006 live action feature film adaptation of E.B. White's classic children's novel, Charlotte's Web, and co-starred in the 2008 prison drama, Felon, which starred Stephen Dorff as a loving family man who finds himself sent to prison for killing a burglar.

Shepard would return to screenwriting in 1984, co-writing the Wim Wenders film, Paris, Texas. The following year, he wrote and starred in an adaptation of his play, Fool For Love, directed by the great Robert Altman. In 2005, Shepard co-wrote and starred in another Wim Wenders movie, Don't Come Knocking. Shepard played an aging Western movie star, who, disgusted with his decadent, meaningless life, flees the set of his latest movie on horseback. He hits the road in search of his past and the woman (Jessica Lange) he left behind twenty years ago.

Sam Shepard has proven himself to be one of America's best modernist playwrights. He has written over 45 plays, eleven of which won Obie Awards, and one the Pulitzer Prize. He also earned Tony Award nominations. In 1986, Shepard was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which in 1992 awarded him the Gold Medal for Drama. In 1994, he was elected to the Theatre Hall of Fame. He has done a lot of teaching over the years, and his classes in play writing and theater arts have been held at various theater workshops, festivals, and universities. During the 1970s, he served as a professor at the University of California, Davis.

He lives with his girlfriend, actress Jessica Lange. They have two children.

Quote Of The Day

"The sides are being divided now. It’s very obvious. So if you’re on the other side of the fence, you’re suddenly anti-American. Its breeding fear of being on the wrong side. Democracy’s a very fragile thing. You have to take care of democracy. As soon as you stop being responsible to it and allow it to turn into scare tactics, it’s no longer democracy, is it? It’s something else. It may be an inch away from totalitarianism." - Sam Shepard

Vanguard Video

Today's video features Sam Shepard reading from his 1983 collection of short prose and poetry, Motel Chronicles. Enjoy!

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