As It Happens

Remembering the legendary playwright Sam Shepard with director Oren Jacoby

As It Happens speaks with documentary filmmaker Oren Jacoby about the life and legacy of playwright and actor Sam Shepard.
Sam Shepard, a renowned playwright and actor, has died at the age of 73. (Andrew Medichini/Associated Press)
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Sam Shepard was "amazing amalgam of American culture" both high and low, says filmmaker Oren Jacoby.

Shepard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Oscar-nominated actor, died Thursday of complications from Lou Gehrig's disease. He was 73. 

Known for penning bleak stories about people on the fringes of society, Shepard was always very guarded about his personal life. But he opened up to Jacoby about his childhood and his career in the 1998 documentary Sam Shepard: Stalking Himself.

"He was a poet and he was a movie star," Jacoby said. "He had kind of consumed all of these aspects of what means to be born and grow up in America and then was able to turn that into the characters in his plays and the character he made for himself — the image that he made for himself as an artist."

Jacoby spoke with As It Happens guest host Piya Chattopadhyay about Shephard's life and legacy. Here is part of their conversation.

Sam Shepard at a press conference for German director Wim Wenders' film Don't Come Knocking at the 2005 Cannes International Film Festival. (Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images)

According to NBC, Sam Shepard planned on becoming a veterinarian. How did he even get his start in the theatre scene?

He ran away from home. Instead of joining the circus, he joined a theatre crew.

There was a theatre program for young kids where they recruited kids to be in a theatre company that travelled on a bus around America into small towns and did performances and he joined it as a way to get out of town. And it was just an escape route that turned into the way he found to express himself.

Sam Shepard standing outdoors, circa 1970. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

On this day, where you're thinking about Sam Shepard, as many others are, what memory stands out for you today?

I remember a moment where we were filming him doing a series of plays in New York and he was collaborating with different directors and one of them was Joe Chaikin, who had been somebody that he really admired and learned a lot from in his early days as a playwright.

Joe Chaikin had recently suffered a stroke and had aphasia and didn't have the same language that he'd had as a younger man when they'd worked together. And to see how Sam was very protective of Chaikin and kind of loved and respected him and wanted to, you know, help him still be able to work, even though he'd been through this illness — it was just a very tender moment watching them working together.

Whether you like it or not, you're part of a culture, you're part of a family, and that was always something he was tapping into as a playright.- Oren Jacoby, filmmaker

And another great moment I remember with Sam is just we were in a rehearsal room and there was just an upright piano in a corner and in a break in the rehearsal he just went over and started pounding out this amazing kind of jazz blues on the piano, Albert Ammons or one of these 1920s Harlem piano players.

Actor Larry Lamb, actress Juliette Lewis and actor Martin Henderson are seen in Sam Shephards 1980 play Fool For Love on June 9, 2006, in London. (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

On the one hand, Sam Shepard seems like he was like a fun guy, with that sort of movie star presence. But he also had a lot of demons and was very private. So how did those demons come out in Sam Shepard's work?

I think he had a difficult but impactful relationship with his father.

His father had been a veteran of World War II and had done all these bombing missions and I think had a kind of PTSD, which, you know, nobody diagnosed at that time. Sam talked about this when I interviewed him and described how his father, you know, medicated himself, basically, with alcohol.

And so he grew up in a home where there was a certain amount of anger, violence and alcohol as the sort of fuel that kept it going. That had a big impact on him and his life and the nature of the family that he grew up in. And so he was always in his plays wrestling, I think, with what it means to be in a family and how you inherit these things and they're part of you.

The same way he wrote about America as something that was part of him. Whether you like it or not, you're part of a culture, you're part of a family, and that was always something he was tapping into as a playwright.

With files for CBC News. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more, listen to our conversation with Oren Jacoby.

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