The near-simultaneous deaths of Jeanne Moreau, arguably the greatest French screen actress of the 20th Century if not of all time, and Sam Shepard, the laconic, soft-spoken actor, onetime heartthrob and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, were revealed early today.
That’s quite a sock in the jaw for a Monday morning. Hugs and condolences to friends, family, colleagues and fans on both sides of the Atlantic. Two gaping holes in the cultural-legend fabric.
Shepard and Moreau are definite, rock-solid inclusions in the death reel during next February’s Oscar telecast. And I think their passings are enough for today, thank you. Nobody else in the Great Movie Realm is allowed to die for the next 14 hours.
Shepard was 73, an apparent victim of Lou Gehrig’s disease. In his day Shepard was iconic, an epic figure, a playwright, a poet and a chronicler of bitter, fucked-up heartland types with all kinds of shit buried inside. Curse of the Starving Class, True West, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child, Fool for Love, etc. I love that he called his last play A Particle of Dread. My life is nothing if not filled with those particles. My bloodstream is filled with them.
Most people know Shepard for his low-key, craggy-mannered, no-bullshit screen performances, particularly during his sexy period from the late ’70s to early ’90s. Days of Heaven (his big breakout), The Right Stuff (Oscar nominated for playing legendary flying ace Chuck Yeager), Crimes of the Heart, Steel Magnolias, Baby Boom, Black Hawk Down, August: Osage County, Bloodline, et. al.
In the ’70s Shepard was a kind of drawling Lancelot of the cool vanguard. He was a total peer and a collaborator with Bob Dylan (he did some writing on the completely deplorable Renaldo and Clara) and especially Patti Smith, with whom he co-authored a minor surrealist play called Cowboy Mouth.
I last spoke to Shepard during a promotional luncheon for Wim Wenders‘ Don’t Come Knocking at the ’05 Cannes Film Festival. During a brief discussion of his plays Shepard reacted somewhat adversely when I mentioned Cowboy Mouth, which was based on his relationship with Smith. “Why’d you mention that one?” he said. “I don’t know…I always liked the title,” I replied. After only one performance Shepard, in which he and Smith more or less played themselves, Shepard blew out of town without explanation.
An apparently reliable account: “Cowboy Mouth was performed only once with Shepard and Smith in the starring roles. Just before the second night’s performance, Shepard abandoned the role, leaving New York City for New England without a word to anyone in the production. Besides his fear of live audiences, Shepard must have found this convergence of art and reality maddening.
“Since Cowboy Mouth, Shepard has repeatedly attempted to conceal his personal life, yet he has regularly put himself and his extraordinary ambivalence in the spotlight through his writing because he cannot resist the performance.”
Shepard had a 27-year relationship with Jessica Lange, apparently beginning with their collaboration on Frances (’82) and ending in ’09. They had two kids, Hannah Jane and Samuel Walker Shepard, in the mid ’80s. Shepard was arrested for a DUI in Illinois on 1.3.09. He was cuffed again for drunk driving on 5.25.14 in Santa Fe.