Many others will better say what Sam Shepard meant to the American Theater of his youth, and to films he later appeared in as a centered and unhurried actor. I can only speak to what he was to the theater of my youth, by quoting a friend who accompanied the news of Shepard’s death with the words, “In drama school we all wanted to be Sam.”
The only Shepard piece I directed was Action, in 1992, the one-act play that can find it focal point easily enough in its title. Perhaps his most Beckett-like work, it is always worth seeking out to see how various casts or individual actors explore its compact yet expansive possibilities.
On the Fourth of July in 1996, I was walking down a sun-scorched Avenue of the Americas, around 45th Street, when I was stopped by a traffic light, when I had my only in-person encounter with Shepard.
Having forgotten my sunglasses, I was looking down to keep the rays out of my eyes, as I rummaged my pockets for a light for my cigarette, when a glowing butt dropped right next to my foot, which was then squashed by an old but well-cared-for cowboy boot.
“Gotta light?” I said, before looking up into the creased, scrutinous squint of those solid, penetrating eyes.
He paused for a moment, and when I did not make anything of him other than wanting his help, he produced a Zippo lighter, and flipped it open while igniting the wick in one fluid motion.
He lit my cigarette as the walk light lit, and I said, “You’re taller than I thought you’d be.”
His creases deepened a bit and I thanked him for the light as we went our separate ways. And now he has gone the way of us all in the end.
I still think fondly of the monologue he wrote for Cowboys #2 extolling the many virtues of breakfast, almost every time I slice into some glistening sunny side up eggs. And I guess I always shall.