(Als’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 10/19.)
For good or for ill, Sam Shepard is the most objectified male writer of his generation. People who have little interest in theatre have found themselves drawn to it, and to him, in part because of his looks, especially during the height of his fame as a screen actor. (He has appeared in more than forty movies and was nominated for an Oscar in 1984, for his performance in “The Right Stuff.”)
Born Samuel Shepard Rogers VII in Fort Sheridan, Illinois, in 1943, Shepard spent much of his childhood on a ramshackle avocado ranch in Duarte, California. Loneliness permeated the Shepards’ home. Samuel VI, an Army pilot turned schoolteacher, was an alcoholic and would disappear for days at a time. The surrounding landscape—Route 66, the dusty “Main Street of America,” ran alongside Duarte—was not a comfort. Tall, slightly snaggletoothed, and eagle-eyed, Shepard always looked like America, or a movie version of America: one could easily imagine him playing Tom Joad or Abraham Lincoln. His Western drawl was an additional attraction. Joan Didion’s essay about the charisma of John Wayne could just as easily apply to Shepard:
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