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PBS’s ‘American Playhouse’ Introduced Audiences to Sam Shepard in 1984
July 31, 2017  | By Eric Gould  | 1 comment

Most fans likely knew Sam Shepard (1943-2017) for acting performances in The Right Stuff, Black Hawk Down and Days of Heaven. He had the angular good looks and a Midwestern twang reminiscent of Gary Cooper that carried him through four decades of film and television work. (Recent television work included Klondike in 2014 and Bloodline in 2015-17).

Shepard died Thursday, July 27 at his home in Kentucky of ALS. He was 73.

Probably less known, though critically more important, is Shepard’s early career and legacy as a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (Buried Child, 1978). Lover to Patti Smith, confidante of  Bob Dylan during his 1970s “Rolling Thunder Review" and husband to actress Jessica Lange for three decades, Shepard came to New York a gifted young author in the early ‘60s, winning six Obie awards between 1966-68.

American audiences outside New York probably first became familiar with Shepard’s work (as did I) through a 1984 performance of True West on PBS’s American Playhouse (1982-96). After premiering off-Broadway in 1981, this adaptation was made with the cast of the Chicago run, starring the then-unknown John Malkovich and Gary Sinise (top). True West was part of what is known as Shepard’s “Family Trilogy," along with Curse of the Starving Class and Buried Child – all tales of American ideals teetering on crumbling foundations.

True West, like many other Shepard works, is a darkly comic study of deeply rooted psychological conflicts brewing just below the thin veneer of the everyday. A single set, two-act play, the play opens on two brothers, housesitting for their mother in Arizona while she is away on vacation.

Austin, (Sinise, right) a well-educated screenwriter, and Lee, a drifter and thief with a violent past, are at odds and have obviously been estranged. Lee is attempting to work on a script he's on the verge of completing, while Lee irritates and interrupts him, resuming his threatening, sometimes violent dominance over the younger Austin as when they were boys.

The evening begins to devolve into old grudges and acrimony, with Lee (Malkovich, right) disappearing and returning with a television set he has stolen from the neighborhood.

Austin’s agent, Saul, arrives to discuss the progress of the script and Lee interrupts to pitch an idea for a play and Saul, liking it, agrees he should write it for him ­– at first annoying Austin, then outraging him after Saul leaves.

The second act finds the brothers' roles reversed: the mother’s place is trashed with Lee now the writer and Austin the thief – drunk, belligerent and polishing a collection of toasters he has stolen from neighbor’s houses nearby, strewn all about. (True West was likely the inspiration for Charlie Kaufman’s tale of twin writing and warring brothers in Adaptation, 2002).

Lee finally convinces Austin to help with his script. Lee eventually abandons the idea of becoming a writer and says he is leaving to go live in the desert. When he refuses to allow Austin to follow him, Austin, drunker than before, becomes even more agitated and begins to strangle Lee with a telephone cord.

Their mother returns from vacation, interrupting the otherwise mild-mannered Austin’s murder attempt which she assumes to be the boys' old rough play. Lee stands and unravels the cord around his neck. The brothers face off again and the lights slowly dim, their innate sibling animosity, their true animal instincts, perpetually suspended.

True West was a claustrophobic, high-voltage, high wire act that provoked audiences in the best traditions of TV theater anthologies such as Playhouse 90, The Richard Boone Show and many, many others.

It was set in the west, as were many of Shepard’s works, uniquely American in its alienation, the character’s immense narcissism and their hubris.

The American Playhouse presentation of True West made me immediately go out to buy Shepard’s collection of “Seven Plays.” I read them all, fascinated with his ability to construct the simplest situations and dialogues that slowly unraveled into something quite else.

They always reminded me that whenever I saw Sam Shepard the performer in films, I was watching the playwright first.


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Mark Isenberg
Sam had a full life and a celebrity romance for a long time and died on his Kentucky horse farm so he did it his way. He leaves us with great plays,a variety of film roles big and small right up to the end with Midnight Special and the Bloodline series. He also could piss a lot of people off.
Aug 1, 2017   |  Reply
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