Sam Shepard, ‘Poet Laureate Of America’s Emotional Badlands,’ Dies At 73

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Sam Shepard in 2011.

Charles Sykes/AP

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Charles Sykes/AP

Sam Shepard in 2011.

Charles Sykes/AP

Updated at 12:55 p.m. ET

For more than half a century, playwright Sam Shepard stood as a towering presence in American theater and cinema, penning dozens of plays and earning an Oscar nomination as an actor in his own right. Delving deeply into the complicated — often bleak — nature of family life, the Pulitzer Prize winner earned the title, in one writer’s estimation, of “poet laureate of America’s emotional badlands.”

That influential “poet laureate” — who was not only a playwright, but an actor and director too — died Thursday at 73 of complications from Lou Gehrig’s disease, also called called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. A family representative said he died at his home in Kentucky.

“The family requests privacy at this difficult time,” spokesman Chris Boneau said Monday.

Shepard, who opened his career in his early 20s with a string of one-act off-Broadway plays, went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1979 for Buried Child. He was also nominated for two other Pulitzers, for 1981’s True West and 1983’s Fool for Love.

It was in 1983 that Shepard also took a star turn on the big screen, playing the test pilot Chuck Yeager in the film The Right Stuff. That role would earn him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor the next year.

In this performance, as in so many of his plays, the writer and actor said he often looked inward to find the complexities of the people he portrayed.

“It’s very difficult to escape your background. You know, I don’t think it’s necessary to even try to escape it,” Shepard told Fresh Air in 1998. “More and more, I start to think that it’s necessary to see exactly what it is that you inherited on both ends of the stick: your timidity, your courage, your self-deceit, and your honesty — and all the rest of it.”

Shepard added: “It’s necessary to include all of that in order to be able to accept oneself.”

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