‘You Wouldn’t Think the Ashes of a Man Would Be So Heavy’: Remembering Sam Shepard

Broadway World reports today that Oscar-nominated actor and Pulitzer-winning playwright Sam Shepard has died at 73 of complications from ALS, AKA Lou Gherig’s disease.

In recent years, Shepard was best known as an actor, in the last few years appearing as the Rayburn family patriarch in the Netflix drama Bloodline. But he was a prolific, ground-breaking playwright, and a key player in the Off-Broadway movement of the ’60s and ’70s. According to The New York Times, Shepard won a Pulitzer in 1979 for The Curse of the Starving Class, and received nominations for two others, True West, and Fool for Love.

His work examined toxic masculinity at a time when that was rare. The son of an alcoholic farmer, he explored male aggression as it is often passed down from fathers to sons. In 2010, critic John Lahr touched on this in a profile of Shepard in The New Yorker, as part of a review of Ages of the Moon, Shepard’s most recent play at the time — his 40th of 42 — which was being staged at the Atlantic Theater in Manhattan.

Shepard attributes part of his father’s downfall to postwar trauma. “My dad came from an extremely rural farm community . . . and the next thing he knows he’s flying B-24s over the South Pacific, over Romania, dropping bombs and killing people he couldn’t even see,” he said. “These men returned from this heroic victory . . . and were devastated in some basic way . . . that’s mysterious still. . . . The medicine was booze.” The booze often led to abuse. “Those Midwestern women of the forties suffered an incredible psychological assault,” Shepard recalled. “While growing up, I saw that assault over and over again, and not only in my own family.” In 1984, Rogers was hit by a car, after a drunken quarrel with a girlfriend in a New Mexico bar. “You either die like a dog or you die like a man. And if you die like a dog you just go back to dust,” Shepard, who had his father cremated, said later. After the ceremony, Shepard picked up the leather container holding the ashes. “It was so heavy,” he said. “You wouldn’t think the ashes of a man would be so heavy.”

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