‘He kept digging, kept searching’

Sam Shephard works in the library at the Santa Fe Institute. For Shepard, who died July 27 of ALS, the Institute served as a refuge where he could focus on his writing and avoid excessive interplay with others. To a larger degree, Santa Fe and New Mexico served the same purpose. InSightFoto for the Santa Fe Institute

Every day for a year, Sam Shepard would walk into his office at the Santa Fe Institute to write. He would not use a computer, preferring a small portable typewriter that he carried in a case. He changed the ribbon when needed. Sometimes he wrote by long hand. He dressed Santa Fe style — casual jeans, denim jacket, cowboy boots.

It was 2010-11, a good period for Shepard. The Institute — a community of creative and scientific researchers and thinkers — had chosen him as a Miller Scholar, and that gave him a year to do nothing but write.

“He clearly very much enjoyed it,” said Jerry Sabloff, who served as president of the Institute from 2009-15. “It was a significant change of pace for him. He would sit down with the scientists at lunch and chat and chat. It was intellectually stimulating to him.”

Shepard said as much in an 2014 interview with The Guardian. “Me and Cormac [McCarthy] are the only two writers [there],” Shepard said. “Everybody else is a nuclear physicist. which is cool, you know. But it leads to a lot of conversational dead-ends.”

But for Shepard, the epitome of the lone maverick of the Contemporary West, the man once called the Cowboy of the American Theater, the Institute served as a refuge where he could focus on his writing and avoid excessive interplay with others. To a larger degree, Santa Fe and New Mexico served the same purpose.

Shepard, who lived in Santa Fe from 1983-86 and again from about 2010-15, died last week of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, at his home in Kentucky. He was 73.

Shepard said he first came here by train as a child, perhaps because his father, an Air Force bomber pilot, was stationed at one of New Mexico’s military bases years ago. Over a period of about 23 years, Shepard made several films in New Mexico as an actor, writer and director: All The Pretty Horses (2000), a contemporary Western based on his friend Cormac McCarthy’s novel; Felon (2008), a prison drama; and the offbeat, independent and pretty-much forgotten Western Silent Tongue (1992), which Shepard wrote and then directed near Roswell.

But his best-known New Mexico film is the 1985 adaptation of his 1982 play Fool for Love, a searing drama set in a lonely desert motel, an emotional torture chamber of a piece that suggests that feeling pain is better than feeling nothing at all. Director Robert Altman’s crew built a cheap looking motel set out in Eldorado that was so realistic that motorists would stop by to inquire about renting a room for the night.

The ghost of Shepard’s father, Samuel Shepard Rogers Jr., haunts that play. Rogers died in Santa Fe sometime in the early 1980s after being hit by a car outside a bar. Shepard’s favorite story of his dad also has a Santa Fe tie: Shortly before his death, Rogers saw a production of Fool for Love in a small theater in town and, recognizing himself in the character of a garrulous old man who fantasizes about having married country western singer Barbara Mandrell, he began screaming at the actors on stage.

The management ejected him until he explained that he was Sam Shepard’s father. They let him back in. And then he started yelling at the actors again.

Shepard’s father was a wanderer. So was his son. Among other places, Shepard lived on the West Coast, the East Coast, in London, in Virginia and in Kentucky. Something about Santa Fe kept calling him back, though he sometimes came off as the shadow of a celebrity who was spotted dining or drinking somewhere around town, as the Santa Fe New Mexican’s El Mitote column reported from time to time. There he was eating lunch with longtime love Jessica Lange at Harry’s Roadhouse. There he was having a drink at the bar at Geronimo. And that was him reading from his collection of short stories, Day Out of Days, at Garcia Street Bookstore.

He could be seen walking his dog, Gracie, by the Santa Fe River, looking like any other hapless guy carrying a poop scoop bag.

“Sam liked the desert,” said Santa Fe Institute President David Krakauer. “He liked the vastness of the landscape … and the existential possibilities within it.”

Then Shepard was off again, more likely than not to play a part in a movie being filmed somewhere else, which, he said, earned him enough money to write plays.

Whenever he had to leave the Santa Fe Institute to go film a movie, he would stick his head in Sabloff’s office and say something like, “Oh, I’m off to Capetown, South Africa, for a couple of days to film with Denzel,” referring to actor Denzel Washington and the 2012 film Safe House.

And then he would come back to Santa Fe, where he could often be found watching movies at the Center for Contemporary Arts. “He came for films like Terry Gilliam’s bizarre The Zero Theorem and the wonderful comedy Frank, in which Michael Fassbender plays a pop star who wears a giant papier-mâché mask,” said Jason Silverman, director of the center’s Cinematheque. “He’d engage with our staff, asking what was coming next and the merits of various films. … We got the sense that he was an endlessly curious man.”

Scott Harrison, artistic director of the Santa Fe-based Ironweed Productions, was drawn to that element of curiosity within Shepard’s plays. “He kept digging, kept searching, and was never quite satisfied,” said Harrison, who has produced three of Shepard’s plays in Santa Fe in the past 12 years. “He always wanted to get better and find new depth.” Harrison wrote an affectionate tribute to Shepard — whom he never met — on his Facebook page Monday, acknowledging him as the inspiration behind the creation of Ironweed.

During his year at the Santa Fe Institute, Shepard worked on his last play, Particle of Dread, in which he attempted to discover, like a detective, who killed the father of Oedipus Rex. When his year as a Miller Scholar ran out, he asked Sabloff if he could keep a typewriter on a desk in the library in case he wanted to return.

And he did return, staying “long past his official Miller tenure,” David Pines, one of the Institute’s co-founders, said in an email. Pines said Shepard enjoyed talking about “everything from friends, family, life in New Mexico, Kentucky, New York City, California and Minnesota to our respective life stories; what it was like to lead a creative life, whether by writing and appearing on stage and in film or one spent in research, writing and teaching.”

Then the “self-contained” artist, as Sabloff called him, suddenly pulled away from the Institute and Santa Fe without saying why around 2015. Pines said he now understands: “ALS is a horrible disease and not at all a good way to go.”

But Santa Fe stayed with Shepard. It’s the thinly disguised home of the protagonist of his last published work, the 2017 novel The One Inside. His hero is an aging Westerner trying to figure out his relationship to his father and women while dealing with a possible blackmailer and developing an addiction to the television series Breaking Bad.

In the book he writes of visiting a favorite eatery, Manny’s Roadhouse (doubling for Harry’s Roadhouse), where he enjoys reading in public because, “It’s a way of cutting myself off from having to make small talk and, at the same time, diving deeply into a world of fiction. It’s a way of cutting yourself off completely, in fact.”

Perhaps New Mexico helped Shepard break clear of those he did not trust or who he felt wanted to take advantage of him. Talking with Rolling Stone magazine in 1986 about dealing with the “human parasites” in the world, he said he learned a good lesson from a red-tailed hawk he saw in New Mexico. As Shepard told it, he watched as a crow continually dove at the hawk in an effort to drive it nuts. Eventually the hawk escaped his tormentor by flying higher than the crow could.

“Outfly them,” Shepard said. “Avoid situations that are going to take pieces of you. And hide out.”

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com

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