STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
One of this country's most prolific playwrights has died. Sam Shepard, who portrayed the frayed ends of the American experience - rugged characters, toxic relationships. He wrote more than 40 plays, among them "True West" and "Buried Child," which won a Pulitzer Prize. His play "Fool For Love" was made into a film in 1985, with Shepard himself in the lead role.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FOOL FOR LOVE")
SAM SHEPARD: (As Eddie) If you're staying here, I'm staying here. You'll never get rid of me. I'll track you down no matter where you go. I know exactly how your mind works. I've been right every time, every single time.
ED HARRIS: In poetry, I was riding the rhythm of it. It just carries you along once you've committed to it and trusted it. His words were beautiful.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
That's actor Ed Harris. He collaborated with Sam Shepard over the course of more than 35 years. Harris calls Shepard iconically American and said his works explored ideas of masculinity.
HARRIS: It wasn't macho masculinity. It wasn't stupid masculinity. I think he was pretty true to himself and carved out a way to be in the world that made sense to him, you know. He wasn't trying to prove anything to anybody.
INSKEEP: So who was Sam Shepard? Well, he grew up with a father he described as a violent alcoholic. And alcoholism became a frequent theme in his writing. In a 2002 interview, Fresh Air's Terry Gross asked about his childhood and whether Shepard had to become one of his own hardboiled characters to live under his father's roof.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "FRESH AIR")
SHEPARD: No, I never as a kid thought of myself as hardboiled. That came later. I mean, you may be able to bear certain things, but I just never had that kind of image of myself.
CHANG: Shepard was also an actor and earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as the pilot Chuck Yeager in the 1983 film "The Right Stuff."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE RIGHT STUFF")
SHEPARD: (As Chuck Yeager) Well, I'll tell you what, half these engineers never been off the ground, you know. I mean, they're liable to tell you that the sound barrier is a brick wall in the sky. It'll rip your ears off if you try to go through it.
CHANG: He co-starred in that film with Ed Harris, who recalls one of their offstage moments.
HARRIS: When we were doing "The Right Stuff," you know, we'd go out and drink a bit. And Sam was a pretty good drinker. One night - we got in the elevator one time. I was pretty drunk. And he says, Ed, you don't know how to drink. And he was probably right because I used to just try to get obliterated. And Sam always maintained a certain verticalness, if I may (laughter).
CHANG: Shepard returned to New York last year for a revival of "Buried Child," which starred his friend, Ed Harris.
HARRIS: That's when I realized something was going on. And he told me he'd been diagnosed with ALS. And, you know, he kept it pretty quiet, but he was starting to suffer back then from it. So it's - you know, it happened pretty quick for him. But I'm glad he's at peace. I think he was probably ready to go.
INSKEEP: His family kept his death quiet for a few days after he died in Kentucky on Thursday at age 73.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA'S "BREAKING THE SOUND BARRIER")
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