Sam Shepard, Pulitzer-Winning Playwright and Oscar-Nominated Actor, Dead at 73

Sam Shepard
Sam Shepard poses in New York in 2011.Charles Sykes / AP file

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By Corky Siemaszko

Sam Shepard, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who became a movie star with his Oscar-nominated portrayal of pilot Chuck Yeager in "The Right Stuff," died at his home in Kentucky. He was 73.

Shepard died Thursday of complications from ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) "and was with his family at the time of his death," his agent Chris Boneau said Monday.

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Born Samuel Shepard Rogers on Nov. 5, 1943, in Fort Sheridan, Illinois, Shepard was an Army brat whose family lived in Italy, South Dakota, Utah, Guam and the Philippines before settling on a ranch in California.

He described his dad as "a drinking man, a dedicated alcoholic."

"My father had a real short fuse," Shepard told The Guardian newspaper. "My father was full of terrifying anger."

So as a child, Shepard learned to hold his tongue. And he grew up to be a man who rarely gave interviews but who poured his words into 44 plays along with numerous books, memoirs and short stories.

Sam Shepard poses in New York in 2011.Charles Sykes / AP file

Shepard at first planned to become a veterinarian. But he caught the acting bug in college and wound up in a touring theater group. He was 19 when he arrived in New York City in 1963. He worked as a busboy and began writing. And he found his footing in an artsy crowd that included poet and rock singer Patti Smith.

He made his first mark off-Broadway with edgy and often-bleak plays about rootless people on the fringes of society.

In 1979, he won the Pulitzer for his play "Buried Child" and a year later was hailed by New York magazine as the "greatest American playwright of his generation," which dubbed his work "quintessentially American."

Two other Shepard plays, "True West" and "Fool for Love," were also nominated for Pulitzers and wound up being produced on Broadway.

Shepard went on to write the screenplays for movies like "Zabriskie Point" and "Paris, Texas." He also wrote the screenplay for the movie version of his play "Fool for Love." And his novel, "The One Inside," was published in February.

Sam Shepard and Brooke Adams in "Days of Heaven."Paramount/Courtesy of Everett Collection

But it was the square-jawed Shepard's turns in "Days of Heaven," "Black Hawk Down," "Steel Magnolias" and other movies that made him a familiar figures to millions more Americans. His most recent acting turn was playing the patriarch of a troubled Florida Keys family in the Netflix series "Bloodline."

He is survived by his writer son Jesse, from his marriage to actress O-Lan Jones, his other son Walker and daughter Hannah, from his 30-year relationship with actress Jessica Lange.

Shepard and Lange met on the set of the movie "Frances" and were a couple until 2009, when they separated.

Other survivors include Shepard's sisters Sandy and Roxanne Rogers.

Boneau said Shepard's funeral will be private and "plans for a public memorial have not yet been determined."

Playwright Sam Shepard with Jessica Lange at the opening of the New York Film Festival in 1984.David McGough / The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images