Sam Shepard is best-known as a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who poked holes in the American fantasy of the mythical West with his laconic, elliptical plays, but he also had a long and storied career as an actor that included a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. Along the way, he also made more than a few movies with strong ties to the theatre.
A (very loose) biopic about doomed 1930s starlet and Broadway actor Frances Farmer, Frances starred Jessica Lange as the troubled star, stage legend Kim Stanley as her mother, and Sam Shepard as her longtime confidante, who came to her rescue more than once.
Fool for Love
Not only did Shepard adapt his own Off-Broadway play for the screen, but he also starred in it opposite Kim Basinger as two battling lovers locking horns in a Western motel room. Robert Altman directed.
Crimes of the Heart
Shepard teamed up with Lange again for this adaptation of Beth Henley’s play, in which Lange played oldest sister Meg, Diane Keaton took on Lenny, and Sissy Spacek played Babe, while Shepard played Meg’s ex-boyfriend.
Taking on a role written specifically for the film version (the original stage production famously featured no men), Shepard here plays opposite Dolly Parton as Truvy’s husband Spud in a handful of small but memorable scenes.
Dash and Lilly
Shepard earned an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of crime writer Dashiell Hammett in this biopic about Hammett and his longtime lover, playwright Lillian Hellman (Judy Davis). He was directed by Kathy Bates, who had previously appeared Off-Broadway in his play Curse of the Starving Class.
In this contemporary adaptation of the classic that sets the story in NYC circa 2000, Ethan Hawke is the Danish prince, Julia Stiles is Ophelia, and Shepard is the Ghost. Hawke went on to direct the 2010 Off-Broadway revival of Shepard's A Lie of the Mind.
Amidst an all-star cast (Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Margo Martindale, Ewan MacGregor), Shepard’s small but pivotal role as the suddenly missing patriarch—a perfect marriage of actor and role—sets the film up on an elegiac note.