Sam Shepard Remembered: 13 Big Movies

Sam Shepard, whose death was announced on July 31, 2017, was revered as a playwright, but made an equally big mark in movies, as screenwriter, director, and actor. Yet it was music that provided his entrance to films, through his time with Bob Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour that led the pair to collaborate on Renaldo & Clara, released in 1978. So, too, was the Terrence Malick masterpiece Days of Heaven, which brought him to mainstream attention. By 1983, he earned an Academy Award nomination for The Right Stuff. Click through the photos above for more of his career highlights on the big screen, including three films with longtime off-screen partner Jessica Lange, and his roles in such enduring big hits as Steel Magnolias, The Pelican Brief, Black Hawk Down, and The Notebook.

Renaldo & Clara (1978)

Sam Shepard was a rising star in the New York theater world when he hit the road with Bob Dylan‘s all-star Rolling Thunder Revue that crisscrossed America in 1975. During the tour, the duo collaborated on the loose script for this roman a clef oddity — still unavailable in its four-hour entirety — that mixes staged scenes featuring Dylan as Renaldo and Shepard as Rodeo with rocking concert footage and behind-the-music interviews. — Ethan Alter (Photo: Everett Collection)

Days of Heaven (1978)

Shepard’s first genuine big-screen performance came in Terrence Malick‘s 1978 masterpiece, in which he plays a wealthy land baron who falls in love with Brooke Adams’ crop harvester, resulting in a fiery love triangle that also includes Richard Gere. It’s a tour-de-force turn of quiet, empathetic power. — Nick Schager

Frances (1982)

Jessica Lange played the title role, and Shepard her sometimes-lover, in this biopic of 1930s actress Frances Farmer. While the film was widely criticized for inaccuracies — Shepard’s character, for example, was fictional — the movie sparked a real-life romance between Shepard and Lange, whose relationship lasted until 2009. — Gwynne Watkins (Photo: Universal Pictures/Everett Collection)

The Right Stuff (1983)

Shepard received his first and only Oscar nomination for his striking performance as pilot Chuck Yeager in this epic astronaut drama. Yeager famously broke the sound barrier in the film, and The Right Stuff broke down any barriers the playwright-turned-actor faced in making the transition to the big screen. — Kevin Polowy (Photo: Warner Bros./Everett Collection)

Paris, Texas (1984)

Wim Wenders‘ 1984 road movie is arguably Shepard’s greatest written work for the cinema, detailing the odyssey of an amnesiac man (Harry Dean Stanton) to reunite with his wife (Nastassja Kinski). Winner of the Cannes Film Festival‘s Palm d’Or, it’s a work of rugged existential beauty and sorrow. — Nick Schager (Photo: Mary Evans/Argos/Road Movies Filmproduktion/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection)

Fool For Love (1985)

One of Shepard’s best-known works as a playwright, Fool for Love was brought to the screen by director Robert Altman, with Shepard starring opposite Kim Basinger. Shepard received strong reviews for his performance as Eddie, a manipulative loner whose relationship with a high school sweetheart takes a dark turn. — Gwynne Watkins (Photo: Cannon Films/Everett Collection)

Crimes of the Heart (1986)

Shepard and Lange’s third feature together adapts Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a reunion between three Southern sisters into an equally well-received movie. Diane Keaton and Sissy Spacek play Lange’s onscreen siblings, while Shepard is her former lover, tossed to the side by her career ambitions, but who carries a torch for her nonetheless. — Ethan Alter (Photo: Everett Collection)

Steel Magnolias (1989)

This comedic drama is rightfully known best for its powerhouse ensemble of talented actresses
including Shirley MacLaine, Julia Roberts, Sally Field, and Dolly Parton — but Shepard proved a man of steel as Parton’s blue-collar hubbie Spud Jones. — Kevin Polowy (Photo: Everett Collection)

The Pelican Brief (1993)

Even in a supporting part, Shepard’s star magnetism was difficult to deny, as was the case with 1993’s Alan J. Pakula-directed adaptation of John Grisham‘s legal thriller, in which he appears as the law professor beau of megastar Julia Roberts’ sleuthing student. — Nick Schager (Photo: Everett Collection)

Black Hawk Down (2001)

Shepard reportedly wrote some of his own dialogue for Ridley Scott‘s 2001 adaptation of Mark Bowden’s non-fiction book, and his performance as Major General William F. Garrison — the commanding officer attempting to remotely save his men from slaughter — is the glue that holds the all-star film together. — Nick Schager (Photo: Everett Collection)

The Notebook (2004)

Shepard had a small but memorable role in this feverishly adored romance that paired (and divided) Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, playing pops to The Gos’s Noah. The late actor certainly related to the film’s themes: “I think the most important thing is the enduring nature of love,” he said at the time. —
Kevin Polowy (Photo: Everett Collection)

The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Nearly two decades after co-headlining Days of Heaven, Shepard took part in Andrew Dominik’s distinctly Malick-inspired outlaw tale, playing the part of Jesse James’ (Brad Pitt) older, fatalistic brother Frank James, whose weary outlook on his sibling’s path presages the latter’s doom. — Nick Schager (Photo: Everett Collection)

August: Osage County (2013)

Shepard is only a fleeting presence in the film version of Tracy Letts‘ Tony Award-winning play, but he casts a long shadow as a Southern family patriarch whose sudden disappearance brings his eccentric clan back together. Considering that Letts’ own work is very much influenced by Shepard, it’s only appropriate that the elder playwright occupies a fatherly role. — Ethan Alter (Photo: Everett Collection)