Sam Shepard, the celebrated avant-garde playwright and Oscar-nominated actor, died at his home in Kentucky on Thursday of complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, a spokesman for the Shepard family announced Monday. He was 73.
Shepard lived in Stillwater for nine years starting in the mid-1990s with his then-partner, Minnesota-born actress Jessica Lange. They raised three children there in an old Victorian mansion.
One of the most important and influential early writers in the off-Broadway movement, Shepard captured and chronicled the darker sides of American family life in such plays as "Buried Child," which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1979, and "Curse of the Starving Class" and "A Lie of the Mind."
He was widely regarded as one of the most original voices of his generation, winning praise from critics for his searing portraits of spouses, siblings and lovers struggling with issues of identity, failure and the fleeting nature of the American dream. He was nominated for two other Pulitzers, for "True West" and "Fool for Love," which both received Broadway productions.
Shepard was also an accomplished actor, nominated for an Academy Award for his supporting role in "The Right Stuff."
Shepard and Lange cherished their privacy, which was mostly respected by their Stillwater neighbors. The pair would go out in the Twin Cities to theaters and restaurants.
Twin Cities actor James Craven once had drinks with Shepard at Smalley's Caribbean Barbeque in Stillwater. Years before, the playwright had seen him in a Penumbra Theatre production of Shepard's "Fool for Love."
"People have this idea that he was a cowboy poet — a kind of stoic, Southwestern man — but he was more like Samuel Beckett," Craven said. "He was this brilliant mind who thought deeply about the human condition."
That sentiment was echoed by Jungle Theater founder Bain Boehlke, who twice directed "Fool for Love" — a work that will be revived by Twin Cities troupe Dark & Stormy in a production opening Aug. 24.
"It's one of the great plays," said Boehlke, who recalled seeing Shepard talk to students at the University of Minnesota. "The thing that was surprising was his fierce focus. He was very existential. He was a giant."
His most recent work was in the Netflix show "Bloodline," where he appeared as the character of Robert Rayburn. He also appeared on New York stages, winning strong reviews for his performance in the off-Broadway production of Caryl Churchill's "A Number" in 2004.
Working at off-Broadway landmarks such as La MaMa and Caffe Cino, Shepard almost immediately received critical acclaim upon embarking on his career, winning Obie Awards for "Chicago" and "Icarus's Mother" in 1965 and then "Red Cross" in 1966 and "La Turista" in 1967. He would win seven more.
He is survived by his children — Jesse, Hannah and Walker Shepard — and his sisters, Sandy and Roxanne Rogers.
Star Tribune theater critic Rohan Preston contributed to this report.