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Sam Shepard Papers

Identifier: SWWC-054


The Sam Shepard Papers document the middle years of Sam Shepard’s literary and acting career, from 1980-1999. The collection is comprised of the following series: Plays, Novels, Short Stories, Films, Literary Criticism, Notebooks, Correspondence, Clippings, Awards, Interviews, Readings, Published Compilations, Works by Others, and Framed Posters.


  • 1980-1999


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Some materials restricted. Please contact the Wittliff Collections for information about access.

Conditions Governing Use

Materials from the Wittliff Collections are made available for use in research, teaching, and private study. The user assumes responsibility for determining copyright status, obtaining permission to publish, and abiding by U.S. copyright laws.

Biographical or Historical Information

Widely considered one of America’s greatest living playwrights, Sam Shepard is also an accomplished actor, director, screenwriter, and musician. Born Samuel Shepard Rogers IV on November 5, 1943 in Fort Sheridan, Illinois, Shepard is the oldest of three children. His family traveled extensively before settling in Duarte, California, outside of Pasadena, where his childhood experiences informed themes that mark much of his later playwriting. Shepard described Duarte as a “weird accumulation of things, a strange kind of melting pot – Spanish, Okie, Black, Midwestern elements all jumbled together. People on the move who couldn’t move anymore, who wound up in trailer parks.” (Rolling Stone, 1986). Shepard told biographer Don Shewey that his alcoholic father “had a real short fuse,” and that he was often the target of his father’s anger. In high school he began acting and writing poetry. He also worked as a stable hand at a horse ranch in Chino, California from 1958-1960. Thinking of becoming a veterinarian, Shepard studied agriculture at Mount Antonio Junior College for a year; but when a traveling theater group, The Bishop’s Company Repertory Players, came through town, Shepard joined them and left home. After touring with them from 1962-1963, he moved to New York City and worked as a bus boy at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village.

In New York, Shepard spent much of his time reading the works of playwrights and writing short “rock and roll” plays which frequently focused “on a single event, the characters often talking past one another or breaking into long monologues. However puzzling the action, these plays already ring out with Shepard’s deft rhythms,” (Contemporary Dramatists 1999). Shepard disavowed the narrative convention that required consistent character motivations, preferring instead to see his characters as capable of a wide variety of roles and actions. Shepard once told an interviewer that, “I preferred a character that was constantly unidentifiable, shifting through the actor, so that the actor could play almost anything, and the audience was never expected to identify with the characters,” (Shewey, Sam Shepard, 1997, p. 51). Shepard reconsidered this initial approach to his writing as a result of the influence of New York director and acting teacher Joseph Chaikin. As Shepard said, Chaikin helped him understand that there’s, “…no room for self indulgence in theater; you have to be thinking about the audience.” (Kevin Berger,, January 2, 2001) Chaikin also convinced Shepard to begin re-writing his plays in order to discover the essence of the experience. Prior to that, Shepard said, his “tendency was to jam, like it was jazz or something.” (Berger,, January 2, 2001)

Shepard’s playwriting debut took place at Theater Genesis on October 16, 1964, with a double bill of Cowboys and Rock Garden. In 1966, he received a grant from the University of Minnesota, the first of several he would receive in the coming years. Also in 1966, he won an unprecedented trio of Obie awards for Chicago, Icarus’ Mother, and Red Cross. The awards, presented by off-off Broadway champion The Village Voice, helped Shepard’s career gain momentum at a time when critics remained wary of his works.

In 1967, Shepard wrote La Turista, his first full-length play, which won an Obie the same year. More Obies for his early works followed, including Melodrama Play and Cowboys #2 in 1968. Shepard also received grants from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1967 and the Guggenheim Foundation in 1968. Also in 1968, Shepard joined a rock band, the Holy Modal Rounders, playing drums and guitar. Although he played with the band for three years, he continued to write and received a second Guggenheim Foundation grant in 1971.

Shepard married O-Lan Jones Dark, an actress, on November 9, 1969, with whom he had one son, Jesse Mojo Shepard. Shepard and Dark divorced in 1984. In 1971, Shepard had a much-publicized relationship with rock singer Patti Smith. Together they wrote Cowboy Mouth, acting the parts on stage in the first night’s performance.

In 1971, Shepard and family traveled to England, where four more plays premiered (The Tooth of Crime, Blue Bitch, Geography of a Horse Dreamer, and Little Ocean). Tooth of Crime was later presented in the U.S., winning an Obie in 1973. The next year, Shepard returned to the United States and served as the playwright in residence for The Magic Theater in San Francisco, a post he held for the next ten years. It was during this time that Shepard made his mark on mainstream American drama, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979 for his play Buried Child and producing his best-known plays, among them, True West in 1980.

In 1975, he took part in Bob Dylan’s “Rolling Thunder Review,” a nationwide touring group that included Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs. Shepard eventually published an account of the experience in 1987, titled Rolling Thunder Logbook. In 1978, Shepard began his film career, appearing in Bob Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara and later that year in Days of Heaven, directed by Terence Mallick. Also in 1978, Shepard began his collaboration with Joseph Chaikin, with the theater piece, Tongues. Chaikin and Shepard would also collaborate on Savage/Love (1979), and The War in Heaven, which was presented on WBAI radio in 1985.

In the 1980s, his works continued to win awards. He won his eleventh Obie for Fool for Love (1984.) A Lie of the Mind won the New York Drama Critics Award in 1986. Also during the 1980s, Shepard’s screenwriting and acting career began to grow. Screenplays included Me and My Brother, Zabriskie Point, and Fool for Love. His most popular and critically acclaimed film, Paris, Texas, won a Golden Palm Awards at the Cannes Film Festival in 1984. This screenplay was commissioned by German director Wim Wenders, and was based loosely on Shepard’s Motel Chronicles. His acting roles included Resurrection (1980), Raggedy Man (1981), Frances (1982), The Right Stuff (1983), for which he received an Academy Award nomination, Country (1984), Fool for Love (1985), Crimes of the Heart (1986), and Steel Magnolias (1989). He wrote and directed Far North (1988), which starred Jessica Lange.

Shepard continued to write new plays in the 1990s, though his output has slowed from the dizzying pace of the 1960s-1970s. States of Shock premiered in 1991, and in 1992 a revised version of True West was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Drama. Simpatico opened in 1994, and his revision of Buried Child opened on Broadway in 1996 and received a Tony Award nomination. Another collaboration with Joseph Chaikin, When the World Was Green (A Chef’s Fable) also premiered in 1996.

Shepard’s collection of stories, Cruising Paradise, was published by Knopf in 1996. Curse of the Starving Class opened in 1997 and Eyes for Consuela (based on an Octavio Paz short story) was produced in 1998. In 2001, Shepard returned to San Francisco’s The Magic Theater for the premier of his new play The Late Henry Moss.

Shepard’s acting career also flourished through the 1990s and 2000s, with appearances in Defenseless (1991), Thunderheart (1992), The Pelican Brief (1993), and The Good Old Boys (1995), among others. Shepard wrote and directed the feature film Silent Tongue (1992). Some of his additional film appearances include All the Pretty Horses (2000), based on the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, Blackhawk Down (2001), Swordfish (2001), The Notebook (2004), Stealth (2005), Walker (2005), and Bandidas (2006).

Shepard was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letter in 1986. In 1992, he received the Gold Medal for Drama from the Academy and in 1994 he was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame. From 1983 to 2010, Shepard was in a committed relationship with actress Jessica Lange, with whom has two children, Hannah Jane Shepard and Samuel Walker Shepard.

Shepard’s impact on modern theater can be gauged by the numerous scholarly books and articles devoted to his work, as well as the hundreds of productions of his plays, both in the U.S. and abroad.

Further readings:

American Dreams : The Imagination of Sam Shepard. Edited by Bonnie Marranca. New York : Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1981.

Auerbach, Doris. Sam Shepard, Arthur Kopit, and the Off Broadway Theater. Boston : Twayne, 1982.

Mottram, Ron. Inner Landscapes : The Theater of Sam Shepard. Columbia : Univ. of Missouri Press, 1984.

Shewey, Don. Sam Shepard. New York : Dell, 1985.

Patraka, Vivian M., and Siegel, Mark. Sam Shepard. Boise, Idaho : Boise State University, 1985.

Oumano, Ellen. Sam Shepard : The Life and Work of an American Dreamer. New York : St. Martin’s Press, 1986; London : Virgin, 1987.

Hart, Lynda. Sam Shepard’s Metaphorical Stages. Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press, 1987.

King, Kimball. Sam Shepard : A Casebook. New York : Garland, 1988.

Trussler, Simon, ed. File on Shepard. London : Methuen, 1989.

DeRose, David J. Sam Shepard. New York : Twayne, 1992.

Benet, Carol. Sam Shepard on the German Stage : Critics, Politics, Myths. New York : Peter Lang, 1993.

Wilcox, Leonard, ed. Rereading Shepard : Contemporary Critical Essays on the Plays of Sam Shepard. Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1993.

Wade, Leslie A. Sam Shepard and the American Theater. Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press, 1997.

Bottoms, Stephen J. The Theater of Sam Shepard : States of Crisis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.


13 Linear Feet

27 boxes

Language of Materials


Metadata Rights Declarations

  • The descriptive data created for this finding aid is licensed under the CC0 Creative Commons license and is free for use without restriction.

Physical Location

Materials may be stored off-site. Advance notice is required for use:

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Donated by Sam Shepard, 1992-2000.

Related Materials

The Wittliff Collection also holds the Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark Collection (SWWC Collection 106).

The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin houses additional Sam Shepard Papers.

Guide to the Sam Shepard Papers
Amanda York
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Revision Statements

  • 2005: Finding aid revised by Amy Ruthrauth as part of the Wittliff's Collection Numbering Project
  • 2013, 2017: Inventory revised by Katie Salzmann.
  • 2021: Revised for ArchivesSpace by Susannah Broyles.

Repository Details

Part of the The Wittliff Collections Repository

601 University Drive
San Marcos Texas 78666 USA