Sunday, August 6, 2017

A Lie of the Mind

Living in an age of reality television, it is pretty hard to imagine American Playhouse and other efforts to bring the theater to the television screen back in the 1980s.  But, if we take the "wayback machine" to 1984, we get our first formal introduction to the work of Sam Shepard in True West, an adaptation that featured the young John Malkovich and Gary Sinise.

Shepard had first made his mark in the 60s with his off kilter one-act plays and later traveling in Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue.  Shepard no only kept a log of the road show, but wrote a song for Bob and worked with him on the screenplay for Renaldo and Clara.

He had his own band for awhile, the Holy Modal Rounders, known for its off kilter bluegrass style, whose songs were featured in Easy Rider, among other movies.  They even made a guest appearance on Laugh-In.  Yes, that's Sam Shepard on drums.

I saw Shepard once in Santa Fe.  He came into a bar and took over the drums for a short set before returning to his seat among a small circle of friends.  He seemed distant, as he always does.  I felt compelled to approach him at one point, not sure what to say other than I had enjoyed seeing one of his recent theatrical productions, A Lie of the Mind.  He nodded and that was the end of that.

By this point everyone knew him for playing Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff and his relationship with Jessica Lange, who wasn't with him that night, and Paris, Texas, a film he wrote for Wim Wenders.  He was the great existential cowboy, even when playing a test pilot, spending more time on a horse, where he obviously felt more comfortable than in a replica of a Bell X-1.

This was the peak of his career.   Voyager was the last movie I could say I enjoyed, mostly for the opening sequence.  He would go onto to do more plays, movies and reprise the Rounders from time to time, but it would no longer be the same Sam.  He was used almost exclusively as a character actor to help give some kind of legitimacy to the stars, as in Mud where he played Matthew McConaughey's father.

I had some hope for the new television series Bloodline, once again featuring Sam Shepard as a salty father figure, but the Key West setting and all the absurd melodrama was too much.  It must have been rough for him both physically and mentally to be part of such a bloated production that took itself way too seriously.  Shepard had been diagnosed with ALS and it was clearly a struggle for him to keep making movies, but I suppose the opportunity to work with Sissy Spacek one last time was too good to pass up.

By this point, he had touched so many actors' lives that it is not surprising to see the outpouring of affection for him.  It was said in the early days, his plays could be quite bruising, literally so, as he expected actors to engage in fist fights and throw each other through walls.  But, now he was the cantankerous old father figure like the character, Baylor, in A Lie of the Mind.

The 1980s seem so long ago and the 60s some distant past totally detached from the present day.  It's great to see his plays being revived on Broadway, although it is hard to imagine seeing this play with a big audience.  Shepard's plays have to be seen in an intimate setting, so that you are made to feel part of the production.

But, that no longer seems possible in this age of reality television.  We are more or less voyeurs, with the television or internet screen serving as portals into the private lives of others.  Sadly, this is the closest we get to the intimacy that made Off-Broadway the driving force of theater in the 60s.  Rest in Peace, Sam.

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