Thursday, August 03, 2017

Sam Shepard, John Heard

The most exciting evening I'd experienced  as an audience member of professional theatre to that time, and really never to be surpassed, was seeing Curse of the Starving Class at the Public Theatre in 1978, by a playwright unknown to me named Sam Shepard.

I walked into the Public Theatre in complete innocence.  At that time the Public was like a multiplex of live theatre, with as many as four plays on stage every night.  I chose Curse of the Starving Class partly because of the title, and mostly because there was a ticket available.

Apparently in the cast was Olympia Dukakis, Pamela Reed and Michael J. Pollard, but it was the writing that blew me away: the words.  They expanded my conception of what was possible at this level.  Either at intermission or after the play I bought a copy in the lobby of Angel City, Curse of the Starving Class & Other Plays by Shepard.

 Although I would later see another original production--Fool for Love ( with Will Paton the week after he took over the role from Ed Harris)--plus the PBS filming of the Steppenwolf production of True West, and a production somewhere of Buried Child, my main experience thereafter would be reading his works--other plays and play collections, and his prose pieces in Motel Chronicles.  All about the words.

Shepard was a downtown Manhattan star before he became a movie star, and his lore was everywhere there.  Wikipedia has him meeting Jessica Lang on the set of a movie, but legend of that time said he met her when she worked as a waitress at the hip downtown bar where he hung out.

Shepard influenced others, and helped establish a theatre of words for awhile (the most successful of which probably was David Rabe's Hurlyburly which made it to Broadway.)  This was much to my predilections as a writer, though I realized that I was not comfortable enough with violence to write quite like he did, nor as a consequence would I reach such deep places in an audience.  But those long arias of words, spoken in one play by an actor playing drums, were riveting.

I saw all his movies for awhile, including the one he directed, Far North.  Though his New York Times obit refers to his play A Lie of the Mind as "great," at the time reviewers called it disappointing, as I recall.  He seemed to fade into the firmament by the end of the 1980s, though he kept writing and acting.

Oddly then, it was only a couple of years ago that Fool For Love was first produced on Broadway.  I don't know when Shepard was diagnosed with ALS, a disease that varies a great deal in his symptoms and progress, but always ends the same, as it did for my father.  It's said that Shepard dealt with it with the same stoic dignity of his on-screen persona.

At the New Yorker, Patti Smith writes an intimate memorial. UK actor Stephen Rea provides an unexpected perspective. I had no intimate or even actual relationship, but he touched my life nevertheless, and that's as much as I can honestly write about him.  Sam Shepard died at age 73.

John Heard in a TV production of The
Scarlet Letter, made a few years after
Between the Lines.
Another near-contemporary died more suddenly in recent weeks--again it was someone I didn't know and never even met, but who had some relationship to my life, though in one case quite an odd one.

I'd been thinking a bit about the actor John Heard just days before I read of his death.  Specifically for his appearance with Liv Ulmann and Sam Waterston in the singular film Mindwalk.  But when I read his NY Times obituary I was reminded of a long forgotten 1977 film called Between the Lines.   It's survived in film lore for introducing an entire cast of young actors who became successful for decades (somewhat like the later The Big Chill), Heard being one of them.

The film was about an alternative newspaper in Boston, directed by Joan Silver.  The story was conceived by two friends of mine, David Helpern and Fred Barron, and pitched to Silver and her husband after the dinner we all attended at the Orson Welles Restaurant in Cambridge.  The script by Fred Barron, originally called Alternative Lives, was basically about the paper we had both written for, Boston After Dark/Boston Phoenix, with suggestions of the Cambridge Real Paper.

Recently I watched the movie for the first time in decades on YouTube.  It's not very good.  But John Heard's performance is the strongest.  The script was obviously rewritten several times by different hands, judging from its flabby incoherence, and little remains of the actual ambience or people at the Phoenix (though there seems to be some of Janet Maslin in one character, and her relationship with her then-husband Jon Landau.)

There is one action that I recall was based on something I did at the Phoenix, though it was performed (by Jeff Goldblum) in a different context: when he punched a hole in the plasterboard wall, he was engaged in a satirical context with a conceptual artist; when I did it, it was out of frustration.  But the one actor who looks the most like I did at the time was John Heard, though with a better haircut.  So it was eerie.

As were the circumstances of his death.  Heard, 72, was recovering from back surgery at Stanford University Hospital.  He died unexpectedly in a hotel room in Palo Alto, probably only blocks away from where I'd been staying a couple of weeks before.

Heard had a few leads in film but settled in as a character actor in film and on TV--IMDB has five or six projects yet to be released.  But he never got comfortable with how movies are made, he often said in interviews, and considered himself primarily a theatre actor. I'm sorry I never saw him onstage, since he clearly has the voice and presence for it.  I still admire him in Mindwalk, though that film certainly didn't get mentioned in media summaries.  But there are others who love it, just as there are rabid fans for his starring role in Cutter's Way.  These things live.

May they rest in peace.  Their work and their memory live on.

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