As Butch Cassidy, Sam Shepard rides again

By Jake Coyle

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Oct. 6 2011 1:15 p.m. MDT

In this Sept. 29, 2011 photo, actor Sam Shepard poses for a portrait in New York. Shepard portrays Butch Cassidy in the upcoming film, "Blackthorn."

Charles Sykes, Associated Press

NEW YORK — Sam Shepard is back in town.

For decades, he has migrated to New York from far-away country homes and life on the road. New York is the "arena" for his work: usually a play; sometimes a book; sometimes a movie.

"I've come and gone from this town so much, going back to '63," Shepard said in a recent interview over tea in SoHo. "It's not the place I choose to live. It's the place I choose to work."

Shepard is now 67, his eyes are more sunken and his hair grayer, but he remains piercing, charming and mysterious. The routine is remarkably the same.

He drives his truck from his Kentucky horse ranch (he always drives, never flies) and returns to New York, where he first arrived as a 19-year-old actor from his father's California farm. He came, he says, "out of the desert" and soon thereafter set the theater world aflame with his visceral off-off-Broadway plays that hit the stage like pulsating jazz riffs.

The occasion for Shepard's latest visit is the release of "Blackthorn," a film that imagines Butch Cassidy (whom Shepard plays) had he lived on into old age in Bolivia. The role is fitting of Shepard: a solitary figure in exile.

Shepard, laughing hard, recalls an early critic remarking, "You don't look anything like Paul Newman!" A gritty and elegiac South American Western, "Blackthorn" bears little resemblance to the classic 1969 "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," which Shepard calls a "cartoon" in comparison.

"He's a cowboy, you know?" Mateo Gil, the Spanish screenwriter of "Open Your Eyes" making his English-language feature directing debut, says of Shepard. "He's very fond of horses and he loves big landscapes and loneliness and everything. I thought that some issues we were dealing with in the script were very similar to Sam's issues."

Born on an Illinois army base, Shepard's father was a violent, alcoholic World War II bomber pilot who has informed much of the playwright's work. At the one production his father Sam Rogers attended, he loudly cursed his son's representation of family life.

Shepard got music from his father (Rogers was a Dixieland drummer, Shepard a drummer with the band Holy Modal Rounders, which toured on Bob Dylan's famed Rolling Thunder Revue) as well as struggles with alcoholism. In 2009, he was arrested for driving under the influence.

Shepard's "family plays" — "Tooth of the Crime," ''Curse of the Starving Class," the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Buried Child" and "True West" — make up some of his most well-regarded work.

In his 1971 one-act "Cowboy Mouth," which he wrote with his then girlfriend, musician and poet Patti Smith, an autobiographical character says, "People want a street angel. They want a saint but with a cowboy mouth."

"I was writing basically for actors," Shepard says. "And actors immediately seemed to have a handle on it, on the rhythm of it, the sound of it, the characters. I started to understand there was this possibility of conversation between actors and that's how it all started."

He has sometimes referred to those plays — many of which he has since rewritten for various reproductions — as "clumsy." Early on, Shepard refused to rewrite his plays, considering them "pure," a notion he now considers "just plain stupid."

"I don't have anything against clumsy," he says. "Sometimes clumsy is OK. By clumsy I meant more that ... I don't know, I should have worked on them longer."

Shepard lives with his longtime partner Jessica Lange, with whom he has two of his three children. But he's remained close with Smith and this week recorded several songs with her — old tunes by Washington Phillips, Ivory Joe Hunter, Slim Harpo and Richard Rabbit Brown.

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