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As Butch Cassidy, Sam Shepard rides again

Sam Shepard is back in town.
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

"(Our friendship) transcended any youthful difficulties; it transcended all our different periods of life," Smith says. "We're just the same. When Sam and I are together, it's like no particular time. People part and people die, but to be able to have such a rich history with a human being as a friend is beautiful."

Though Shepard often evokes the inscrutable American qualities so deeply imbedded in his writing, he's surprisingly generous over the course of a rambling interview. He's readily reflective and his humble conversation is punctuated by diversions on various passions, old and new: the songs of Hank Williams; Bob Dylan's storytelling; the French-Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco; Gary Cooper ("How can anyone not like Gary Cooper?"); "Crime and Punishment" ("a real page-turner"); and "Don Quixote," which he's rereading now. "Madness is his exile," he says.

"He fiercely guards his privacy, but if he's talking to you and lets you in the door, he offers everything," says Smith. "You can sit at his table. You can ride his horse. You can look in his notebook. It's just a matter of walking through the door."

Shepard's latest play was last year's "Ages of the Moon." Though he releases fewer works nowadays, he still writes prodigiously. He flips through the notebook by his side (he always first writes in a notebook, later moving to typewriter), evidencing pages of several working plays, songs, short stories and "stuff kind of like prose poems, I don't know what to call it."

He's just finished "the bones" of a three-act play he expects to stage in about a year. Shepard earlier swore off longer works, but says this one came to him "and I accommodated it."

Last year, he published the story collection "Day Out of Days," a work of more than a hundred snippets of fiction, largely dispatched from the road. It's one of his finest works, endlessly fractured and yet a cohesive collection of regret and rumination. He opened it with a quote from one of his greatest literary heroes, Samuel Beckett: "That's the mistake I made ... to have wanted a story for myself, whereas life alone is enough."

Do the demons of his youth still drive his work?

"There's nothing serene about it," he says, laughing. "Yeah, I would say that it did come from a fractured sensibility. And it's still fractured because of the state of things. I'm extremely grateful that I found writing, but it doesn't make it any more peaceful."

In Shepard's 1982 book "Motel Chronicles," he said that he felt like he never had a home — a feeling he says remains.

"I basically live out of my truck — I mean from place to place. I feel more at home in my truck than just about anywhere, which is a sad thing to say but it's true," he says.

He acknowledges acting is partly to pay the rent ("You can write 16 plays and not make as much money as you did doing one movie"), but says he's grown increasingly fascinated with acting "because I have less and less fear about it." He's acted in more than 40 films, but is best remembered for his Oscar-nominated performance in "The Right Stuff."

"When I first started in film, I was terrified of the camera," he says. "Now I don't have any fear of the camera at all. None. I've gotten over it completely to the point where I can honestly say that I can occupy that space that Brando personified when he said, 'Just because they say "action" doesn't mean you have to do anything.'"

Shepard has crisscrossed art forms, moving from plays to fiction to acting and music. But for him, the lines still converge in the theater.

"I always felt like playwriting was the thread through all of it," he says. "Theater really when you think about it contains everything. It can contain film. Film can't contain theater. Music. Dance. Painting. Acting. It's the whole deal. And it's the most ancient. It goes back to the Druids. It was way pre-Christ. It's the form that I feel most at home in, because of that, because of its ability to usurp everything."