SHARE

Death of Sam Shepard is a loss of genuine talent and effortless style

The death of Sam Shepard brings grim emotions along with the shocking news. A quintessential American male with an immeasurable flair and talent for writing. He was born in the heartland and worked on ranches in Duarte, Calif., where his family owned an avocado farm. He rode horses, sheared sheep, picked oranges, delivered newspapers. He had a volatile relationship with his father, a World War II fighter pilot who developed an alcohol problem, something that would later afflict the son.

Before the death of Sam Shepard last Thursday, he was hardened by outdoor labor and a difficult home life, and his style reflected this experience. He had ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), more commonly known in the U.S. as Lou Gehrig’s disease which was difficult to treat.

death of Sam ShepardBut while photographs before the death of Sam Shepard figured in the mood boards of the many designers who have looked to the American West for inspiration. He did not try to impress anyone in the fashion world.

Probably no one else was more at ease in a pair of Levi’s and a simple T-shirt than he. And with the exception of those who went on aerial raids to make their livings, no one else pulled off a bomber jacket quite so persuasively as Mr. Shepard did in his breakthrough film role as the pilot Chuck Yeager in “The Right Stuff” (1983).

In the 1960s he had long hair when he was busing tables at the Village Gate and writing the experimental, Samuel Beckett-influenced plays that would make his name, but somehow his appearance did not suggest hippie. He had, instead, the look of a man who had ridden into town. He might stay the night. Then again he might not.

death of Sam ShepardAcross his long and accidental-seeming career he made alliances — through romance, friendship and work. Having worked with the likes of Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Jessica Lange and Cormac McCarthy, whose different styles, like his, seemed somehow a byproduct of their intelligence and talent.

Film directors loved him. Directors of photography probably loved him more. He was at the far edge of handsome, where it begins to tip over into pretty. Like Gary Cooper, to whom he was often compared, Mr. Shepard knew he didn’t have to do much to hold an audience’s attention. Hit the mark. Make the camera come to you. He never chose to lard up a line of dialogue with a cheap display of emotion.

In his understated masculinity he was a throwback, an endangered species. He seemed vaguely tortured, and he wasn’t about to tell you why. He pulled off the trick of remaining aloof from popular culture even as he lent some grit to the popular weepie “The Notebook” (2004).

death of Sam ShepardHe did not use social media. He was not beholden to Instagram-driven celebrity culture. Still, he was enough of a creature of show business to understand that looks count for something on stage and screen. As John Lahr wrote in The New Yorker, “he seemed instinctively to understand the importance of image.”

Mr. Shepard did not set out to achieve a look — or, perhaps, he did a very good impression of someone who was nonchalant about his appearance.

Like Cooper and James Dean with the beautiful hair and the minimalist outfits — Mr. Shepard had something in short supply in this time of public figures crying out for likes. And that something was coolness, a mode of presentation and expression that may have just reached its end. The death of Sam Shepard is a huge blow to the entertainment industry and his fans everywhere.