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Breaking: US Iconic Actor Dies Surrounded By Family

Sam Shepard, whose hallucinatory plays redefined the landscape of the American West and its inhabitants, died on Thursday at his home in Kentucky of complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a spokesman for the Shepard family announced on Monday. He was 73.

Possessed of a stoically handsome face and a rangy frame, Mr. Shepard became a familiar presence as an actor in films that included “Days of Heaven” (1978), “The Right Stuff” (1983) and “Baby Boom” (1987). He bore a passing resemblance to that laconic idol of Hollywood’s golden era, Gary Cooper, and in an earlier age, Mr. Shepard could have made a career as a leading man of Westerns.

A reluctant movie star who was always suspicious of celebrity’s luster, he was more at home as one of the theater’s most original and prolific portraitists of what was once the American frontier. In plays like “True West” (1980), “Fool for Love” (1983) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Buried Child” (1978), he dismantled the classic iconography of cowboys and homesteaders, of American dreams and white picket fences, and reworked the landscape of deserts and farmlands into his own shimmering expanse of surreal estate.

In Mr. Shepard’s plays, the only undeniable truth is that of the mirage. From early pieces like “Chicago” (1965), written when Mr. Shepard was in his early 20s and staged in the margins of Off Off Broadway, to late works like “Heartless” (2012), he presented a world in which nothing is fixed.

That includes any comforting notions of family, home, material success and even individual identity. “To me, a strong sense of self isn’t believing in a lot,” Mr. Shepard said in a 1994 interview with The New York Times. “Some people might define it that way, saying, ‘He has a very strong sense of himself.’ But it’s a complete lie.”

That feeling of uncertainty was translated into dialogue of an uncommon lyricism and some of the strangest, strongest images in American theater. A young man in “Buried Child,” a bruising tale of a Midwestern homecoming, describes looking into the rearview mirror as he is driving and seeing his face morph successively into those of his ancestors.

Though Mr. Shepard received critical acclaim almost from the beginning of his career, and his work has been staged throughout the world, he has never been a mainstream commercial playwright.

But several writers who grew up studying Mr. Shepard’s works said that they were struck by his boldness. Christopher Shinn, whose plays include the Pulitzer finalist “Dying City,” said he was reminded of Mr. Shepard’s gifts as a writer while watching “Buried Child” Off Broadway last year.

“I felt the play pulsing with Sam Shepard’s unconscious, and I realized how rarely I feel that in the theater today,” Mr. Shinn said on Monday. “Sam always wrote from that place — a zone of trauma, mystery and grief. Whether the play was more mainstream or experimental in its conception, he took the big risk every time.”

In the relatively naturalistic “True West,” two brothers of opposite types (brilliantly portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly in a Broadway revival in 2000) find themselves assuming the personality of the other. Roles within families portrayed onstage continually shift and dissolve, as in his great “A Lie of the Mind” (1985), the title of which might serve for every play he wrote.

As for love between a man and a woman, Mr. Shepard, whose long relationship with the actress Jessica Lange cast an unwanted spotlight on his private life, described that as “terrible and impossible.” He later explained: “It’s impossible the way people enter into it feeling they’re going to be saved by the other one. And it seems like many, many times that quicksand happens in a relationship when you feel that somehow you can be saved.”

That point of view received its fullest and most rousingly theatrical incarnation in “Fool for Love,” a portrait of possibly incestuous bedmates who spend their lives running away and toward each other as fast as they can. The play received its first Broadway production only two years ago, starring a ferocious Sam Rockwell and Nina Arianda, in roles embodied three decades earlier by Ed Harris and Kathy Baker.

“I loved Sam,” Mr. Harris said in a statement on Monday. “He has been a huge part of my life, who I am, and he will remain so.”

Mr. Shepard, who was born Samuel Shepard Rogers III on Nov. 5, 1943, came naturally by his Strindbergian view of love, marriage and family. The father for whom he was named was an alcoholic, nomadic man, and he haunts Mr. Shepard’s work, in the ghostly form of the cynical, romantic narrator of “Fool for Love” and the title character of “The Late Henry Moss” (2005).

Known as Steve Rogers through his childhood and adolescence, the younger Mr. Shepard grew up on his family’s avocado farm in Duarte, Calif. Jobs in his youth included stablehand, orange picker and sheep shearer. He briefly attended Mount San Antonio College, as an agriculture student, but dropped out to move to New York in 1962, having discovered jazz and the plays of Samuel Beckett.

As an actor he was Oscar-nominated for playing the test pilot Chuck Yeager in “The Right Stuff” and most recently portrayed the patriarch of a troubled Florida family in the Netflix series “Bloodline.”

Mr. Shepard is survived by his children — Jesse, Hannah and Walker Shepard — and his sisters, Sandy and Roxanne Rogers.

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