The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Sam Shepard

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

Sam Shepard

Sam Shepard’s death was a major blow. His struggle with ALS was fought outside the public eye, and most of his fans never knew he was sick. In fact, Shepard’s career seemed to be going better than ever, thanks to a fruitful series of collaborations with Jeff Nichols (including MUD and MIDNIGHT SPECIAL). It’s a shame as Shepard was one of those guys everyone loved, and always made an impact whenever he was cast, even if the role was relatively tiny (I found him unforgettable in just a handful of scenes as Frank James in THE ASSASINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD).

Shepard played a wide variety of roles over his long and storied career, with his weathered, craggy features making him a naturally imposing figure, although in his younger days he also made a great leading man, playing Chuck Yeager in THE RIGHT STUFF, and also made a pretty credible love interest opposite Diane Keaton in BABY BOOM. Of course, he was also a noted writer, with his plays, “Fool for Love” and “True West” being American classics, and as much as we miss him as an actor, his presence is equally felt in the theatrical community.

His Best Work

For all of his success as an actor, Shepard's success as a playwright led to his being hired to write the screenplay for Wim Wenders’ PARIS, TEXAS, which ranks among the best films made in the 1980s. His voice is loud and clear throughout, even though he doesn’t act in the film. As far as big screen doppelgangers go, you can’t do better than Harry Dean Stanton (still alive and kicking at ninety).

His Most Underrated Film

Jim Mickle’s COLD IN JULY was a movie I raved about back when I saw it at Sundance a few years ago. A kick-ass southern noir that, in the third-act, turns into a hardcore action flick, Sam Shepard gets a rare turn as a genre lead. When the movie starts off, he seems like a villainous presence, stalking Michael C. Hall’s ordinary pedestrian, who was forced to kill an intruder Shepard believes is his son. A twist, and the arrival of Don Johnson as the iconic Jim Bob Luke, changes the movie completely, and gives Shepard some gun-toting action at the end, something he never really indulged in before given his loftier artistic ambitions. It’s a terrific flick, and a gem that needs to be seen, and probably ranks as Shepard’s last great role.

His Most Overrated Film

One of Shepard’s most universally seen movies is this John Grisham adaptation, where he plays the law professor, whose titular brief turns his lover (played by Julia Roberts – at the height of her popularity) into a target. This was a wildly popular movie, but to me it was rather inert next to something like THE FIRM or A TIME TO KILL, and it really doesn’t deserve to be singled out as one of Shepard’s major works, as in some of the obituaries I’ve read.

His Most Badass Moment

I feel bad not including a scene Shepard acted in here, but the man was such an amazing writer, that it would be all but impossible not to single out the famous monologue he wrote for Harry Dean Stanton that runs over ten minutes in PARIS, TEXAS.

His Five Best Films

1. PARIS, TEXAS (as a writer)

Up Next

Having suffered from ALS towards the end of his life, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, the indie NEVER HERE, and his Netflix show, “Bloodline”, remain he last filmed work – although his legacy will live on through his performances and his amazing written work.


About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.