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Sam Shepard Remembered by ‘The Right Stuff’ Director Philip Kaufman: Half Jackrabbit, Best Chili Maker

Writer-director Philip Kaufman formed a lasting friendship with Sam Shepard when they worked together on “The Right Stuff,” the 1983 film for which Shepard was nominated for an Academy Award.

I first met Sam Shepard at a poetry reading when he was living here in the Bay Area. I was preparing “The Right Stuff” around then, and trying like hell to find someone who could play Chuck Yeager. Sam got up and read some of his poetry and my wife Rose said, “That’s your guy.” I said, “Where?” Yeager was a compact man, 5’7” or something, and here Sam was, this gangly guy. But I started listening and I got what she meant. Sam had this sense of honesty about him, and a sense of presence. He was a Gary Cooper kind of guy, even though I think Sam didn’t want to be Gary Cooper; he wanted to be Chester [the character played by Dennis Weaver] in “Gunsmoke,” the more interesting sidekick. That was his nature.

Sam didn’t just write and act; he played drums and other instruments. He traveled with Dylan for a while. He was cool, and I mean the original meaning of cool. He was out of the jazz era. He was a cowboy.

He really was a great rider. In “The Right Stuff,” we used his own horse, whose name was Roany. On set he was often roaming around with a lasso, spinning it around while we’d be talking. He was really great with it. He’d be hooking chairs while we were having a talk about things.

When he and Yeager met, they didn’t hit it off in the first moments of the meeting. At all. But then they did, finally. They didn’t agree on a lot of things, politically and so forth, but at the same time, there was a connection on another level. They just got each other.

In the movie he had a scene with Barbara Hershey, and while we were shooting he threw in the line, “I’m half jackrabbit.” That was Sam.

Sam was half jackrabbit, and I could rely on that sense of Sam the writer. It seems to me that his plays all sprang fully out of Sam’s character. He wasn’t writing about something he didn’t know much about. The tale was always some ghost that he was searching for. That ghost was always hovering, so he was very productive.

He had a golden ear. He was not a writer of what you could call articulate literature but more of a writer of the streets. His dialogue was inhabitable. There was a sense of truth and veritas in the way characters spoke in his plays. He had this divining rod that he held over words and behavior, and if it quivered at a certain rare time, he knew it was right.

He was the same way as an actor. You always had to validate the truth of things with him. With some people, you read an obituary and that’s it. But with Sam I have to reject the obituary approach, because he lived such a vivid life. The Sam I have in mind is still alive. His plays bear testimony to that, and all his varied roles in films. He was and is to me sort of a ghost, like the ghost of that father figure that hovers in so many of his plays. He’s one of the rare people I’ve met whose voice has gotten inside of me. Therefore he’s still with me.

It’s a little embarrassing talking about Sam behind his back. But I will say that he’s the best chili maker I ever dined with.

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