On Two Icons of the American West


In one of life’s great ironies both creator and his greatest creation died within a few weeks of each other. Writer Sam Shepard, who gave us the words for ‘Paris, Texas’, and the cult actor Harry Dean Stanton, who spoke them as Travis Henderson. Film-maker and photographer Paul Joyce knew them both and speculates on their disparate working lives, which came together in Wim Wenders’ one time career-defining masterpiece…

July 27th 2017. Eugene O’Neill died today. Well, not really. But his spiritual successor for my generation did, Sam Shepard, the Man of the West with the tarnished gold pen. A Marlboro Man with a leather soul concealing a devastating fatal illness creeping gradually through blood and bone alike.

I knew him a little, with the lean, gaunt but muscular body and those penetrating blue eyes like a Western sky. The true West was never John Wayne, it was always Sam Shepard. Misogyny and incest, alcoholism and the doomed repetition of mistakes handed down generation to generation marble his work like the exposed flank of a Texas steer. When Sam looked at you, you felt there was nowhere to hide and nothing he wouldn’t see, and what only made this faintly bearable was that you knew he had seen much worse many times before.

Sam Shepard directing River Phoenix in Silent Tongue (1993)

We met at Sundance in 1993 when he was presenting, somewhat reluctantly, a western he had directed, Silent Tongue. He did not speak of it with much enthusiasm although it boasted a fine cast and was handsome to look at. He gave the impression that no one else wanted the job of actually making it, so he did it himself. The main motive seemed to be the presence of horses in what seemed like every shot and at that time it looked as if horses had become more reliable companions to him in life than human beings. By then he was with Jessica Lange, with whom he stayed for three decades, until they parted about half a dozen years or so before his death. She was genuinely and shockingly wraith-like in appearance, and in the abundant Sundance snow looked like a ghost fresh from the moors in Wuthering Heights. She had that kind of beauty, which was totally anonymous, blank, and with no hint of personality beneath. She looked like she could become whatever you wanted, but if you wanted then you had to be Sam Shepard to have it. They were inseparable.

In bars in those days it was all about alcohol and nicotine and he was truly great at both. Sam was a real smoker, and I do mean real; he drew deeply on what I assume was pure Virginian tobacco (I wish I could remember the brand) and could consume a pack in a good drinking session. It would have been something to be a fly on the barroom wall with Sam, Ed Harris, Harry Dean Stanton and Wim Wenders shooting the breeze.

Sam Shepard in Stealth

Well, there at Sundance he had just me and a bunch of limp-wristed critics so maybe that’s why we spent a good bit of time together. That and the fact that he was fascinated to hear that I had directed Fool for Love in Tokyo some years previously, in Japanese. “You speak Japanese?”, he enquired. “Not a word,” I replied. He nodded, not waiting exactly for an explanation, merely meditating on what kind of mad Englishman had rolled up to these snowy foothills. (“Of all the joints…”). Should I tell him how? Why not, go for it. I said, “Sam, it focuses the mind of the things we don’t say, the body language between people, how they negotiate space, find pauses, gaps. Stoppard says you can’t start with a pause, but Pinter almost always did. Not speaking their tongue let me do your play in a universal language and I learnt more about human nature from that one experience than any other job as a director I’ve ever done.” Sam nodded, paused for a long time, then said, “and would you like another drink?”

Now I know who he reminded me of, his great hero and namesake, Sam Beckett. Both were taciturn to the point of rudeness, both great drinkers and smokers, both hugely embarrassed by their burgeoning reputations, both unable or unwilling to talk about their work, both standing tall with fine heads of hair and silently boasting unequalled knowledge of world literatures and both constantly curious about the foibles and weaknesses of human nature. I wonder if Sam B. saw his greatest film writing on screen, Paris, Texas with the main character virtually a deaf mute bestriding the Western landscape like a middle-aged colossus in search of his child bride. Beckett would have known instantly that such work could only come from a profound knowledge of classical Greek writing: of Thrace, the Theban plays, of Sophocles and Aeschylus. I bet he would have loved it.

I was at Sundance with a film crew directing a documentary about Independent American Cinema and Sam agreed to contribute. It was the first time I had heard the expression “hell in a hand cart” which Sam used to describe the perilous journey one takes as an independent swimming against the murky tidal waters of the Hollywood system. He was wearing a baseball cap which I thrice asked him to remove (and he did thrice refuse). I did not ask a forth time as I was aware there was a Ricardian the Third sympathizer somewhere beneath the smiling demeanour who should be left well alone. It was a shame because a portrait is not (in my opinion at least) complete without seeing the shape of the forehead and the relationship of the hairline (or lack of it) to the rest of the face. I’m sure that Sam realised that only too well and that he would give me a little, something, but not everything.

He was good and forthright in the interview; we got on well, and then met quite frequently at the Sundance bar during the remainder of the festival. When we wrapped and he left with Jessica, his 4 x 4 juddering down the track from our mountain eerie, the descent thick with fresh snow, her face was still as blank and unforgiving as Greta Garbo under her sheet of anonymity.

Sam did everything in life an inhibited English public schoolboy could only dream of: bum his way around New York’s East Village, kip down in the Chelsea Hotel, exchange lyrics and bedbugs with Bob Dylan and share Patti Smith with Robert Mapplethorpe. Just imagine what Patti had then, still only in her twenties, the epitome of maleness and the greatest gay icon of his generation – virtually simultaneously! Jessica said later that Sam was the most purely male of all the men she had known. In fact, Patti Smith wrote a charmingly poetic remberance of Sam, barely five days after he died, in the New Yorker:

“Laboring over his last manuscript, he courageously summoned a reservoir of mental stamina, facing each challenge that fate apportioned him. His hand, with a crescent moon tattooed between his thumb and forefinger, rested on the table before him. The tattoo was a souvenir from our younger days, mine a lightning bolt on the left knee.”

For me, it all came down at last to the true West, that unremitting landscape where thousands of skulls of screaming coyotes mingle with a millennia of white desert sand; where on some darkling plain in a desperate clash by night the twisted and distorted figures of Cain and Abel writhe in an unending battle for supremacy; where relationships boil during the day and freeze at night; and where Sam hopefully took his last breath, gazing at the sky and feeling the rain upon his face.

“Please Give me Something of Beauty and Sensitivity!”

So spake Harry Dean Stanton after the sixth tequila in a Santa Fe bar gazing into both his glass, and then deeply into the blue eyes of his drinking companion, Sam Shepard. “I’m just sick of the roles I’m playing”. Well, those roles were ones which had made HDS a fixture in the backgrounds (and occasional foregrounds) of numerous westerns, thrillers and historical and biblical epics. Then pushing 58, Harry Dean threw out this appeal for a lifeline to one of the great American dramatists of his age.

And Sam responded, both to Harry Dean and to Wim Wenders whose keen interest with Western culture was threatening to turn into an obsession. Sam came up with the answer, which lanced the boil for both of them, and put them all firmly in the centre of 20th century film history, Paris, Texas. It is rare indeed for a man about to enter his seventh decade as a character actor per se, to be thrust into the limelight, but firmly thrust he was and he responded to it valiantly. In the same year he also played the leading role in Alex Cox’s Repo Man, and both film and actor quickly become cult classics in their own right.

Harry Dean was above all else pragmatic and I don’t think he saw himself, even after a couple of successful films, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the past in the guise of a middle-aged Robert Redford. So he continued to inhabit wonderful smaller character roles, which he managed to transform with his indelible stamp. He was also a great friend, a true keeper of secrets, which allowed him great intimacies with those like Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando who had to be very guarded with what they let out about their private lives. In fact, he worked with both Marlon and Jack on the bizarre western Missouri Breaks, which even the highly experienced director, Arthur Penn, was unable to control (in terms of both plot and performances); the central storyline of the harsh conditions of immigrants and settlers yielded to a detailed character portrayal of a paranoid, schizophrenic killer (Brando) and a hapless homesteader (Nicholson). Again, with Brando it was a case of pushing the envelope so far that the only result could be disintegration of either the project or those closely involved with it. Or both!

Harry also hung out with Bob Dylan who he had met on Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, disappearing for days on end into the mountains to ingest Mexican magic mushrooms whilst on occasions jogging around the set together to keep a semblance of fitness. Once they inadvertently stumbled through one of Sam’s sets as they were actually still filming, prompting Peckinpah to hurtle a knife at him followed by a drawn pistol. Harry Dean certainly learnt from the likes of directors Hathaway, Ford and Peckinpah the old Hollywood school of hard knock philosophy.

HDS on the set Paul Joyce created for him to read from “Motel Chronicles”

He did some eloquent reading for me, from Shepard’s Motel Chronicles in a documentary I made on Wim Wenders. He was not a natural off-the-cuff reader but he absolutely understood Sam’s prose instinctively and the results were magical.

Harry Dean was born in 1926 on a tobacco farm in Kentucky. Another irony, after smoking enough cigarettes to stretch to the moon and back, it was that very weed which carried him off from lung cancer in September 2017. Apparently for the last month or so he was gathering friends around him in order to say goodbye. It must have been an enormous sadness to him that his great friend, Sam Shepard, had slipped away just a few weeks before him. Almost old enough to be Sam’s father, this untimely demise would surely have saddened him deeply. But together they forged an image of The New West that people of my generation will never be able, or indeed want, to erase.