Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Sam Shepard in Midway: He liked the town that honored his privacy, and he chose to spend his last days nearby

Shepard at the Sundance Film Festival
in 2014 for the opening of Cold in July.
By John McDaniel
Special to the Midway Messenger
    This week began on a sad note when it was announced Monday that Sam Shepard, noted Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, author, screenwriter, director and Oscar-nominated actor,  had passed away at his farm near Midway, just across South Elkhorn Creek in Scott County. The family waited five days before letting the public know that he died from complications related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
    Samuel Shepard Rogers III was born in the town of Fort Sheridan, Illinois, just north of Chicago, on Nov. 5, 1943. He died Thursday, July 27, at the age of 73.
    A close friend of mine, after hearing of Shepard’s passing, sent me a text wanting to know if I had heard the news. My friend, a Shepard admirer, author of several books, and a filmmaker himself, knew that I often talked to Shepard, and on one occasion my friend sat down with us and discussed the ins and outs of their trade for an hour or two. I sent a text back saying I hadn’t heard that Sam had passed away. However, the news did not surprise me, because I had seen him out just a couple of months ago on Main Street, and saw how much different he looked from just a little over a year ago before he found out that he had ALS. Seeing him in his wheelchair, it was easy to surmise that his days left on this earth were few.
    After seven years or so, it’s going to be a little bit different not seeing Shepard in town anymore, hanging out on the downtown patios or squirreled away in back of one of the Midway restaurants, writing notes in his notebook or reading a book as he ate.
    I met Sam like I have met so many other people who have made their way through Midway. It was several years ago when I was sitting at the bar at The Black Tulip, now the Grey Goose, watching the women’s college fast-pitch playoffs on the TV above the bar, when this guy came in wearing boots, blue jeans, and a wild head of hair the wind had blown in every direction. He takes a seat beside me and orders a shot of Patron Tequila, says “hi,” looks up at the screen and questions why I liked watching women play fast-pitch softball. When I told him that was what was playing when I came in, he laughed. I said if he would rather watch something else, we could get the bartender to change the channel. He gulped down his shot of tequila and ordered another. I drank my Miller Lite, asked the bartender if she would change the TV to the horse-racing channel, so we watched races and talked about horses.  He said that he had some horses racing, but it was more like a hobby.
Shepard at Sundance, 2014
    He was friendly enough, but a bit reserved in his conversation, as I drank another Miller Lite and he did another shot of tequila. After finishing up I had to leave and said goodbye, and he replied that he would probably see me around again. Like I said, he wasn’t much on conversation, at least not that particular day. However, he was right; he did see me around again, and I later discovered that he was one of the most interesting conversationalists that I have ever had the pleasure of talking with. In fact, he turned out to be one of the most interesting people that I have ever known.
    I soon learned that this windswept, cowboy-looking fellow was actually a movie star who had been nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor for playing test pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. I was also informed that he had bought a farm and would be living just outside Midway. That was pretty neat, but I didn’t really know that much about the movies he had been in, or anything else about him, for that matter. To me, he was just somebody who had been in a movie; no big deal. After all, Star Trek’s William Shatner came around town a few times a year, so a movie person in Midway wasn’t unheard of. To me, people in movies and on TV were pretty much like everyone else, except most of them had more money than they knew what to do with. I was to find out later found out that Sam wasn’t like a lot of other movie people and wasn’t the stereotype movie celebrity.   
    After seeing him around town almost every day after our first meeting, I quickly discovered that he was without a doubt a curiosity, and it was comical to sit back and watch people’s reaction once they recognized who he was as he sat in corner booths of Midway’s restaurants. It was interesting how far out of the way women would walk to get a closer look, not looking where they were going, and bumping into chairs as they stared at him while making their way to the bathroom.
Shepard at the back door of his home on now-closed Sharp Lane in Scott County
    One night when he was eating at Heirloom with Phil Gerrow of Midway, a contractor who did most of the work on Shepard’s home off Fishers Mill Road, a group of ladies at the front of the restaurant recognized Sam across the way and began giggling like a bunch of high-school teenagers who just got patted on the behind by the captain of the football team.  They would giggle some more, put their heads together, and plan their next course of action. Each one of the six made their way past his booth on the way to the bathroom, one at a time, and came back to the table verifying that the guy sitting in the booth was definitely the Sam Shepard.
    Henry Wombles, co-owner of the Heirloom at that time, and I sat at the bar laughing and wondering what it would be like to garner that much attention. After a while others in the restaurant recognized Sam, and the normal table chatter that filled the room dropped to a steady murmur, fingers began to point as heads shook in agreement, and people at the tables would wave their waitresses over to have them confirm that the person sitting in the booth at the back of the restaurant was indeed Sam Shepard. That’s when people would begin to get up from their tables to head for the bathrooms, slowing down as they passed Sam’s booth.
    One night one lady, in a very nice-looking yellow dress, must have been on some serious diuretic pills or the Heirloom food was seriously disagreeing with her. Henry and I sat at the bar and counted nine round trips from her table to the bathroom and back again using the longest route possible so that she could walk close to Sam’s booth.  That’s the way people acted when they visited Midway and recognized Sam Shepard at one of the restaurants in town and it happened every time he came to town.
    Shepard told the New York Times in 1994, “I still haven’t gotten over this thing of walking down the street and somebody recognizes you because you’ve been in a movie, there is an illusion that movie stars only exist in a movie. And to see one live is like seeing a leopard let out of the zoo.”
    I think a lot of people were intimidated by Shepard. Though they were excited to see him in the flesh, it was very seldom that onlookers would actually stop to ask him for an autograph; most would just stare at him. Midway residents would smile and speak but, I only knew a few who ever bothered him for a picture or autograph. Townspeople made it a point to respect his privacy, and I believe that is why he liked Midway so much.
Shepard's home (Photos from www.sam-shepard.com)
    Every once in a while, someone would gather up enough nerve to ask for an autograph, or ask if he would have a picture taken with them. Sometimes he would accommodate them with a great big smile, other times he would be very reluctant, and other times he would refuse and totally embarrass the person who dared to make such a request. Such refusals were mild compared to the tongue-lashing he gave people who would walk up and set off flashes from their camera into his face. He would remind them that he wasn’t some animal in the zoo.  Knowing that he couldn’t very well take their cameras away, he would warn them that he had better not see or hear about the picture appearing on Facebook or anywhere else. The violators would apologize, duck their head, and disappear as fast as they could.
    This was just the beginning of me getting to know Sam Shepard. Little did I know that we would later have many interesting talks, discussing politics, religion, horses, dogs, and probably a few subjects that Wikipedia has yet to research. The more I learned about him I discovered that he was more than just a face on a screen. I gained a respect for him as I learned more about the 40 plays he wrote, including “Buried Child,” which won the Pulitzer.  I discovered that he was a genuine cowboy and loved his quarter-horse cutting horses. I learned that he could play guitar and sing, and one night when he wanted to see inside the Thoroughbred Theater that my brother Jim and I ran, he saw my set of drums on the stage and asked if he could play them. I told him where I kept my drumsticks and he went on stage, sat and played drums until 2 a.m.
    There is no doubt that Sam Shepard was a very talented, complex and intelligent person. He could be rude, he could be funny, he could be compassionate, and he had days that he just didn’t give a damn. I liked him for a lot of reasons, but he won me over because during one of our talks he once told me that he really did like Midway and that it had such a quality that even he had a hard time finding the words to describe the area around here. Maybe that’s why he chose to spend his last days here.

John McDaniel, left, is a member of the Midway City Council, the Midway correspondent for The Woodford Sun, and a former Midway and Woodford County police officer. He wrote this expanded version of his weekly Sun column at the request of the Midway Messenger.

Tonight on Broadway in New York, marquee lights will go dark for one minute in memory of Sam Shepard. He is survived by three children: Jesse, his son by his marriage to O-Lan Jones, and Hannah and Walker, his children with actress Jessica Lange; and by two sisters, Sandy and Roxanne Rogers. Funeral arrangements are private, and no plans have been made yet for a public memorial, according to the website www.sam-shepard.com.

UPDATE, Aug. 3: Singer-songwriter Patti Smith writes in The New Yorker magazine about times spent with him on his Midway farm.


Al Cross said...

Patti Smith, writing in The New Yorker, remembers Shepard: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/my-buddy-sam-shepard

Unknown said...

I didn't know he lived in midway. Many years ago he lived in Charlottesville Virginia with Jessica lange. I sold him equipment for their farm. We never became great friends or anything but did have a beer or two once in awhile at a local establishment. I always liked him because he was genuine and just wanted to be treated as one of the guys.