Richard Gere Recalls Working With Sam Shepard on 'Days of Heaven' (Guest Column)

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Richard Gere and Sam Shepard

The movie star — who got his start acting opposite Shepard in the Terrence Malick classic — pens a tribute to the playwright-actor, who died Thursday from ALS-related complications: "He wrote the way people think and talk."

I did two of Sam’s early plays before I made movies. There was one in particular called Killer’s Head that was a monologue of a guy strapped into an electric chair and blindfolded. I had nothing to use. My body was strapped. It was all in my voice and my emotions. It certainly took me to another place as an actor. And it was very well-received, so it was a stepping-stone, and put me in a different place as an actor in New York.

The next time I spoke to him was when we were doing Days of Heaven together. Here we were, two young guys. He was Sam Shepard and I was one of the up-and-comers from New York. I’m sure there was some competition between the two of us, but I had enormous respect for him. And he was a wonderful actor. I had several scenes with him — he was very present, very real. He had all the skills you would want as an actor.

He wrote like an actor. He wrote monologues. He wrote the way people think and talk, on the same track. He wanted to give these characters space to express themselves. He wasn’t afraid of letting people explain themselves. For an actor you’ve got a lot to play with there. There was an emotional base to start from. There was this possibility that you were completely lying and being manipulative. And the space and time to explore those things.

Sam was like some washed-out sun-bleached bone you find out in the desert. Even when he was young it felt like there was something very ancient about him. I never had any long conversations with him. He was an observer. He certainly liked the ladies. I think he had some difficult early family experiences with alcohol and there was certainly an emotional response to drinking. He didn’t want people around him to be sloppy. It took him to places he didn’t want to go to.

On the surface he was a very charming, easy guy. There was a level of gregariousness about him that he could be one of the boys. There was a desert cowboy thing about him, where he was at home being alone — but happy when he got to town and took his boots off. I think he felt comfortable with that persona. The Coyote. It fit him. It was comfortable for him and didn’t seem inauthentic. That feeling of seeing his plays that comes through, that was certainly drawn out of his own experience and his own essential view of the universe.

The last time we crossed paths, we both had films playing in Venice. It was a good feeling of running into each other. I feel, as many of us do, that he was part of my learning process. He was one of those playwrights that was trying different things. As a young actor, I wanted to be doing things that were innovative and touching on the zeitgeist.

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