Fort Sheridan, Illinois native, Sam Shepard, really was one of Hollywood's greats. Known for his numerous roles in western films, Shepard was also a talented playwright and screenwriter, known for various works including Paris, Texas, Fool for Love, Curse of the Starving Class, True West, and Oh! Calcutta! He even won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979 for his play Buried Child. He was a man of many talents and regardless of the project, he always seemed to inspire audiences and cast members alike.
The famed actor was incredibly diverse, appearing in anything from a thriller like Swordfish, to narrating children's film Charlotte's Web, or acting in the Netflix drama series Bloodline. Shepard's last appearance on screen was released posthumously in 2019, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, two years after the actor passed away in Kentucky due to complications from ALS. He was taken too soon but he definitely left us with a catalog of incredible films to look back on from his celebrated career.
We've rounded up the 14 best movies that Shepard appeared in during his 5-decade career working in the entertainment industry.
1. The Right Stuff
Shepard earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of the U.S. Air Force officer Chuck Yeager in this film based on the novel by Tom Wolfe. It follows the story of seven military pilots selected to be sent into space for the first human spaceflight. Though it was initially a box office bomb, it ended up getting nominated for a slew of awards, winning several Oscars including Best Score.
2. Steel Magnolias
In this classic southern drama, Shepard stars as Spud Jones, Dolly Parton's on-screen husband. It's definitely a supporting role as the main focus of the film is on the story of Shelby, her mother, and her mother's group of friends in their small Louisiana town, but it's memorable all the same since Shepard is just so effortless.
3. Baby Boom
Written by famed director Nancy Meyers, Shepard stars as the love interest for his Crimes of the Heart and Darling Companion co-star, Diane Keaton. When Keaton's character ends up with a long-lost relative's baby, she gives up her glamorous life in New York City for a farmhouse in Vermont. While dealing with feeling like a fish out of water and figuring out her new path, she falls for the handsome local vet, Dr. Jeff Cooper (Shepard).
4. Black Hawk Down
This highly acclaimed war drama is centered around the U.S. Army's attempts to destabilize the government in Somalia following their civil war in the early 90s. Shepard plays the real MG William F. Garrison who led the special operation.
5. Don't Come Knocking
In this film that Shepard co-wrote, he stars as an aging western star, Howard Spence. Spence decides that he is disgusted by his life and abandons the set of his current western film to find meaning from particular people from his past. Shepard's partner of 27 years, Jessica Lange, co-stars.
6. The Pelican Brief
Julia Roberts stars as a law student, Darby Shaw, who gives a brief to her professor detailing her theories behind why two Supreme Court Justices were murdered. Shepard plays her professor/lover, Thomas Callahan, who passes her brief along to a friend leading to extreme unforeseen danger and drama for them both. Denzel Washington co-stars as a reporter who helps Darby uncover the truth. It's the definition of an exhilarating 90s legal thriller.
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7. All the Pretty Horses
Shepard stars alongside Matt Damon, Henry Thomas, and Penélope Cruz in this western drama about Texas ranchers, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy.
8. Days of Heaven
This Terrence Malick film follows two people in 1916 who head to the Texas Panhandle to harvest crops for a wealthy local farmer. Bill (Richard Gere) convinces his lover Abby (Brooke Adams), to gain the fortune of the harvest for themselves by tricking the sick farmer (Shepard) into marrying her.
9. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
In this western film, Brad Pitt stars as the legendary Wild West icon Jesse James, and Casey Affleck as Robert Ford, the man who killed him. Shepard plays the older outlaw brother of Jesse, Frank James. This movie has been acclaimed for its historical accuracy of the life of Jesse James and has earned a reputation for being one of the most popular modern westerns.
In an underrated western, Shepard plays a fictionalized version of an aging Butch Cassidy going under the new name James Blackthorn. Living in Bolivia 20 years after he disappeared, Cassidy returns to the states after learning his beloved Etta Place passed away.
11. The Notebook
In this emotional southern classic, Shepard plays Frank Calhoun, the father of Ryan Gosling's character Noah. Though the story is obviously centered around Noah and Allie, Shepard really shines in his supporting role, bringing to life a sweet father/son relationship on screen.
Shepard stars alongside Reese Witherspoon and Matthew McConaughey in this story of two young boys in Arkansas who meet the fugitive Mud (McConaughey) and help him evade bounty hunters to find his true love. Shepard plays Tom Blankenship, a father figure from Mud's childhood.
In Meg Ryan's directorial debut, Shepard stars alongside Tom Hanks in the story about a young bicycle telegraph messenger set in the 40s in a small California town.
14. Out of the Furnace
This dramatic crime thriller follows a steel mill worker in Pennsylvania and his brother, a veteran who served in Iraq. After one of the brothers disappears following a bad deal with a local criminal, the other brother must set out to find him. Shepard stars as Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney's (Casey Affleck) uncle 'Red.'