Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark Traded Letters Through 40 Years of Friendship

“2 Prospectors” reveals a friendship forged in person and sustained over four decades of correspondence

Editor’s note: This article was published in 2013, four years prior to Shepard’s death.

Sam Shepard, playwright, actor, rugged Western icon, and deep surveyor of America, turns 70 today. In 1967, he met Johnny Dark when the latter approached him and asked what drug Shepard was on when he wrote his play Forensic and the Navigators. Dark, whose given name makes him sound like the rebellious outsider in a 1950s drama, would become the brother Shepard never had as well as his “former father-in-law,” steadfast friend, co-conspirator, and inspiration. In 1972, after Shepard married Dark’s stepdaughter O-Lan, the two men began exchanging letters in what would become a lifelong correspondence. Last month, their correspondence was published in 2 Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard & Johnny Dark, a beautiful volume with color photographs by the University of Texas Press.

Edited by Chad Hammett, the letters stretch from 1972, when Shepard was 28 and living with O-Lan and their son Jesse in England while writing his phantasmagoric rock play The Tooth of Crime, to 2011 when the playwright, 68 years old and separated from Jessica Lange, holed up in New Mexico as a fellow of the Santa Fe Institute. Over this period, Shepard left O-Lan to live with Jessica Lange while Dark struggled with his wife Scarlett’s recovery from a brain aneurysm. The book circles around family life, the challenges of writing and aging, the search for inspiration, and the death of loved ones (Dark’s wife, director Joseph Chaikin, actor James Gammon). The teachings of Russian esoteric philosopher G.I. Gurdjieff are touchstones for both men, which might a surprise those who can’t visualize a Shepard so invested in spiritual enlightenment.

The book also incorporates recorded conversations between the two including one about a play about prospectors, which gives the collection its title. (Their relationship is also explored in Treva Wurmfeld’s recent documentary Shepard & Dark.) It’s easy to see the roots of Shepard’s True West emerging from these sessions. Shepard responds to Dark’s drug addiction by discussing his own newly found sobriety. In one candid letter, Shepard reminds his friend, “…we still get a kick out of stringing words together and concocting images and feel the importance of trying to attempt to get down something of our experience through time and those blessings seem more and more to out-weigh the temporary trances of being smashed and carried away with images of myself as some kind of fascinating fellow.” The letters are full of encouragement, rumination, and incontestable affection even when the relationship between these solitary men runs aground or threatens to engulf them in excessive nostalgia. 

In another letter, Shepard rattles off a list of some of his favorite things (Don Quixote, coffee almond fudge ice cream, The Thoroughbred Times), recalling the incantatory list-making in his early plays. “Sometimes lists are better than writing—more fun—but then they get boring—so does writing,” he adds.

Shepard writes often from film sets or “the mouth of the mad movie machine” but there is little in the way of Hollywood talk. There isn’t much to be learned about the theater, whether writing it or staging it, either. Shepard spends far more time on books and authors: Moby-Dick (“How does a man sit down & decide to even attempt something like that?”), the stories of Chekhov (“the Mozart of fiction writers”), Graham Greene (“Don’t know why this guy isn’t universally recognized as one of the monsters of modern fiction”), Bolaño (“Kind of a strange mix of Borges & early 60’s art movies”), and Beckett (“there’s nobody like him & never will be”). He closes one 6 a.m. letter resolving to “Study Bolaño—Cabeza de Vaca—The Masks of God—watch the mind leap around making all its wild & wooly assumptions.”

For Shepard completists, particularly those swept up by his stories in Motel Chronicles, Cruising Paradise, and Great Dream of Heaven, 2 Prospectors is essential reading. For more casual readers, these epistles are a celebration of a friendship sustained by writing. When Shepard talks about reworking an old play, his ruminations extend beyond the rewriting of words to the rewriting of lives, the ones we build—and share—with others: 

How you swing in sympathy toward one character then fall out of love and swing to another; how your focus on what’s important keeps shifting—where the true values of the piece lay. The best though is suddenly discovering new territory, something hidden that reveals itself and takes on a new life of its own. Maybe you never get to the bottom of a piece of writing and could continue to re-write for the rest of your life.