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Sam Shepard recalls his go-to actor, James Gammon, who died Friday at 70

July 20, 2010 |  8:20 pm
 
JamesGammonWoodyHarrelson Sam Shepard first set eyes on his friend James Gammon at the MET Theatre in Los Angeles, a 50-seat house the playwright remembers as “almost like a little hallway.”

One of his fondest memories of their times together is of tooling around Lexington, Ky., the day of the 1995 Kentucky Derby in a beat-up wood-paneled station wagon. Gammon and his wife, Nancy, had driven it to the Derby from their home in Florida, and there was something about the sight of Gammon spread out in the station wagon with an iced tea in his hand and thoroughbred racing magazines fluttering around in the seat that stuck with the playwright and actor.

“We just had a great time, rolling around in the bluegrass in that station wagon. Thunder Gulch was the winner that day [at odds of 25-1]. Nancy made a lot of money on that horse,” Shepard recalled by phone Tuesday from Kentucky, where he lives.

As a playwright and a director, Shepard didn’t do badly betting on Gammon to inhabit an array of rough-hewn, hard-drinking, haunted father figures swept up in or responsible for storms of family chaos.

Gammon, who died Friday at 70 in Costa Mesa, surrounded by his family at the end of his fight with cancer, was once described in the Christian Science Monitor as “the perfect Shepard actor.”

Shepard said he knew that as soon as he saw Gammon enter as the drunk and yelling Weston, the father in the MET’s 1979 West Coast premiere of “Curse of the Starving Class.”

“This guy walked on stage, and it’s as if everybody else in the play disappeared, as if he had stumbled in from an alleyway and just was this character.”

SamShepardRobertCaplinFTT Gammon already had played Weston on a far more prominent stage, New York’s Public Theater, but Shepard says he skipped that production to avoid the Public’s Joe Papp, because “we were like oil and water.” He was playwright in residence at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre when word came that he ought to check out the production at the Met, which Gammon and fellow actors had founded in 1972.

After that, Shepard said, “I wanted him to be in every play I wrote. The guy was a whole atmosphere unto himself, and I always tried to find a place for him. He was very versatile, and could do just about anything. He always added this edge, a scary kind of realism, which I loved. There was some risk in the air. It was the same thing with Ed Harris. They both had this kind of dangerous quality.”

Shepard, as playwright and director, cast Gammon in “A Lie of the Mind,” (in a 1985 off-Broadway production also featuring Harvey Keitel, Geraldine Page, Amanda Plummer and Aidan Quinn);  “Simpatico” (1994) and a 1996 Broadway revival of “Buried Child,” for which Gammon received a Tony nomination for his turn as the haunted baby-killer, Dodge. In 2000, Gammon had the title role in “The Late Henry Moss,” at the Magic Theatre. Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, Cheech Marin and Nick Nolte were in the cast, but Shepard, who directed, said that the famous names were most impressed with Gammon. “Sean said, `I heard about this guy but never worked with him. He’s really good.’ I said, `Yeah, you better stay on your toes.’”

Shepard and Gammon shared a love of horse racing, and bought a mare together, with Harris, when they were all working on “Simpatico,” a play set against a thoroughbred racing backdrop. Gammon played Simms, a former California racing commissioner whom Harris and Fred Ward had blackmailed to keep him from blowing the lid off a racing scam they had pulled off.

Vincent Camby wrote in the New York Times that Simms is “the play’s benign conscience…played with laid-back finesse” by Gammons. “It’s to him that Mr. Shepard gives some of the play’s best lines about the condition of horses and humans.”

Asked whether he’d ever picked up anything watching Gammon that he could use in his own acting, Shepard immediately said he had not, then reconsidered later when he recalled Gammon’s way of slowly and gradually assimilating a role, rather than nailing it off the bat at the start of rehearsals. It’s a quality Shepard said had nearly gotten Gammon bumped from the Public’s “Curse of the Starving Class,” as Papp and others worried they’d chosen the wrong actor until the home stretch of rehearsals, “when all of a sudden he blossomed and took hold of the character.”

“Maybe I did pick up some patience from watching him, and didn’t rush so much,” said Shepard, who has appeared in “The Right Stuff,” “Paris, Texas” and other films. “A lot of people want results right away, and he had a patient, methodical way.”

Shepard said he knew that Gammon had battled cancer, but didn’t know it was critical before Harris, who also was involved in the MET Theatre, called to tell him their friend had died.

“We had a kind of built-in affinity for the life we were trying to represent, the background,” Shepard said of Gammon’s ability to play tough, scarred men. “We just had a built-in knowing of what that thing was. We didn’t have to do a lot of research into ourselves. We just had it, which helps a lot. You don’t want to have endless dialogues with an actor about the meaning of things. You just want them to know. And Jim was one of those guys.”

-- Mike Boehm

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Photos: Woody Harrelson (L) and James Gammon in 2000, in a scene from Sam Shepard's "The Late Henry Moss," at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco; Sam Shepard in 2006. Credits: Ken Friedman (Magic Theatre scene). Robert Caplin/For the Times (Shepard)

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