Sam Shepard

updated 12/26/1983 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/26/1983 01:00AM

Reclusive playwright Sam Shepard has pulled a startling switch. Only J.D. Salinger signing for a sitcom could top it. Often teased as the "Masked Man of the American Theater," Shepard is suddenly a wide-screen, posterized movie star playing legendary jet jockey Chuck Yeager in the American epic The Right Stuff. Sure, Shepard's done other films (Days of Heaven, Resurrection, Raggedy Man), but they fall into the succes d'estime category, seen by too few to endanger his cult status.

Now there's another unwelcome spotlight on Sam, courtesy of his affair with 1983 Oscar winner Jessica (Toot-sie) Lange. They met while co-starring in Frances, and next thing Shepard had moved out on actress wife O-Lan and son Jesse Mojo, 14, and moved in with Lange and her 2-year-old daughter, Alexandra (by Mikhail Baryshnikov), on the actress's six-acre spread outside Sante Fe. They've just finished a film about farmers called Country. "Who knows?" is Sam's best guess about where the relationship will lead.

At 40, with 40 plays mounted, including off-Broadway's current True West and Fool for Love, Shepard is now the country's most-produced living playwright. Since the 1960s he has been birthing plays as though he'd overdosed on fertility drugsā€”one of the few he didn't try during those psychedelic days. But don't push him about his writing ("It's just something you do"). Dennis Quaid, who plays astronaut Gordon Cooper in The Right Stuff, sees clanking contradictions in the man. "He can act like a lawn-mower repairman in some dirt Texas town," says Quaid, "and at the same time spout these brilliant things. He's got his straight side and his wild side." Right Stuff director Phil Kaufman describes Shepard as "shy but dangerous and tough." He once decked a drunk who repeatedly provoked him.

Of that reputation and his newfound celebrity, Shepard says typically, "Why should I care?" A line from one of his plays finishes the thought: "I'll develop my own image. I'm an original man, a one and only."

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