Sam Shepard Has Enough Horse Sense to Corral His Talented Sisters into His Dramatic Stable
01/06/1986 at 01:00 AM EST
Sam Shepard, America's most reclusive playwright, director and film star, is on a mighty roll. Already a Pulitzer prizewinner (for Buried Child in 1979), he is now having his greatest triumph off-Broadway with A Lie of the Mind. His 43rd play and perhaps his most vivid portrait of the imploding nuclear American family, Lie of the Mind has critics calling him the Eugene O'Neill of the '80s. Shepard this year has also confirmed his status as a film star of the first magnitude, thanks to Fool for Love. Based on his 1983 play of the same name, Fool stars Shepard as an aloof cowboy in love with his sexy half-sister, played by Kim Basinger. "Sam Shepard is what a star is supposed to be," playwright Marsha Norman once said. "He's a ball of fire in a black sky, brilliant but very far away."
While Shepard may be a distant celestial being to some, to Roxanne and Sandy Rogers he's just older brother Sam—the indulgent, protective and playful kid who now, at 42, is helping both his sisters earn their spurs in the entertainment world. Roxanne Rogers (Sam lopped off the family name when he became a playwright in the 1960s), the youngest of the three siblings at 30, is an actress and director who served as Shepard's assistant director on Lie of the Mind. During rehearsals Roxanne was her brother's second pair of eyes. "I took care of the rehearsal process," she says. "I made sure Sam had everything he needed. I made suggestions." No one raised the charge of nepotism. "I thought most people were very open to me," says Roxanne. "Because Sam trusted me, they would ask, 'What do you think? What's Sam planning here?' " Roxanne also bears a noticeable resemblance to Jessica Lange, who lives with her brother on a ranch near Santa Fe. "Brother and sister incest," she says, chuckling at the possible implication. "Good headline."
As for Sandy Rogers, a skinny out-doorsy woman of 37, she composed and sang Fool for Love's country theme song, Let's Ride. (The eight songs Sandy composed for the movie have just been released on the MCA label.) No matter that his younger sibling had only a few minor professional gigs to her credit. Says Sandy, "Sam just called me up one day and said I had to write some tunes for this movie he was doing and I said 'yeah.' I just went right into gear. I sat down that night and wrote a couple and made demos even before I had a copy of the screenplay."
Both Roxanne and Sandy have learned to cope with the inevitable curiosity and publicity that attends their brother. "I've had friends call up and say, 'I've got a script I need to show him,' or 'I have to have his address,' " says Roxanne. "I say, 'Just send it to his agent.' Eventually they realize I'm right; business isn't done that way. But I've had people not speak to me for a year because of it." Sandy is equally cautious. "I feel very protective of Sam," she says. "I'm real careful of what friends of mine come around when he is here."
Sam's sisters have also had to adjust to the inescapable fact that, since Shepard has repeatedly mined the chaotic scenes of his childhood for his plays, much of their life is an open script. "It used to bother me," says Sandy, "because I felt it was way too personal, like, 'Hey, what's my uncle doing up there?' " As Roxanne puts it, "It's pretty weird. The whole world knows my family, and we were pretty wacky, more so than most."
It was Samuel Shepard Rogers, the children's father, who loomed as a larger-than-life character during their childhood. He was an ex-Air Force pilot who taught high school Spanish until he lost his job because of drinking problems. (He died in a car crash in 1984.) "My father was gorgeous," Roxanne says. "He was like Chuck Yeager. He had that romantic image, like a big gorgeous Bobby Duvall." Jane Rogers, their mother, was a grade school teacher. Divorced from her husband in 1968, she is now retired and living alone in Pasadena, Calif.
Back in the '50s, when life still looked rosy, the family settled on a three-acre avocado farm in Duarte, a small town near Pasadena. Says Roxanne, "My parents set it up so it would be their little dream house and their little dream family." At times it seemed that way. As kids, Sam and Sandy, five years his junior, tangled like puppies. "When we were young," says Sandy, "I was a little tomboy and followed Sam around. I dressed just like the guys—blue jeans and no shirt." Sandy describes the young Sam as a major tease. "He used to get me down and tickle me until I couldn't breathe," she says. "Then after a while all he had to do was look at me and I would run screaming into the bathroom." When Roxanne came along, Sam and his pals would hold high-speed baby stroller races on the town's quiet back streets.
Even as a teenager, Shepard had sex appeal. "He's always been an attractive kind of guy," Sandy says. "I had friends who had things for him when we were young. I'd bring them home from school, and he'd take them up in the tree house."
As their father's drinking problems worsened, life at home began to skid off the tracks. "My dad and Sam had a lot of rifts," says Sandy. "My dad wanted Sam to do well in school and had saved money for him to go away to college. Sam didn't give a — about school. He just wanted to shag balls at the golf course." As Shepard once said, "My father had a real short fuse. He had a really rough life; he had to support his mother and brothers at a very young age when his dad's farm collapsed. You could see his terrible suffering, living a life that was disappointing and looking for another. My father was full of terrifying anger." Fed up with the domestic battles, Sam lit out for off-off-Broadway when he was 19. As the youngest, still at home, Roxanne witnessed the worst of her father's decline. "Sam and Sandy didn't see it," she says. "They just saw a whole different side of my family than I did. I went through the blood and guts of the whole thing." A story Roxanne once told Sam about their father leaving his dentures on top of a carton of chop suey in a doggie bag ended up in his 1980 play, True West.
Unlike their brother, who dropped out of Mount San Antonio College, the girls stuck it out. Sandy earned a degree in psychology at the University of California at Davis in 1970, and Roxanne graduated in 1978 from Antioch. Over the years Sandy has sold real estate and worked as a legal secretary. A natural singer with a raspy Dolly Parton voice, she didn't take herself seriously until the mid '70s when she got some encouragement from Sam's wife at the time, actress O-Lan Jones. "O-Lan and I sang a few things for fun, and she told me I had a great voice. A couple of other people told me the same thing so I decided to give it a try."
Besides singing and composing, Sandy takes care of Sam's 10-acre ranch north of San Francisco with her husband, Doug Killmer, a musician, and her 17-year-old daughter, Erin, from her first marriage. With Sam's blessing, Sandy is working to turn the property into a broodmare ranch for quarter horses.
Roxanne, who had been headed for a career as a documentary filmmaker, switched to acting in 1978 when Sam invited her to participate in a drama workshop he was running in Pomona, Calif. She performed in regional theater and art films before taking up directing. In the last few years she has directed a number of plays in Los Angeles, San Francisco and at Yale University. In March she will direct Marsha Norman's play 'Night, Mother in Santa Fe. When she's not on an out-of-town assignment, Roxanne shares a weathered beachfront cottage in Malibu with actor Robert (Nightmare on Elm Street) Englund, 38.
The Rogers kids remain a tight-knit threesome. "There was something special about my mom and dad's genes," says Sandy. "Whatever it is, it makes us real close." Shepard labels that mysterious element "liquid nitrogen in the bloodstream." Roxanne agrees. "You get us in a room together, and the whole thing goes bananas. All of a sudden it just blows up, everybody going off the deep end. There's something that drives us all. I don't think it's very normal." Perhaps not, but neither is great theater.