Sam Shepard was born November 5, 1943, in Fort Sheridan, Illinois. He went to school in California, and at the age of twenty found himself in New York City, having jumped ship from the Bishop's Company Repertory Players. To support himself, Shepard worked at the Village Gate, a downtown mecca of good food and good jazz. The head waiter at the Village Gate was a man named Ralph Cook, who announced to his staff that he was looking for new plays. Shepard had a one-act called Cowboys, and the two men produced it sometime the following week.
The play gained rave reviews from Michael Smith of the Village Voice, and the rest is theatrical history. Shepard has proved himself to be one of the most prolific, original, and important playwrights of his generation, having written over forty plays and having won nearly every major award given out in the American theater.
Shepard also became a screen actor in Terrence Malick's film Days of Heaven (1978), and received and Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Chuck Yeager in Phillip Kaufman's The Right Stuff. Shepard is currently married to actress Jessica Lange and lives on a farm in Virginia with their two children. Aside from True West (1980), Shepard's other notable plays include The Tooth of Crime (1972), Curse of the Starving Class (1978), Buried Child (1979, Pulitzer Prize), Fool For Love (1983), and A Lie of the Mind (1986, New York Drama Critics Circle Award).
True West was first performed at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco on July 10, 1980. The play is, at first glance, a far more traditional narrative than those usually spun by Sam Shepard, a darling of the off-off-Broadway movement. Indeed, Shepard built his reputation for being almost stubbornly experimental. His plays defied the kitchen sink realism so persistent in the American theater. With True West, however, he abandoned his typical incredibly long monologues and lack of cohesive narrative in favor of clever banter and tight plotting.
True West takes its place in Shepard's continuing investigation of the volatile relationship between father and son. From his earliest one acts to the recent The Late Henry Moss (2000), Shepard has obsessively mapped the painful necessity to at least attempt to break away from a father's influence. Although in True West the brothers' father never appears onstage, "the old man" nonetheless hangs over the entire play like the pendulum over the pit.
After its debut at the Magic Theatre, True West moved to the Public Theater in New York. It did not take on the status of American masterpiece, however, until the Steppenwolf Theater Company's famous revival of the play starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich in 1984. In the most recent notable production, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly went toe-to-toe in the story of brotherly conflict. To emphasize the brothers being one half of a whole person, the two actors switched roles for different performances, even asking the Tony awards committee to consider them as one actor—a request the committee denied by giving both men nominations for Best Actor.