In letters to a friend over the years, the late Sam Shepard wrote about his tumultuous romance with Jessica Lange — revealing that he once proposed to her in the “corniest way possible” but that his “horrible bouts of drinking & bad behaviors” eventually led to their breakup almost 30 years later. He also wrote about the “terrible sadness” that consumed him after he left his first wife and son for the actress.
The actor, author and playwright, who died last Thursday at 73 of complications from ALS, opened up to his friend Johnny Dark in a series of letters — starting in 1972 and ending in 2011 — published by the University of Texas in 2013 in a book titled Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark.
One of the letters recounts how Shepard, who met Lange on the set of the film Frances in 1982, became overwhelmed with the desire to propose to Lange in December 1983 while they were filming Country in Iowa. After picking out a antique sapphire ring, he asked her in the “corniest way possible” to marry him.
“I swept her outside into the cold wind & snow & popped the question. We jumped up & down together like little kids, giggling in the snow,” he recalled.
The couple never wed, though they stayed together until 2009.
Shepard and Lange in 1984’s Country
Dark and Shepard became friends after the actor wrote 1967’s Forensic and the Navigators. Shepard married Dark’s stepdaughter, actress O-Lan Jones, in 1969 and they had a son, Jesse, the next year. The actor and Dark continued to exchange letters after he left Jones for Lange, and Shepard often wrote honestly about his life.
In another handwritten letter dated March 1983, Shepard explained he was sometimes overcome “with a terrible sadness that seizes me completely” when he thought about the family he left behind.
“The thing that hurts me the most is knowing I abandoned everyone. That I ran off & left everyone high and dry,” he said.
Shepard and Lange in 1990
Still, the star went on to explain that his passion for Lange made the hard decision worth it. “I love this woman in a way I can’t describe,” he wrote.
Yet the letters took a darker turn in the new millennium, with Shepard admitting in 2004 that he had sabotaged his relationship with Lange with his “horrible bouts of drinking & bad behaviors” and they had decided to stay together for sake of their kids, Hannah Jane and Samuel Walker.
They eventually split in 2009, though they didn’t confirm the separation officially until 2011.
Lange, 68, recently appeared on the cover of AARP The Magazine and reminisced about her relationship with Shepard, alluding to their frequent troubles.
“I wouldn’t call Sammy easygoing and funny, but everybody has their dark side, and he always does it with a sense of humor,” she said.
Shepard told The Guardian of Lange in a story published in 2010: “We’re definitely an incredible match. But, you know, not without fireworks… although at this point, you know, she’s the only woman I could live with. Who could live with me! What other woman would put up with me?”