The Passing of American Icon Sam Shepard Reminds Us of the Importance of Innovation

At the close of the 1970s, I had a fierce crush on Sam Shepard, the eminent American playwright. Not only was he a serious intellectual for the plays he wrote, like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child and (a few years later), True West and Fool for Love, but in 1978, he made his screen debut in the Terrence Malick masterpiece, Days of Heaven.

Playing a hunky fictional Texas landowner in 2016 targeted by two Chicago grifters (Brooke Adams and Richard Gere), Shepard’s character rose above the couple’s heinous plot — and won the girl, to boot.

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More important, to me, he seemed to literally represent America, especially its untamed Western frontier, as he filled the screen, standing amid the waving wheatfields of the Texas Panhandle, in yet another one of Malick’s many gorgous tableaux. Shepard was a tall, handsome man of few words.

Actually, though, this literary icon gave us a lot of words, in his plays, screenplays (Paris, Texas won the Cannes festival’s grand prize) and movie roles — most famously The Right Stuff, in which he played another iconically American figure: the astronaut Chuck Yeager. For his depiction of the uber-brave Yeager, Shepard was nominated for an Oscar. (Fun fact: His play The Unseen Hand influenced The Rocky Horror Picture Show.)

For all that, I was truly saddened to hear that Shepard died last week, at the relatively young age of 73, of ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the same degenerative nerve disease that killed another really, really big American name, Yankee great Lou Gehrig.

But Gehrig died in 1939. So, 78 years later, how far have all those science-technology companies, large and small (especially small), gotten in their search for a cure? This terrible ailment kills 6,000 Americans a year — with an estimated 30,000 of us currently affected.

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Speaking personally, I feel a tiny, second-degree-of-separation connection to Sam Shepard: In the year after Days of Heaven captured my imagination, I was at my novelist-friend Howard’s Cambridge apartment, sitting in his tiny kitchen, discussing our mutual love of movies, especially Days. Sheepishly, Howard confessed that Shepard was actually a close friend.

Then the phone rang. “You old dog! Speak of the devil!” Howard said into the mouthpiece. Yup, it was Shepard on the line. And there I was, freaking out, acting out my fandom crush, mouthing the dumb words, “Tell him Joan thinks he’s amazing!”

But that was many years ago, and ALS still takes its toll.

There is at least some good news: The FDA in May approved Radicava, the first ALS drug greenlighted in 22 years on an application by the Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma Corporation, a subsidiary of the tech giant.

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I applaud the estimated 800 clinicians, scientists and companies working on ALS — quietly, bravely laboring away, treating patients and testing and developing drugs to halt ALS’s suspected genetic origins. Their efforts remind me of how important innovation is in America, whether it’s literary or scientific in nature.

In the latter context, I’m reminded of how I was among the first wave of American children to be vaccinated against the-then deadly childhood plague of polio. It was that innovation, by scientist Jonas Salk, which turned a nightmare into a memory (at least here in the United States).

Today, many biotech entrepreneurial companies are keeping up the fight against diseases like ALS — diseases not as commonly discussed as polio once was, or as HIV, heart disease and cancer are in current times.

I hope all those entrepreneurs out there find a cure for ALS. And I hope they do that before the next American icon passes — or anyone for that matter. That will surely be one of those “days of heaven” for us all.

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