The last place Jeff Nichols remembers hanging out with Sam Shepard could have been ripped from the pages of one of the late actor’s short stories: a run-down roadside BBQ joint somewhere in Austin, Texas.
“Sam didn’t like flying,” Nichols, who directed Shepard in 2013’s Mud and 2016’s Midnight Special, told PEOPLE. “So one time when he was driving through Texas, we met up at this BBQ place in Austin. He wanted to talk to me about his writing because he was working on something new. So here I am sitting in this booth eating some pretty mediocre brisket, listening to Sam Shepard tell me about one of his stories as it was gestating.”
During the meal, Nichols said one of the waitresses walked up to Shepard and asked, “‘Anyone ever tell you that you look like that actor?’ And he goes, ‘Nope, nobody’s ever said it.’ So she poured him some more tea and walked away, and as usual, Sam was just the coolest guy in the room. He didn’t need anybody to know it, he just wanted to get back immediately to the story he was writing.”
On Tuesday, Shepard’s theater representative confirmed to PEOPLE that he died at his home in Kentucky on July 27 from complications resulting from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was with his family at the time of his death.
Shepard’s illness was not publicly known, but according to Nichols, it was not a secret among his friends. “I knew Sam had been sick, so it wasn’t the biggest shock,” Nichols said. “But I started reading the news reports and was immediately struck by just the density of his biography. They were talking about him playing drums and being on tour with Bob Dylan, and immediately I got that same feeling I had the first time we met, which was just like, ‘Man, I don’t belong in this conversation at all.’ ”
That feeling changed after the two writers bonded over something Nichols had written. “I was so lucky that from there on out he treated me like a friend. When we spoke, he wanted to talk about what books I was reading, what movies I was seeing, all of that. That weight that would trouble me would just evaporate. So I have this dueling idea of him in my head, which is partly the gravity of knowing an American icon, which I think he was, and then there’s this very intelligent man who just wanted to pick your brain about how you saw the world.”
Even when his illness got worse, Nichols said, “He had more important things to talk about. He wanted to talk about your movie, he didn’t want to waste any time talking about that. I think if I had asked him about it he would’ve talked to me. It didn’t seem like something he was trying to hide it from people or anything like that, it felt like he just had more important things to do.”
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Nichols first directed Shepard in Mud, a Southern coming-of-age tale also starring Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon and Tye Sheridan.
The director will always remember Shepard’s first take as “the longest pause I had ever witnessed on film.” The actor had warned him that he wanted to “take a little time” with his lines, but the silence hung in the air so long that Nichols remembered wondering, “Did he lose it?” But when he went back to watch the scene in the editing room, Nichols said, “I watched it back, and here you have Sam Shepard’s face, which is at the same time inscrutable but full of information, and what seemed like an awkward paused onset, I realized was this man who was really taking in the information and really hearing it, and it’s coming across in his eyes and his face.”
The first time Nichols became aware that the illness was taking a toll was when his friend, House of Cards actor Paul Sparks, was working with Shepard on one of his plays, Buried Child, in 2016. “I knew he was sick when he was working with Paul on that play, physically I think it had started to show up.” Nichols went to New York to see Sparks in the play, but did not hear back from Shepard when he asked to meet up. “I texted him but I didn’t hear back and ended up missing him,” Nichols said. “And I had this feeling like that might be the last time we’d physically be in each other’s orbit.”
Moving forward, Nichols said he will remember Shepard as “one of the greats.”
He added, “ was an American icon in a time when we manufacture a lot of celebrities, but there’s a giant chasm between celebrity and an icon. And I don’t want to sound too cheesy – he wouldn’t want that – but that’s what he was. I don’t think anyone could find a way to reduce his body of work and disagree with that statement. And they just don’t come around very often. That’s the stratosphere that I place him in, and I know for a fact that his body of work is going to resonate long after the news of his death fades away.”