Sam Elliott has worked steadily in Hollywood for more than five decades now, in which time he’s become well known for both his acting chops and his distinctively deep voice. It turns out, though, that the story of Elliott’s life is just as fascinating as those of his many on-screen personas.
Elliott hails from Sacramento, California, where he was born in August 1944. While Elliott was a teenager, however, his family relocated to Portland, Oregon, where he attended high school. The future star would go on to study at Clark College in the Washington city of Vancouver, and it was there that he developed his talent for acting.
Indeed, after having starred in a college production of the musical Guys and Dolls, Elliott received rave reviews. Even local newspaper The Columbian said that he had the potential for a promising future as an actor. Perhaps as a result, then, Elliott decided to make the move to Los Angeles.
In the city, Elliott attended California State University. He began his acting career proper, too, with an appearance in the television show Judd for the Defense. Meanwhile, his first feature film credit would come in the shape of classic Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The 1969 drama, which also stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford, sees Elliott playing cards in the background.
And although he may not have known it at the time, Elliott’s first film role would set the stage for much of his working life – as he has since portrayed a few cowboys on screen. But the star has also proven himself as a versatile performer and successful character actor.
What’s more, Elliott has admitted that he knew he wanted to perform even before he tried it out for the first time. “I went to a local theater called the Sequoia Theater,” he told NPR radio program Fresh Air in 2017. “And I just was captivated by going into a dark theater and watching those lights jump around up on the screen.”
Elliott continued, “I just knew early on, that as preposterous as it might seem at that point in time to any number of people, that it seemed a possibility to me. And I pretty much had tunnel vision most of my life in that pursuit.” Then, after his performance in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the actor’s success continued.
From 1970 to 1971, for example, Elliott played Doug Robert in the television series Mission: Impossible. A few years after that show’s end, he also landed the leading role of Sam Damon in Once an Eagle. And the star has teamed up with Tom Selleck on multiple occasions, too.
Elliot and Selleck – both of whom are famous for their impressive mustaches – first appeared together in an episode of Lancer, in what was Selleck’s earliest acting gig. They also went on to star together in television Westerns The Sacketts in 1979 and The Shadow Riders in 1982.
And while Elliott was landing regular work as an actor in the early days of his career, it was in 1985 that he received his big break with a supporting part in Mask. The movie tells the true story of Roy L. “Rocky” Dennis, a boy with a rare bone disorder, and also stars Cher and Eric Stoltz.
In the years following Mask, Elliott’s career went from strength to strength, in fact, thanks to memorable performances in movies such as Road House and Tombstone. Those two films feature some of the star’s best-known work – as does the iconic Coen brothers feature The Big Lebowski.
As many movie fans know, The Big Lebowski stars Jeff Daniels as slacker character The Dude. And Elliott was full of praise for his former co-star when talking about The Big Lebowski to Fresh Air. “Jeff is just brilliant in [the film],” he said.
In the movie, Elliott portrays The Stranger – who is dressed in full cowboy gear during his interaction with The Dude – as well as introducing the story as a narrator. And nearly two decades on from the film’s initial release, Elliott could still remember the day he read the script.
Elliott explained to Fresh Air, “At that time in my career, I felt like I was never going to get out of the box that I was in, this Western thing, like I was never going to be perceived as an actor that could do anything but ride a horse or shoot a gun.” He added, “I was really tickled to get the script [for The Big Lebowski]. And I was so excited to get back to the hotel room and read it.”
Elliott continued, “As I opened up and read, you know – a couple of pages in, and it’s talking about this voice-over. And it said literally on the page, the voice-over sounded not unlike Sam Elliott. And then later on when he appears in the bowling alley, here’s this guy dressed like a drugstore cowboy, looking not unlike Sam Elliott.”
After reading the script, Elliott realized that the Coen brothers had envisioned him in the role when they wrote it. That made him see that he should be grateful for his place in Hollywood – even if he was often being typecast as a cowboy character. So, instead of avoiding that kind of a role, Elliott decided to embrace it.
“From then on, I just knew that I should just be thankful for that way that I’m perceived by others in the game as the Western character,” Elliott told Fresh Air. “Had that not happened, I probably wouldn’t have had the career that I’ve had. And maybe not one at all.”
Elliott has had further success on television since then, with shows such as Justified and Buffalo Girls. Since 2016, he has also been starring in Netflix series The Ranch. In the sitcom, which also features Ashton Kutcher, Elisha Cuthbert and Debra Winger, Elliott plays a veteran of the Vietnam War.
During his long Hollywood career, Elliott has additionally been nominated for two Golden Globe Awards and two Emmy Awards. He even won a Critics’ Choice Television Award for Justified. And his famously deep voice has landed him parts in Ram Trucks and Coors beer commercials as well as a stint voicing long-running United States Forest Service mascot Smokey Bear.
As for those distinctive vocal tones? Well, Elliott has admitted that his voice has just become deeper as time has gone on. “It came with age,” he explained to Fresh Air. “It just kept going down the older I got – [but I] can’t imagine it’s going to go much further.”
Now, 50 years since his first film role, Elliott is making waves once again in Hollywood for his latest project: the 2018 version of A Star Is Born. The actor portrays the brother of Bradley Cooper’s character in the movie, which follows an aspiring singer whose career takes off as her country star boyfriend falls deeper into addiction.
Cooper additionally directed the film and helped to write the script. And Elliott revealed in an October 2018 interview with Esquire that he knew right away it would be a hit. “I don’t know that I’ve ever been on a set where I’ve felt more positive that something incredible was happening,” the star said.
Elliott continued, “It’s a timeless story in terms of the entertainment world. Everybody’s wanting to get there in this business, and some are willing to pay a dear price for it.” The movie was praised by critics and has earned five Golden Globe nominations.
Yet while Elliott did not receive a nod for Best Supporting Actor at the Globes, he was nevertheless lauded for his performance and is expected to be nominated further during the 2019 awards season. And Elliott is not surprised that A Star is Born has done so well at the box office, either. “I think there’s great respite from the storm, so to speak, when you go into a movie theater,” the performer said to Esquire.
And because of his famous drawl and distinguishing looks, perhaps it’s no surprise that Elliott is often cast to play a cowboy. It may be, though, that his background is another reason why he is often cast for such roles. After all, his father was employed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at one point.
Elliott has explained, moreover, that his upbringing has helped him to master the nuances of his more rugged characters. “I was outdoors a lot in my lifetime,” he told Fresh Air. “And I was with my dad and his peers, who were all men’s men and outdoorsmen.”
In fact, Elliott’s experiences with his father and his dad’s friends appear to have left a lasting impact on him. “All had incredible work ethics and were all good men,” the actor has revealed. “And they were really the ones I think that I learned [from when it came to] what kind of a man I wanted to be when I grew up.”
Indeed, Elliott seems to have not forgotten the lessons he learned from his father, even though his dad died when the actor was just 18. “I spent so much time with [my father] when I was younger that plenty of it rubbed off,” Elliott said. “I didn’t get to know him nearly as well as I would love to have. But I got enough of him that my sister tells me all the time, ‘You’re just like daddy.’”
Plus, Elliott’s family originates from Texas, with his roots going back to a relative who was involved in the 1836 Battle of the Alamo. “My Western heritage runs deep,” he told Esquire. “I always thought there was a sensibility that came from that Western character; maybe it’s mythic, but I always felt that there was something real there.”
“It had to do with how you dealt with people,” Elliott added. “It had to do with how you treated a woman, [and] how you thought about people on a bigger level than just what you can get out of them.”
And, in one way, Elliott does bear some resemblance to a cowboy in real life, since the actor really does live on a ranch with his wife, Katharine Ross. Ross is best known for portraying Elaine Robertson in The Graduate – a role that earned her an Academy Award nomination.
Ross has also had roles in The Stepford Wives and Voyage of the Damned. In fact, she also appeared in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, although she did not have any on-camera moments with Elliott. Instead, it was after Elliott and Ross co-starred in The Legacy in 1978 that the pair started a relationship.
Elliott and Ross then got married in 1984, with their daughter Cleo born in September of that year. And Cleo, too, appears to be following her parents into the spotlight; instead of being an actor, though, she works as a musician.
Furthermore, when Elliott and Ross tied the knot, the latter had been divorced four times. But the couple’s marriage has persisted. And while Elliott has recognized that he and his wife are “in the minority” when it comes to Hollywood romances, he revealed the secret to their long-lasting relationship during his interview on NPR’s Fresh Air.
“I think really what it boils down to is [that] we love each other. And we work at it,” Elliott told the show. “And I think more importantly than anything, it takes wanting to be married. The… things that I wanted in my life were to have a movie career and to be married, to have a family.”
Elliott added that he’s grateful to have both a happy marriage and a fruitful livelihood. “It’s an embarrassment of riches that I’ve got both,” he said. “And unlike Lee Hayden, who couldn’t balance those two things and made such a mess of it, [Ross] and I managed to make it work. And Cleo’s right along the way with us, and it’s just the best.”
Lee Hayden is the character that Elliott portrayed in 2017’s The Hero, about an older Western star whose heyday is behind him. And while Elliott can relate to some aspects of the movie, he and his on-screen alter ego don’t appear to have much in common.
“You know, I understand Lee Hayden,” Elliott said to Fresh Air. “It was close to me in where I’ve been and gone with my career.” But, he added, “[Hayden is] in a much darker world than I dwell in.”
Elliott continued, “I’m divorced in the film from my wife, played by my real wife, who I’ve been married to for 33 years. And my daughter, Cleo, is the love of my life, and I’m on the outs with my daughter in the film.” Next up, the star is voicing the part of President Abraham Lincoln’s bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon in The Gettysburg Address and will be returning for the fourth season of The Ranch.
And with Elliott’s career showing no signs of slowing down, the star has cemented his spot in Hollywood. The secret to his success? Not losing sight of who he is – no matter what kind of offers appear. “My security comes from the fact that I’ve never done a job for money,” he told The Guardian in 2017. “It’s not about working for money. It’s just something I’ve wanted to do since I was a little kid.”