Even if movie fans don’t necessarily know Sam Elliott’s name, they likely know how he both looks and sounds. After all, his rugged face, handlebar mustache and iconic voice seem to have come from another era – with all making him conspicuous in an age of buff, young leading men. But if things had gone a little differently, Elliott may have ended up a complete unknown in Hollywood. And it certainly seems as if he’s had a tricky relationship with the film industry, too.
Indeed, it can be difficult to gain a foothold in Hollywood even if you have talent, which Elliott obviously does. And he’s never been a typical performer, either. Elliott is considered to be a character actor, not an A-list leading man. He also doesn’t appear to play the media game, seemingly preferring instead to stay out of magazine headlines and live a life that’s as down-to-earth as possible for a star of his caliber.
What’s more, Elliott isn’t big on social media, although there is a Facebook page set up for his fans. So, in order to know the actor’s thoughts on his career, one has to look at his interviews. And over the years, he’s revealed some interesting tidbits to the press. In fact, before Elliott’s role in 1998’s The Big Lebowski, things apparently weren’t going too well for him in Tinseltown.
It’s true, too, that Elliott wasn’t particularly encouraged by his dad to become an actor. “My father once said, ‘You haven’t got a snowball’s chance in hell in Hollywood.’ That motivated me,” Elliott told AARP in 2015. “My father was a good, practical man, but he came from a different time. He saw only a play or two of mine before he died.”
Even so, the young Elliott was eager to become a performer, and he explained just why that had been the case in a 2013 interview with The AV Club. “[It was down to] going to too many movies when I was growing up, basically. I just got fascinated by it early on,” Elliott answered. “And it wasn’t like I wanted to be a legitimate actor, a real actor. I wanted to make movies.”
And while Elliott actually worked for a spell in construction, luck was most certainly on his side when it came to breaking into show business. You see, while in LA, a friend asked the aspiring star to fix a problem with his house – a request to which Elliott agreed. The buddy had some connections, too, as an assistant director, and these gave Elliott an “in.”
Yes, in return for Elliott helping him out, the assistant director offered him a chance to get started in Hollywood. “He said, ‘The door’s open, man. You wanna come in and watch what’s going on? Come.’ And I did. I took him up on it,” Elliott told NPR in 2015. “My big break – pouring cement.”
Yet despite having a friend in a high place, Elliott still had to take small roles in order to kickstart his career. These included a part as an uncredited extra in 1967’s The Way West – which also starred Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum and Sally Field – and an appearance as Jack in a 1968 episode of cop show Felony Squad.
However, 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid proved to be an important movie in Elliott’s life. This wasn’t because it led to his big career break, mind you; again, the fledgling actor just had another tiny background role on screen. It was on the set of the classic film, you see, that Elliot encountered his future wife, Katharine Ross, for the first time.
In fact, Ross was more of an established performer than Elliott was at the time. “My wife, Katharine Ross, and I both worked on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but I didn’t dare try to talk to her then,” Elliott told AARP in 2015. “She was the leading lady. I was a shadow on the wall, a glorified extra in a bar scene.”
But by the time that Elliott ran into Ross again on the set of The Legacy, his career had taken off somewhat. In the intervening years, he had appeared in the TV series Mission: Impossible and starred in a miniseries called Once an Eagle. He’d also landed his first leading role with the film Lifeguard, which hit movie theaters in 1976.
That said, Lifeguard – about a Californian man going through an emotional crisis – had received mixed reviews upon release. Variety, for one, labeled the film “unsatisfying” and branded Elliott as “projecting a character who is mostly a passive reactor rather than a person in sure command of his fate.”
And it turns out that Elliott had earned his starring role in Lifeguard entirely by luck. “I tried to get a meeting on that job, and I couldn’t get a meeting on it. I was at William Morris at the time, and I later found out that they were touting Beau Bridges for the part! Which is why I couldn’t get in – my agent handled him,” he told The AV Club in 2013.
Then a case of mistaken identity led to Elliott coming to the attention of the filmmakers. “One night, Danny [Petrie], the director, was home brushing his teeth, and his wife, Dorothea, was in bed watching TV, and she said, “Danny, come and look at this guy Adam Rourke!” Adam Rourke was an actor that was in this movie I did called Frogs,” Elliott said.
At this point, bosses had not yet cast the main role in Lifeguard. Elliott continued, “Danny comes in, [and] he looks at the screen and says, ‘That’s not Adam Rourke.’ And she says, ‘Well, who is he?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know.’ So, they sat through this f**king movie and got my name off the credits. That’s how I got in on Lifeguard.”
And things seemed to be progressing well in Elliott’s personal life, too. Six years after he had met Ross again in 1978, the couple tied the knot, with the newlyweds welcoming daughter Cleo Rose months later. It was the first marriage for Elliott but the fifth for Ross, although this relationship would ultimately prove to be her most enduring.
The ’80s then saw Elliott prove his worth as a character actor. He became a go-to man for Westerns such as Gone to Texas and Conagher – the latter of which saw him appear alongside Ross. Memorably, he also took a role alongside Cher in the 1985 hit film Mask.
And while speaking to The AV Club, Elliott would reveal that working on Mask had been “a wonderful experience.” The film tells the story of a child born with craniodiaphyseal dysplasia; Elliott plays his father figure. “I’d been around, and I was pretty well established. But [Mask] just came at a great time, and it’s always gonna be a special one for me,” the actor said.
Then in 1993 Elliott was seen on screen in one of his most famous roles: that of Virgil Earp in Tombstone. And while the movie was yet another Western, Elliott justified his choice to play one more gunslinger to The AV Club. “[Tombstone was] this brilliant f**king piece of material… I don’t know anybody who didn’t go to that job because of what they read on the page,” he explained.
And another iconic role – as The Stranger in The Big Lebowski – would arrive a few years later. “That’s another [part] that came because of that background, that continuing saga of the Western thing,” Elliott told The AV Club. But it also gave him a chance to work with directors he admired. “Making movies is never going to get better than working on a Coen brothers project,” he added.
Nevertheless, after Elliott flipped through the screenplay for The Big Lebowski, he was somewhat taken off guard. “I could not wait to get back to the hotel and read this script that night,” the actor said to NPR. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is gonna be something outside the Western box for sure.’”
That wasn’t quite the case, however. “Over the dialogue, there’s this tumbling tumbleweed blowing and talk about this Southwest accent ‘sounding not unlike Sam Elliott.’ They had my name in the script,” the star continued. “And then I read further, and you see the character come into the bowling alley. And he’s dressed like a drugstore cowboy – or whatever he’s dressed like – and looking ‘not unlike Sam Elliott.’”
So, why did Elliott take the role if it wasn’t as big a departure as he had anticipated? “I mean, I had my shot,” he said while discussing The Big Lebowski. “I had my moment, where I had the starring role in Lifeguard and all that, but I think I kind of f**ked myself out of a career on that level from being too honest and too opinionated and not really very smart at the same time.”
And Elliott would continue to talk about the feeling that he had initially jeopardized his career. In 2017, for instance, he explained to Business Insider that the fear had primarily arisen following his experience of working on Lifeguard. “It was the way Paramount chose to market that film,” the star said.
It seemed, in fact, that the studio’s vision for Lifeguard had appeared to be at odds with those of both Elliott and director Petrie. “We took that whole movie serious – even though it was a fluffy treatment because it was set on a beach. But it was about a guy who was at a point in his life that he had to make up his mind about what he wanted to do: be a lifeguard or get a real job,” Elliott said.
The veteran actor went on, “And when the marketing campaign [for Lifeguard] came out, I was on the road for a long time. [Then] every time we’d go into a city and start an interview, people would start the interview by saying, ‘This movie is nothing like I expected it to be,’ based on the marketing… It was never positive. So, in the end I never worked for Paramount again.”
Yet when the interviewer asked Elliott if he had been bitter about the whole situation, he denied that this was the case. “I wasn’t bitter. It just irked the s**t out of me, is the truth of it. It wasn’t personal to anybody,” Elliott said. But he still utilized that experience for his 2017 movie The Hero, in which he portrays a veteran star of – naturally – Westerns.
Strikingly, Elliott has also revealed how he’d spent a long time feeling trapped by typecasting until he landed his role in The Big Lebowski. “I felt I was boxed into this Western thing, and I felt a Coens script will definitely be a total departure from this Western thing that’s got me,” he told Business Insider.
And playing The Stranger did indeed change a lot – even if the part seemed familiar. “I f**king open the script, and there’s that character. He’s a drugstore cowboy, but he’s still a cowboy,” Elliott explained. “But after that, I never once had any feeling that I’m boxed in with Westerns. Looking back on the long haul in my career – little films, big films, TV – the Western thing has been really good to me.”
Elliott further expanded on some of those points when talking to Variety in 2019. And at that time, it appeared that the promotion for Lifeguard was still on his mind. “It was a sweet coming-of-age story about a young girl but also about a guy that was doing what he wanted to, despite all outside pressure saying, ‘Why don’t you grow up?’ [Yet] the one-sheet was me with a couple of big-busted girls in a Speedo,” he said.
And Elliott discussed the typecasting problem again. “It seemed like whenever a Western was going to get made, it came my way,” he said. “I read [The Big Lebowski], and it’s talking about a voice. In the background, ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds’ is playing. Then it says something like, ‘A Southern voice, sounding not unlike Sam Elliott…’”
Still, Elliott has certainly proved that he’s good for more than just cowboy roles. Playing against type, he appeared as the White House chief of staff in 2000 political drama The Contender, for instance. In 2012 his distinctive voice was even heard on cartoon Robot Chicken, with that performance ultimately earning him an Emmy nomination.
What’s more, Elliott’s work on Robot Chicken led him to meeting actress Lily Tomlin. And through his fellow star, he scooped a couple of TV roles that saw him further stray from the Western archetype. One of these parts was in 2015’s Grandma, in which Elliott played Tomlin’s ex-husband; the other saw him on screen in Netflix sitcom Grace and Frankie, where he appeared alongside Tomlin and Jane Fonda.
Plus, Elliott experienced a career resurgence of sorts when he was cast in the 2018 movie A Star Is Born. Director and leading man Bradley Cooper specifically sought out the veteran star to play the role of his on-screen brother, Bobby Maine, and he had re-recorded an old Elliott interview in the voice that he would use to play Bobby’s brother by way of convincing his fellow actor.
Elliott was impressed by the gesture, too. “[Cooper had] made this commitment…. It seemed to me like he’d been doing this for four months with this voice coach,” the actor told IndieWire in 2018. “But I thought, ‘Wow, that was an amazing, ballsy kind of commitment he made.’ [And] he not only made the decision to do it, [but] he [also] achieved what he set out to do, which I think is just typical Bradley Cooper.”
Of course, A Star Is Born went on to become a massive success, grossing a highly impressive $434 million internationally. The drama’s main stars were duly honored for their performances as well, with Elliott ultimately scooping an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
And Elliott certainly had a great reaction to the news that he had landed his first ever Academy Awards nod. Deadline managed to contact the star on the same day that the nominations were announced and asked him what he thought. “I think the thing off the top of my head might be, ‘It’s about f**king time,’” Elliott quipped.
But in all seriousness, Elliott was delighted with the honor. “I’m so grateful to be a part of it. It’s meant everything to me. It’s been some sort of a gift in my world on a personal level. I think my biggest takeaway is just how fortunate I am,” he told Deadline. “Fifty years into the game and all of a sudden to have anything to do with [A Star Is Born] – to be connected with a film like this – it’s just a wonderful gift.”
And none of the projects that Elliott has in the pipeline are Westerns, either. Fans can soon hear his gravelly tones in Disney’s The Lady and the Tramp remake, where he portrays bloodhound Trusty. That film is scheduled to be released at the end of 2019 through the new streaming service Disney+. Upcoming documentary The Gettysburg Address will feature a voiceover from Elliott, too.
Yet even though the actor has definitely branched out from playing cowboys, he remains grateful that he even had a shot at Hollywood in the first place. “I got over being anything but thankful for being in any kind of a box – Western or not,” he told NPR. “It’s been a rich life.”