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Sam Elliott is one of the most iconic character actors of our time, and he probably never had a choice in the matter. Before he utters one gravely bass word, the craggy, mustachioed face and lanky frame already conjure a laconic drawl and the scrape of old boots on a dusty, creaking floor – a cowboy/sheriff/tough guy/mysterious loner straight out of Central Casting. Or as Elliott puts it with typical wryness, “I’m not one of those actors anyone’s going to confuse with a chameleon.”
Growing up, his dad didn’t even confuse him with an actor, telling him he had “about a snowball’s chance in hell,” of becoming one. Elliott knew otherwise. More importantly, he knew that acting wasn’t about making money, and that his longevity depended on being careful of the roles he selected. Childhood movie matinees cemented his admiration for men who – in or out of tall hats and tall boots – stood for something. “I’ve turned a lot of stuff down because it’s not the kind of guy that I wanted to represent myself as being,” he told Variety. “I’ve certainly played an asshole from time to time…but there’s enough assholes in the world.”
After doing plays throughout his school years, he moved from Oregon to L.A. to pursue acting. Most peg The Big Lebowski as his big break, but his first one came in 1976, courtesy of a director’s wife who mistook him for another actor. It landed him his first lead in a film called Lifeguard, a film rich in real life parallels, for those who choose to sniff them out. He plays a guy struggling with the decision to do what he loves versus succumbing to pressure to do – and be – something else. You wouldn’t have known that from the movie’s marketing, but we’ll let him tell you that story.
A steady stream of supporting film and TV roles followed: The Shadow Riders, Gone to Texas, The Quick and the Dead, Tombstone, Buffalo Girls, You Know My Name, Mask and Conagher (which he also co-wrote and produced). If they play on his taciturn toughness, they also pay tribute to his instincts as an artist. “I’ve often thought that any actor’s best work is the stuff between the lines.” Nevertheless, he was thrilled when he got the script for The Big Lebowski, figuring it was his chance to do something different. Until he read it. They’d cast him as a cowboy. Well, if even the Coen brothers see you as an inscrutable wrangler, maybe it’s time you just accept it. So he did, playing an ex-Marlboro Man in Thank You for Smoking, and earning money between jobs putting his trademark voice to work in commercials for the American Beef Council, Coors beer and Ram Trucks.
It’s a funny business, though. Two years ago, the industry seemed to notice something that’d been pretty obvious all along. While fans have called him “87 percent testosterone,” his brand of masculinity doesn’t rely on explosions, bulging ego, bulging muscles or roaring soundtracks. It derives from character, confidence, decency, ease, and if need be, friendly menace. In other words, nuance.
In 2015 alone he had three indies at Sundance: Digging for Fire, I’ll See You in My Dreams, and Grandma, for which many demanded he receive Oscar consideration. Variety wrote that in his 10 on-screen minutes, Elliott created “a fuller, richer character than most actors do given two hours,” going from “welcoming host to angry jilted lover to open wound, with devastating effect.” RogerEbert.com’s more succinct verdict: “Elliott gives a performance that sets the movie on emotional fire.” I’ll See You in My Dreams proved he could master comedy without ever departing from his artistic core, The Guardian pointed out, “Elliott’s yacht-owning Bill exudes cool, getting laughs out of the audience with merely a glance.”
This year, he gets a much-deserved lead in The Hero, playing Lee Hayden, a fading western star who tries to mend fences with his family as he faces a medical crisis. You can’t ignore the irony of the role, nor can you imagine anyone else playing it. “Elliott succeeds in pulling you into Lee’s emotional orbit and holding you there,” said The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s a low-key, largely reactive performance, and all the more moving for it: The actor’s most memorable moments don’t come via tantrums or tearful breakdowns, but in scenes where he simply looks and listens — wounded, hopeful, resilient and, yes, heroic.” Variety called it “a love letter to a talent that was until recently widely enjoyed, while remaining strangely under-appreciated.”
Even if this “rediscovery” prompts an eye roll, we’ve got no quarrel with more screen time for Elliott, especially when it shows us more sides of his talent. He took some convincing to try his first multi-cam sitcom (Netflix’s The Ranch), but he’s quickly become the best thing about it. He’s still not completely at ease with the format, but someone who’s still willing to be uncomfortable after nearly five decades in the business is someone who should remain in the business. He’s guest starred on Parks and Recreation, Grace and Frankie and Justified, and recently signed on to 2018’s remake of A Star is Born, in a role co-star Bradley Cooper reportedly wrote specifically for him. Elliott’s a humble straight shooter who’s grateful for every moment of his long career, which thankfully doesn’t appear to be headed anywhere near the sunset.