“Who knows what Sam Elliot’s first film was?” the moderator of a Hollywood event shouts out to the audience. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” a bunch of voices call back. “Right!” Sam Elliot, the star says with a quiet smile. “Does it count if all you could see is my shadow on the wall? And me saying one line?” The crowd laughs. But check it out. It’s true.
We’ve seen that handsome face with the trademark mustache in about 50 movies, from Tombstone and Road House to The Big Lebowski and Rough Riders, along with many television shows — mostly westerns. And, of course, we recognize Elliott’s distinctive rumbly cowboy voice in a string of commercials.
In 2017’s The Hero, a movie written expressly for him, Elliott’s performance is startling and impressive as an aging actor now battling cancer who had one major hit and is hungering for another big one even as his time is running out.
You can also catch Elliott co-starring with Ashton Kutcher and Danny Masterson in the Netflix series The Ranch. He plays the dad of two hard-drinking sons. The younger actors asked Elliott for a lot of advice off screen. “I just tell ’em what I think,” he says, smiling. “It’s his first time doing a show in front of an audience. There’s no horse but there sure is a dog.”
Jeanne Wolf: In The Hero, you get very sexy with your younger girlfriend, played by Laura Prepon. That’s just one of several bedroom scenes you’ve put on the screen recently with some very attractive leading ladies. Jane Fonda, Blythe Danner, Lilly Tomlin, and Debra Winger have all been in your arms. And no one forgets you with Cher in Mask. People are calling you a “hottie.”
Sam Elliott: I don’t think I’m going to be redefined, but I do feel lucky to still get some good parts, and that includes the ones where I “get the girl.” Laura was a stunner every day on the set. We knew the film would be adult and provocative. She jokes about him being older but you can see that they connect romantically. I think Laura was a very important part of making the guy I play, who hasn’t always been great with his ex-wife or his daughter, likeable … no, I should say loveable. We grew very comfortable working together.
When I got in bed with Blythe Danner in I’ll See You in My Dreams, she told me that she’d never kissed anyone with a mustache, so that was fun. These scenes are just part of acting, and we’re respectful of each other. I still dearly love my wife, Katherine. So being romantic with these gals is part of the job. It’s also really sweet. Yes, really sweet. Of course, my wife teases me about being called a gray-haired lover.
JW: After doing so much work on screens big and small, do you still get excited when you step on a set?
SE: I love it. I think if you can’t have fun making any kind of movies or TV shows, then you’re doing it wrong. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve carved out a little niche here in Hollywood. I’ve wanted to do this since I was 8 years old.
I try to count my blessings, and I have to tell you that my wife reminds me of that often. I tend to be more of a grouser about things than she is. I tend to be more cynical. I’ve got to say that it is tough to be as thankful and upbeat as I’d like. It’s hard to do in this world if you look at the broad picture.
JW: That voice of yours has gotten you a lot of recognition. You came to Hollywood as a Texan with the drawl to match. So I want to know if, along the way, anyone ever said to you, “Lose that accent. You’ll never get a job.”
SE: That did happen. A guy named Mike Greenblatt told me that one time. He worked at a big agency, and he said, “You ought to get voice and diction lessons. You need to learn how to talk.” They wanted me to speed up and enunciate. I went through trying to do that for a time, but I’m glad it didn’t work out. I’ve played a lot of guys who have that Western sensibility. It’s me being me.
Even in The Hero, we start and end with my character doing commercials in a recording booth. I’ve done a lot of them. I’m especially proud of being the voice of Smokey the Bear. It’s me who says, “Only you can prevent wildfires.” I found out that Smokey has the same birthday as mine, August 9, 1944!
This article is featured in the January/February 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.