Sam Elliott: The Last Western Hero
From bit player to leading man, this Hollywood heavyweight has earned his spurs
Never mind what you've heard about judging a book, or in this case, a magazine, by outward appearance. Everyone loves to discuss our covers. With that we embarked on a grassroots survey to find which personalities our readers wanted to see next.
Sam Elliott by a landslide.
Two weeks later I was on a plane to California to meet the handsome six-footer, who proved to be an exceptionally easygoing interview, full of wit, guff, anecdotes, and who admits that the acting bug bit him early.
"I was single-minded on what I wanted to do since I was like nine or ten. I just went to see too many movies and I sat in too many dark matinees watching those old serials," he said.
Despite a strong start, Elliott's career began at the end of an era. The studio system was on its last legs. By the late 1960s large stables of contract players were more a hindrance than a help. In 1969, the decades-old system began to collapse, and Elliott ended up out on the street. He would spend almost a decade paying his dues, getting bit parts in movies and roles on television in programs like Mission Impossible, before he finally made some waves in Paramount Pictures' Lifeguard, a sort of proto Baywatch. Elliott began landing roles in made-for-television movies and many TV mini-series, yet it was as a chauffeur that his career took its next turn.
"We were shooting The Sacketts in Arizona, and it fell on me to go pick up Louis (L'Amour) at the Tucson airport. On the ride out to Patagonia, he asked me if I had ever read his book Conagher and I told him I hadn't. He said, 'Well, you ought to.'"
Elliott did just that but at that time he couldn't purchase or option the book. Time went by, things changed financially, and he optioned the book three times in three successive years. When L'Amour passed away, he was in Indiana working on a film called Prancer when he got a call from a guy who was out trying to buy some Louis L'Amour books. With industry heavyweights like Imagine Entertainment and TNT vying to make Conagher, Elliott took a new step in his career. He co-scripted and co-starred the film with his wife, Katharine Ross.
"That film will always be a favorite of mine. I can't tell you how much working with Katharine on Louis' book meant to me," he said.
Conagher quickly became a favorite with fans, debuting as TNT's highest rated two-hour drama and still drawing good numbers almost 10 years later.
By this time, Elliott's star power was evident and much of what comes in front of him is either a Western or has strong ties to the West like this year's film The Hi-Lo Country. Many believe that his commitment to the genre may well be his most important legacy.
"Sam's contribution to the Western is under appreciated," said Tom Selleck. "His allegiance to this art form, which is as important a part of our American mythology as King Arthur is to England's, has not only resulted in films that continued this tradition but they have also maintained it in a time when a lot of people in Hollywood would rather see it disappear."
An important part of Elliott's appeal is his powerfully believable on-screen persona. R.L. Tolbert, a stunt coordinator and second unit director who has worked with him since the early 1970s, said that "Sam is the only cowboy we have left who can make a Western and make you believe it." Of course those who work with him seize upon this quality and accentuate it whenever possible, and it's clear that John Kent Harrisson played this up to the fullest in You Know My Name, which premieres on TNT August 22nd.
Harrisson admits, however, that scripting and directing such a powerful screen presence made aspects of You Know My Name enormously challenging. "Sam is the last of a great breed, and I include in those Gary Cooper and John Wayne. None were actors playing parts. They were all from the earth. They're from the land. And it's so much in his blood that you feel that it's not just Sam as an actor you're working with. It's everything he represents as a human being."
What's next for the Last Western Hero? Production has already begun on a political drama entitled The Contender set in Washington, D.C. with Elliott in the role of chief of staff to the president of the United States. "I think we are going to shock, surprise, and delight audiences everywhere when they see him in the White House wearing a three-piece suit, not cowboy boots, a man at the pinnacle of power, not a dreamer out riding the range," says Director Rod Lurie. "People are going to be amazed at what he can do."