It’s impossible to have any discussion about actor and icon Sam Elliott without mentioning That Voice. Simultaneously rough and smooth, like gravel coated in melted butter, that distinctive, husky sound seems to emanate not from Elliott’s throat, but his very soul.
Filmmaker Brett Haley, who has made two recent films with Elliott, calls it “the most beautiful voice ever, special and singular.”
Bradley Cooper found it so distinctive, he used it as a launchpad for his character, country singer Jackson Maine, in his directorial debut “A Star Is Born” — and then cast Elliott as his brother, Bobby.
“We had never met and so I felt like I was taking a gamble,” Cooper admits of the day he invited Elliott over to his house to talk about the film. “I said, ‘I’m going to play something for you, and this might sound weird.’” He proceeded to play a recording of himself working on Jackson’s voice, with that distinct Elliott drawl.
Elliott, a true pro, wasn’t fazed, noting: “I figured if he committed to my voice, I had a good chance of getting the part.”
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Not only did Elliott land the role, but the 74-year-old actor is enjoying some of the biggest attention and accolades of his long career. The film is that rare blockbuster beloved by audiences and critics alike, with Elliott already being named supporting actor of the year by the National Board of Review and landing two SAG Award nominations, one for his performance and one for his work in the film’s ensemble. And on Jan. 7, he’ll receive an honor reserved for the most iconic of stars when he imprints his hands and feet in cement in the forecourt of the TCL Chinese Theatre among such luminaries as George Burns and Meryl Streep.
“You can’t be cynical about this one, it’s just an honor,” Elliott says simply. “That’s about as good as it gets, in terms of recognition.” (Suggestions he should also imprint his famous mustache are met with a bemused: “That might be interesting.”)
But for Elliott, it’s never been about the attention, it’s always been about the work. His performance roots can be traced back as far as the age of 4, when he sang in a cherub choir, something he credits for building that strong voice. At 9, he’d go to the local theater in Sacramento to watch the matinees and even then, “I had a pretty clear vision of thinking, ‘That looks like fun, I want to do that.’”
His family moved to Portland, Ore., when he was a teen, where he met his high school drama teacher, Ramona Reynolds, whom he refers to “as the greatest mentor I ever had.” He did some civic theater and studied at both the University of Oregon and Clark College. He made his way to Los Angeles, where he worked construction while studying acting. A roommate’s girlfriend asked him to help her with an audition scene for the prestigious Film Industry Workshop on the Columbia Pictures lot. “She didn’t get in, but they called and asked if I wanted to do it,” he admits.
As a contract player for 20th Century Fox he landed television work in such shows as “Felony Squad” and “Judd for the Defense,” work he enjoyed. “It was great for a guy who just got into town from Portland, Ore.,” he says. “I was in the business, you know. I was getting $85 a week and paying $85 a month for a bachelor apartment. I was in hog heaven.”
That contract led to his first film role, in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” for which he auditioned for the role of the saloon owner in full costume for director George Roy Hill. “I think he took pity on me and hired me for the part of Card Player #2. I had one line, off-camera: ‘I’ll take two.’”
That role began a long run of Westerns for Elliott, who was perfectly suited to the genre. “I think it’s in my blood in some ways,” he says. “My family is all from the Southwest. My great-great-grandfather was at the Battle of San Jacinto with Sam Houston. So it runs deep.” Elliott is grateful he had the chance to work with greats including Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens and Glenn Ford and was able to star in several Louis L’Amour adaptations, including “The Sacketts” and “Conagher,” which he also produced and starred in alongside his wife, Katharine Ross. There was also 1993’s beloved “Tombstone,” in which he played Virgil Earp to Kurt Russell’s Wyatt.
“I remember watching them film a scene at the end of the film where Val Kilmer kills Michael Biehn. And I just thought: ‘This fucking thing is going to be around for a long time.’”
There were roles outside Westerns, of course. He considers his big break in film to be 1976’s “Lifeguard,” a thoughtful slice-of-life story that he felt a personal connection to, as both his parents were lifeguards. Unfortunately, he felt it was badly marketed by the studio, and he didn’t keep those feelings secret. “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?’ The one-sheet was me with a couple of big-busted girls in a Speedo.”
In 1983 he was working on the series “Yellow Rose” with Cybill Shepherd, who was dating Peter Bogdanovich at the time. “In the makeup trailer one day, she mentioned, ‘I was talking to Peter last night. He told me he was looking for Gary Cooper on a motorcycle and I suggested your name.’”
The movie was “Mask,” and Elliott showed a softer side as Cher’s biker boyfriend and father figure to her disfigured son.
Still, Elliott was most associated with Westerns and there was a time when he worried about typecasting. “It seemed like whenever a Western was going to get made, it came my way,” he notes. That’s why he was so excited when his agent told him he was getting a script from Joel and Ethan Coen. “I thought, ‘The Coen brothers! I’m finally going to get out of this Western thing!’” he recalls. “I read this thing 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…’ So I knew something was up. I read further to where the guy shows up at the bowling alley. ‘Here’s The Stranger, looking not unlike Sam Elliott.’”
While Elliott loved played The Stranger opposite Jeff Bridges’ The Dude in “The Big Lebowski,” he says he “chose to kind of put that Western thing to bed after that. It served me well and I’ve been very fortunate.” And it led to another job outside the genre — filmmaker Rod Lurie cast Elliott in “The Contender” as the White House chief of staff to Bridges’ president. “Rod said, ‘I just want to see more of you and The Dude.’”
While Elliott has always been gainfully employed, the past five years have seen a deepening appreciation for his work and a bevy of great roles — and Elliott believes he can trace it all back to voice-over he did for Seth Green’s Cartoon Network series “Robot Chicken,” of all things. In 2013, Elliott found himself nominated for an Emmy Award for his work on the show. He lost to Lily Tomlin, but the two ended up talking that night, and shortly thereafter he received an offer to play her ex-husband in 2015’s “Grandma.” Though Elliott only has one scene, it’s a long one that packs a punch. Tomlin then encouraged him to join her Netflix series “Grace and Frankie” for a few episodes, playing the love interest of Jane Fonda. He soon became a regular on another Netflix series, “The Ranch,” which is shooting its fourth and final season.
Also in 2015, Elliott played the love interest of Blythe Danner’s singer in Brett Haley’s “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” a role Haley admits he didn’t think Elliott would take. “It was a small film, super independent,” Haley says. “But for Sam, it’s always about the work and he said yes. And I’m so glad because I needed someone who could really come in and sweep Blythe Danner off her feet.”
While promoting the film, Haley got to know Elliott better than he did during the 18-day shoot. The more they spoke, the more Haley wanted to write a leading role for him. “I was inspired by him. He’s salt of the earth, as real as it gets,” says Haley, who quickly penned the script for “The Hero” with his writing partner Marc Basch, in which Elliott would star as Lee Hayden, a Western actor on the verge of a comeback.
“People ask if Sam Elliott is Lee Hayden,” Haley says. “He’s not. There are things Sam can relate to as an icon. But Sam never went away. He’s always been working, and working with some great people. I plan on working with him as many times as he’ll allow me. I can’t write a screenplay now without thinking of Sam.”
“The Hero” began some Oscar buzz for Elliott that has now become deafening with his tender performance in “A Star Is Born” — the actor seems poised to land his first nomination. And while it’s a nice bonus, Elliott says being a part of the film was its own reward. And though he has another film hitting theaters soon, “The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot,” and some episodes of “The Ranch” to shoot, he says he’s “not even thinking about what’s next.”
What he won’t worry about is topping the experience he had on “A Star Is Born,” saying simply, “You can’t look at it and say the next time has to be as good or better because I don’t think there’s ever going to be anything as good or better. This is it.”
What: Sam Elliott imprint ceremony
When: 11 a.m., Jan. 7
Where: TCL Chinese Theatre