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If you look up the word "cowboy" in the dictionary, you just might find a photo of Sam Elliott. With his gleaming eyes, thick signature mustache and deep, baritone voice, the veteran actor has made an indelible imprint on the western genre.
He is as compelling today at age 78 as he was at age 25 when he got his first breakout role in the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as "Card Player 2." But even before this cult-classic western, Elliott had been a well-established stage actor.
Since those early days, he has acquired over 450 titles to his credit and is the recipient of several accolades, including a Screen Actors Guild Award and National Board of Review Award, along with an Oscar nomination, two Golden Globe Awards, and two Emmy Awards.
“Even after 50 years in this business, I still feel like I’m lucky every time I get a decent job," he told AV Club. And we feel lucky that he keeps lighting up our screens.
How Sam Elliot got into acting
Born Samuel Pack Elliott in Sacramento, California in 1944, he and his family moved to Portland, Oregon when he was 13 years old. A young Sam was hooked on becoming an actor even before his thirteenth birthday.
“Going to many movies when I was growing up; I just got fascinated by it all early on. And it wasn’t like I wanted to be a real actor. I wanted to make movies. Consequently, I didn’t study," Elliot has said. "I just got bit by wanting to do films and I had tunnel vision about it. But I had a lot of encouragement from different drama coaches along the way and my mom was a big support.”
Hollywood wasn’t initially an uplifting experience, something many up-and-coming actors can vouch for. As Elliott recalls, a meeting with an acting rep didn’t leave him with high hopes for his dream job. “If you’re going to stay in this town, you’ve got to fix that damn voice," the agent told him. "You’ve got to take some voice and diction lessons.”
Luckily, the Hollywood legend walked away from that meeting and didn’t change a thing. In fact, his voice is one of his calling cards. It's his signature tone that's led to him voicing ads from Coors Beer and RAM trucks to the American Beef Council and Smoky the Bear.
Sam Elliott's early career
After graduating David Douglas High School in Portland in 1962, Elliott tested the waters as an English and psychology major at the University of Oregon before dropping out. He then enrolled at the Clark College in Vancouver, Washington where he completed a two-year program and was cast as Big Jule in a stage production of Guys and Dolls.
Little did the young thespian know that he was noticed by the editor of the Vancouver Columbian newspaper, who subsequently planted the idea that maybe Elliott should try out his sonorous voice as a professional actor. Elliott graduated from Clark in 1965, re-enrolled at the University of Oregon, only to drop out again after his father died of a heart attack.
Going against his father’s wishes to graduate with a degree, Elliott turned his attention to Hollywood and headed south to Los Angeles. "My father once said, 'You haven't got a snowball's chance in hell in Hollywood.' That motivated me," he told AARP. "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. I think he'd be proud that his kid became the actor I did."
The westerns started knocking on Elliott’s door with roles as character actors. In 1969, he earned his first television credit as Dan Kenyon in Judd for the Defense. Later that year, he appeared in Lancer and went on to appear in two more episodes in the early 70s.
Then came Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where Elliott played a card player in the opening scenes of this now iconic movie. Coincidentally, this is also where Elliott met his wife Katharine Ross, who was Sundance’s paramour.
Sam Elliott in the 1970s
Television work began in earnest with the 1970-1971 season: Mission: Impossible as Doug Robert, and the lead role as Charles Wood in I Will Fight No More Forever.
From 1976 to 1977, Elliott captured the lead role as Sam Damon in One an Eagle opposite Amy Irving and Melanie Griffith. Then came the 1976 film Lifeguard, which pretty much earned him heartthrob status.
Leaning on this cowboy persona, Elliott was cast as the rancher Walker in a series of Falstaff Beer commercials. Several horror films dot his resume: 1972 Frogs and The Legacy in 1978, in which his relationship with co-star Katharine Ross took off.
The auditions and roles kept coming his way. In 1977, he played Tom Keating in the miniseries Aspen. In 1979, his good looks had him co-star with another famous mustached actor – Tom Selleck – in the popular miniseries based on a Louis L’Amour tome, The Sacketts.
Sam Elliott in the 1980s
After the Aspen miniseries was well-received by viewers, Elliott was cast as the abusive wife-killer in Murder In Texas in 1981, opposite Farrah Fawcett and again, a chance casting with his future wife Katharine Ross.
One of the high points of his career came in the form of Mask in 1985 with Cher. “Cher's Cher, you know? I mean, what's there not to love about her. She's one of the most outrageous people I've ever spent time with, and she's wonderful to work with. It just was a glorious f---g period of time," he told Entertainment Weekly.
Elliott bounced between television and the big screen in projects through the '80s then in 1989 he played the iconic, tough and sexy, man-bun wearing bouncer, Wade Garret, opposite Patrick Swayze in Road House.
The eighties seemed to bring Elliott acclaim with fans, his peers, and critics. And the decade brought him personal happiness when in 1984, he married his co-star Katharine Ross. Daughter Clea Rose was born several months later.
The enduring Hollywood marriage is mostly kept under the radar. Elliott credits his relationship to one major thing: love. “I think really what it boils down to is we love each other and we work at it," he told NPR in 2017. “And more importantly than anything, it takes wanting to be married. The two things that I wanted in my life were to have a movie career and to be married, to have a family. And it’s an embarrassment of riches that I’ve got both.”
Sam Elliott in the 1990s and beyond
Historical dramas such as Gettysburg and Tombstone restored Elliott's cowboy persona and came in quick succession.
Then in 1998, without a hint of his thick mustache, Elliott used just his famous voice, playing The Stranger, a character narrating the story of The Big Lebowski, and again lent his voice in Barnyard, the animated 2006 film.
From films such as The Hulk (2003) to joining the comic book adaptation of Ghost Rider (2007), to 2015’s Grandma opposite Lily Tomlin, Elliott has kept his varied resume quite active.
In 2015, he was given the Critics Choice Television Award for best performer in a drama in Justified.
Then, in 2018, Elliott received critical acclaim for his role in Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born winning the National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor and his career’s first nomination by the Oscar committee.
What's Sam Elliott doing now?
Elliott's current role in the Paramount + series 1883 — a Yellowstone prequel — as Shea Brennan has earned him a Screen Actors Guild Award. The series details the Dutton family’s tragic cross-country journey on The Oregon Trail.
The 78-year-old has said filming the tragic character of Brennan was not easy. Extreme heat in Texas and then freezing temperatures in Montana tested the stamina of cast and crew. ”It made it more of a challenge but it brought an authenticity to it," Elliott said. “What was it like for the people who were on those wagon trains going to Oregon back in the day?”
Before Elliott signed on to the award winning role, he had turned down a part in Yellowstone. “I passed on it, but during that time that he [Taylor Sheridan] made that offer to me, we started talking," Elliott said on The Official Yellowstone Podcast.
After reading the script for 1883, Elliot was on board. “Good work for me has always been born on the page first, so it’s always about the script.” He reflects on his decades of acting.
“I know that at this point in my life, there’s not going to be a better role that’s going to come along than this. I feel like on some level, if I quit right now, I will have done what I set out to do when I was nine years old wanting to be an actor. I’m spoiled.”
Today, Elliott lives on a seaside ranch in Malibu, California with his wife of 38 years, Katharine. And we can't wait to see what he does what kind of character this cowboy takes on next.
Bonnie Siegler is an established international writer covering the celebrity circuit for more than 15 years. Bonnie’s resume includes two books that combine her knowledge of entertaining with celebrity health and fitness and has written travel stories which focus on sustainable living. She has contributed to magazines including Woman’s World and First for Women, Elle, InStyle, Shape, TV Guide and Viva. Bonnie served as West Coast Entertainment Director for Rive Gauche Media overseeing the planning and development of print and digital content. She has also appeared on entertainment news shows Extra and Inside Edition.