Sam Elliott on Typecasting, Making a Musical and Hollywood's Obsession: "It's All About F—ing Youth"

The legendary character actor stars opposite Blythe Danner in the just-released indie 'I'll See You in My Dreams,' a septuagenarian love story.
AP Images/Invision
Sam Elliott at a special screening of 'I'll See You in My Dreams'

Sam Elliott is hungover. On Monday night, the night before our meeting in a suite at the Waldorf Astoria, he attended a special screening in Tribeca of I'll See You in My Dreams, a charming little indie romantic-dramedy — which hit select theaters on Friday — about an older widow (72-year-old Blythe Danner) who unexpectedly winds up in a relationship with an enigmatic older man (70-year-old Elliott). Interestingly, the film was written, directed and edited by a young man, 31-year-old Brett Haley, who had invited to this screening a bunch of his buddies from Brooklyn and afterwards asked his leading man to join them for "a few" beers. As for their after-effects, the famously mustachioed actor tells me in his instantly-recognizable gravely drawl, "I ain't got nobody to blame but myself."

Elliott has been active in Hollywood for nearly 50 years, so a lot of people know his name, face and voice. Most people associate him with a specific type of character. Like John Wayne and Gary Cooper before him, he has generally played men of the strong-and-silent type — usually mounted on a horse and/or donning a uniform while keeping his head down but never missing a beat — whose rare utterances offer some sort of homespun wisdom or valor. He was Brig. Gen. John Buford in Gettysburg (1993). He was Wyatt Earp's brother in Tombstone (1993). He was "The Stranger" in The Big Lebowski (1998). He was "The Marlboro Man" in Thank You for Smoking (2005). And the list goes on.

In a sense, Elliott has built his career upon portraying a once-idealized version of American masculinity — at a time when few men of that sort still exist, on screen or off. Interestingly, he is, in many ways, a lot like these men. And, even more interestingly, he desires nothing more than to play men who are not. Would you believe that Elliott would "love more than anything" to star in a musical? And that he would happily shave off his mustache for the right role? And that I'll See You in My Dreams is his first leading role in years?

Believe it.

Elliott "got bit really early" with the acting bug as a result of religiously attending Saturday matinees in Sacramento. "I think I was like eight or nine when I first made a conscious decision that I wanted to do that," he says. He dabbled in church choirs, vocal ensembles, choral groups, all-city choirs and, starting in middle school, theater, but it was only because of the support and encouragement of his mother and two high school instructors — a music teacher, Corey Blodgett, and a drama teacher, Ramona Reynolds — that he decided to, well, act on that impulse.

He made acting a large focus of his time at Cal State LA, and after graduating he began working in civic theater in Portland, Oregon, where his family had relocated. In 1964, his father — whom Elliott had once overheard telling his mother, "That kid doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell" in the acting profession — died suddenly. A year later, almost to the day, Elliott decided to test that theory in Hollywood. "I used that as an impetus," he says a half-century later. "I left my mom standing in the driveway in Portland, Oregon, with tears in her eyes, saying, 'Go for it!'"

The first two years that Elliott was in Los Angeles, he worked as a laborer for a construction company, a job he landed through a college friend to help him pay the bills. "It was great," he says. "I really had some of the greatest times of my life doing that. I was out of home, I was on my own and I was really working for a living." After hours, he began attending The Film Industry Workshop at the old Columbia studios (today known as the Sunset Gower Studios) on Bronson Ave., where Barbra Streisand was shooting Funny Girl at the time. He was happy to have the chance to hone his craft — and calmly confident that it would be him in front of the cameras before long.

Whether or not he had justification for such confidence at that time is a matter for debate. He had only one contact in the business: Phil Parslow, the son-in-law of his parents' neighbors back in Portland, who had recently served as Richard Brooks' assistant director on the 1966 film The Professionals. Rather than hitting up Parslow for an acting gig, he wound up working on his house, and it was there that he met Parslow's former USC classmate Bob Thompson, who had become a casting director at Universal. The two bonded and Thompson gave Elliott an open-invitation to hang out in his office in the Black Tower on the Universal lot (right inside the gate that was manned by Scotty, the same guard who was regularly waving 20-year-old Steven Spielberg onto the lot at the same time, mistakenly believing he was an exec's son).

"[Thompson] was a casting guy, but he didn't put me in anything," Elliott says. "I was just there watching it all." This is not to say that Thompson didn't take an interest in his friend's career. "We talked about the contract program there that Monique James ran [grooming promising young talent]," Elliott recalls. "He said, 'This isn't really the place for you,' and he didn't encourage me to pursue it.'" But Thompson did set up a meeting for Elliott with Dick Bassman, an agent at General Artists Corporation (a forerunner of ICM), who signed him as a client. And the first meeting that Bassman took Elliott on was with a TV producer named Lillian Gallo at 20th Century Fox, which, in those waning days of the studio system, still had a contract program of its own. Elliott auditioned and got in.

He was thrilled to be working on the lot, even if he was earning only $85 a week and given only limited opportunities to show what he could do. "Unlike the program at Universal," he says, "where those guys under contract really worked and did movies and television, this thing was primarily based on nepotism — not that a lot of it isn't — but because of that, I don't think that a lot of producers on the lot took it very seriously." His first film role was a bit part in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the female star of which was his future wife Katharine Ross, though the two only really met nine years later. ("I ended up being Card Player #2 and I had one line, off-camera. I was literally a shadow on the wall.") Even so, he says, "Those I think, on some level, were the happiest years for me."

(One of his fellow Fox contract players was another young man whose mustache would also become iconic, Tom Selleck. "That's when everybody started growing hair, man," Elliott says. "I had real long hair — below my shoulders a couple of times. Tom and I were the first two, I think, to grow mustaches, that I know of.")

As the sixties came to an end, so, too, did the studio system, which meant that studios no longer had an incentive to groom up-and-coming talent. Consequently, Elliott and everyone else in the contract program was let go and became free agents. Elliott didn't mind — he quickly landed a part on the TV series Mission: Impossible, followed by a litany of TV movies and miniseries. "The ultimate thing was just to keep working and to try to do work that I was proud of," he says.

Things were headed in a good direction for the handsome youngster, who was eventually offered the leading role in a 1976 drama for Paramount entitled Lifeguard, about a lifeguard whose high school reunion — and rekindling of an old romance — forces him to consider giving up the job he loves for white-collar work. Elliott was intensely proud of the film, but not of the way it ended up being marketed. "I bristled at the way that they were selling the film," he says, "and I did it on behalf of myself and [director] Dan Petrie and Ron Koslow, the guy that wrote the script. It wasn't Beach Blanket Bingo that we were making, you know? It was a young girl, Kathleen Quinlan (later Oscar-nominated for Apollo 13), who was coming of age, and it was this guy [played by Elliott] that had a legitimate job as a civil servant."

The way he expressed his displeasure, however, almost certainly stifled his prospects of continuing as a leading man. "I was kind of a smartass," he acknowledges. "I was on the road for six weeks with that picture [as part of a press tour] — that's a lot of traveling, and really the first time for me — and every situation where I'd come in to do an interview, invariably the first line out of the interviewer's mouth was, 'This movie isn't anything like I expected it to be!' And I'd say, 'Oh, yeah, I know!' And then go ahead and start flapping my lips about it." Elliott hasn't worked on another Paramount-produced film in the nearly 40 years since. He told another interviewer, "I had my shot. I had my moment, where I had the starring role in Lifeguard and all that, but I think I kind of f—ed myself out of a career on that level from being too honest and too opinionated and not really very smart at the same time. I think I scared people off."

Elliott regrets that, not because he minds the career he ended up with — as one of the premier character actors in the business — but because he now realizes that at that time he was, in the word of an ex-girlfriend's brother, a bit too "glib." "My mom passed away up in Portland not long ago," he says. "I've still got her home there, and she kept a real archive — she kept everything, all of these interviews that I've done over the years — and I spent a few days going through all that stuff, and I thought, 'Jesus, what a dumb shit,' you know? I'm lucky that I'm still working after some of the stupid shit I said."

Finding work has never been a problem for Elliott, but finding work that fulfills him has sometimes proven harder. Somewhere along the way, perhaps starting with a handful of TV series in which he appeared during the Fox years, casting people and directors began to associate him almost exclusively with westerns or films in a similar vein. His physique, demeanor and ease with horses only reinforced that. ("I'd been around horses when I came to Hollywood. I had that in me.") He admits, "I did bridle at it, at times, you know? At a period when nobody else was doing westerns, I kept getting 'em and they kept comin' to me. And there was a period where I thought, 'Geez, am I ever gonna get beyond this?' 'Cause you wanna be able to spread your wings a little bit and do something else."

At the same time, he recognizes that some of his greatest roles might never have come to him had it not been for this sort of typecasting. He mentions Tombstone, Gettysburg and The Golden Compass as examples of gigs that would have been lost, but cites as Exhibit A The Big Lebowski. "The Coen brothers wouldn't have come to me," he insists. He was sent the film's script while on the set of a film directed by John Milius (who, it later became apparent, was the inspiration for the character that John Goodman would play in Lebowski.) "At that time was kind of when I was having one of my fainting moments about the western 'box,'" Elliott recalls. "I was so excited to read this thing because it was a Coen brothers thing, and I was absolutely positive that it was gonna be an opportunity to play some really whacky character that would maybe get me out of this western box." He pauses and then chuckles, "I opened it up and saw what it was and I thought, 'What the f—?!' They're talking about the "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" song and there's this voiceover 'sounding not unlike Sam Elliott' — they even spelled my name right, which often is not the case — and then he shows up and he's dressed like a cowboy, 'looking not unlike Sam Elliott.'" He adds, "What a gift, what a gift."

Even so, Elliott has treasured the rare parts that have offered him a chance to show that he can do more than that. "Eons went by and then a guy named Rod Lurie offered me the part [of the Chief of Staff to the President of the United States] in The Contender, right after The Big Lebowski," he says with a smile. "I buzz-cut my hair, shaved my mustache off, wore a three-piece suit and got a chance to do something different." Elliott's portrayal of a straight-laced Beltway guy brought him some of the best reviews of his career — if not many more opportunities to branch out into different sorts of parts.

Just how "different" is he willing to go? I ask him if he'd like to return to his childhood roots of singing and he doesn't miss a beat: "Oh, God, I'd love more than anything to do a musical! I would truly love to do a musical." Around 2001, he was asked to audition for Tommy Tune — with whom he "really struck it off" during his years at Fox, when Tune was part of the studio's voice and dance program — for a Broadway revival of Annie Get Your Gun, which was starring Reba McEntire as Annie Oakley. Elliott and McEntire had previously worked together on a 1995 TV western called Buffalo Girls in which she'd played Oakley and he'd played Wild Bill Hickok, and he saw it as a perfect fit. "I had the music, I had the score, I worked on all the songs and I was ready to go do it," he says. But, for family reasons, he was unable to make it to New York for the audition, which he deeply regrets. He would love another chance to put his baritone to the test on the Great White Way.

This year, after a relatively slow period, Elliott has been as prolific as anyone. He has played recurring parts on the popular TV series Justified and Parks and Recreation and, in January, he showed up at the Sundance Film Festival to support three films of which he was a part: Paul Weitz's Grandma, Joe Swanberg's Digging for Fire and the one that seems to have meant the most to him, I'll See You in My Dreams.

How does a young and relatively inexperienced filmmaker with almost no budget and an 18-day shooting schedule secure the participation of the likes of Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott? Quite simply, a killer script. "It was just clearly on the f—ing page," Elliott says. "It just resonated with intelligence and reality. There wasn't bullshit in it. It was a real story with real people — and an opportunity to play a leading man. I mean, I haven't had an opportunity to play a leading man character in a long time. In a long time." Moreover, Elliott was intrigued by appearing in a love story as a character who is a "perfect gentleman."

He had never previously worked with Danner — "Never even laid eyes on her before, other than on screen — huge fan forever, but didn't know her," he says — and yet the two have remarkable chemistry. Danner, like her character, has been widowed for years — her husband of 33 years, Bruce Paltrow, died of cancer in 2002 — and she hadn't kissed another man since. She was somewhat apprehensive about performing love scenes, but Haley scheduled her first kiss with Elliott for the first day of their shoot, and she has said that Elliott made that and every other interaction a pleasure.

It remains to be seen whether or not I'll See You in My Dreams can find an audience of any size. Other senior-targeted films — among them The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Woman in Gold — have done very well at the box office this year, and Elliott hopes that this one will too, not only because he's a part of it, but because he strongly objects to the tendency to stop paying attention to people — on screen and off — once they reach a certain age.

"I live with one of them," Elliott says in reference to his wife, Ross, a terrific actress who is best known for the 1967 film The Graduate. "I live with one of the girls who was the 'It' girl in her time. Ain't f—in' nobody who's comin' to Katharine for work [now]. And shame on 'em, shame on 'em, you know? It's an interesting thing about our culture, in general — and I always kind of looked at the movie business as kind of the epitome of it all, that whole thing about life imitating art or vice-versa, which comes first?"

He continues, "It's all about f—ing youth. It's never about people that have learned, people that have grown, people that have life experience, something we can glean something from or learn something from or be amused by. It's all this shit about big tits and hard asses, you know? And everybody's got 'em, and they all look the f—in' same because they're all f—in' coming out of a mold somewhere, you know? I don't know what it is, but it's a thing. It's not one of the great things about the business."

Having been a part of the business for as long as he has, Elliott knows all to well that it's not always fair, but he keeps coming back to it anyway because when it's good, it's really good, and that's a feeling he can't stop chasing. Plus he's still got something to prove — to himself, but also to his skeptical father. "He died and went to the grave thinking his kid was probably not gonna amount to a whole helluva lot," he says. "I think he'd be really happy."

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