'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Sam Elliott ('A Star Is Born')

The veteran character actor, who has been appearing on the big screen for 52 years, reflects on why the first film in which he was the star was also the last; how he feels about being typecast as the strong/silent type and what sparked his late-career renaissance.
Credit: Valerie Macon / Contributor
Sam Elliott

"I've had the good fortune over the years to work with some really talented people, both in front and behind the camera, and I've had nice notices over the years," says Sam Elliott, one of Hollywood’s all-time greatest character actors, as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. Indeed, the 74-year-old, who has been acting on the big screen for 52 years, counts among his credits fine work in 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1971’s The Lifeguard, 1985’s Mask, 1993’s Gettysburg, 1998’s The Big Lebowski, 2000’s The Contender, 2005’s Thank You for Smoking, 2009’s Up in the Air and 2017's The Hero. "But," he continues, in reference to his latest project, Bradley Cooper's A Star Is Born, in which he plays Cooper's much older brother, "I've never had anything like this. This thing's a fucking tidal wave, man. I've never seen anything like it. It's astounding."

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Check out our past episodes featuring the likes of Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, Justin Timberlake, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Gervais, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, JJ Abrams, Emma Stone, Ryan Murphy, Julia Roberts, Trevor Noah, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen and Carol Burnett.

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Elliott was born and raised in Sacramento, California, to a father who worked for the Dept. of Interior and a mother who was a schoolteacher. As a kid, he enjoyed musical theater, participated in a cherub choir and by high school "was fixated on having a career in the business." At home, however, he received "mixed messages," with his mother supportive but his father discouraging. "He gave me that proverbial, 'You've got a snowball's chance in hell of having a career in that town,'" Elliott says. "I don't think that his skepticism ever made me veer, one way or the other, off my chosen path." The family eventually moved to Oregon, where Elliott attended college and got into professional theater. In 1964, when Elliott was just 20, his father died suddenly of a heart attack. "A year later, I left my mom with tears in her eyes, standing in the driveway, bidding farewell [as Elliott headed to Hollywood]."

In the belly of the beast, Elliott landed an agent, Dick Bassman, and was sent to meet Lillian Gallo, who oversaw the contract players at Fox and accepted him into the program. (A contemporary in the program was Tom Selleck; neither had mustaches at the time.) As a result, he wound up with small parts in a number of pictures, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, before the studio system fell apart and everyone was let go. "Getting let go from the program was just another chapter," Elliott reflects. "It was exciting. I was going to get to go outside the studio and go on interviews." He landed parts on the TV series Mission: Impossible and in TV movies and miniseries. Then came what was initially appeared to be his big break: the central role in Paramount's 1971 drama Lifeguard. Instead, his first big studio star-vehicle was also his last, as word got back to Hollywood that he had disparaged the film's publicity campaign in interviews on the road. "Things got slow," he says. "I didn't do films for a while." Falstaff beer commercials helped tide him over, but, he says, "I never worked at Paramount again."

Elliott's career got new juice in 1985 after he was cast opposite Cher in Peter Bogdanovich's Mask — a part he initially turned down because it required him to cut short his honeymoon with actress Katharine Ross (Butch Cassidy and The Graduate), but which Ross made him return for. Many meaty supporting parts followed, but, with only a few notable exceptions, they all called on him to play 'the strong, silent type,' often mounted on a horse and/or out in the West. "I think it's the way initially that it worked out, but now it's what I gravitate toward," he says. "I just think there's something about somebody that's not flapping his lips all the time, that is a little more thoughtful about what comes out of his mouth, that is often more interesting."

But, after enough years and roles, this typecasting began to grate on the actor. Elliott explains: "I'd always loved doing it, I loved being outdoors, I loved the fact that the outdoors was a primary character in the Western genre, I loved the men that gravitated towards those, I loved the horses, I loved the whole thing — I loved the simplicity of the form. There wasn't a lot of gray-area — it was black and white. But I did get to a point where I thought, 'How the fuck am I ever going to get out of this thing?' Because it's what I was doing [exclusively]." When, in 1998, he was sent a script by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, he was salivating at the prospect of doing something different — only to read that the part he was wanted for called for a drugstore cowboy who looked and sounded "not unlike Sam Elliott." The part in The Big Lebowski, which became his most famous, proved a blast for him — but, he says with a chuckle, "I just thought, 'What the fuck? I'm never gonna get out of this!'"

Sure enough, Elliott subsequently played characters in the same vein in Thank You for Smoking and The Golden Compass, among other films — but he also played the chief of staff to the president of the United States, mustache-free and wearing a three-piece suit, in Rod Lurie's The Contender, which enabled him to prove to others — and himself — that he could do more. "I don't think I had a lot of confidence in playing a lot of things other than these Western things," he admits. "That's maybe one reason why I always gravitated towards them. That was a safe-zone for me — I knew that inside-out — and I could ride a horse."

Never has Elliott had better showcases for his chops than over the last few years, during which he has experienced a late-career renaissance. It started, bizarrely enough, with a job voicing a role on the Adult Swim stop-motion animated comedy Robot Chicken. He received an Emmy nomination for that work and sat at the ceremony behind Lily Tomlin, who was nominated in the same category. Shortly thereafter, he was sent a script called Grandma, and wound up playing Tomlin's love interest in the acclaimed indie — which premiered at the same Sundance Film Festival at which another film in which Elliott starred debuted, I'll See You in My Dreams, which was directed by a 31-year-old first-time filmmaker Brett Haley, and in which Elliott played a romantic lead opposite Blythe Danner. Completing the hat trick, he also appeared in a third film that showed at that fest, Joe Swanberg's Digging for Fire. "It was cool," he acknowledges. "Timing's everything, I guess." He then reunited with Haley as the lead of The Hero, before returning to TV on Netflix's Grace and Frankie, again with Tomlin, and on another show for the streaming service, The Ranch.

Elliott was at work on The Ranch when he was contacted by Cooper, who is 30 years younger, about playing Bobby, Jackson Maine's "bitter" older brother — a man who experienced their parents in a very different way that Jackson did, and whose own dreams were left unfulfilled while he watched and helped Jackson to fulfill his own. "As soon as we locked eyes, man, we were connected," Elliott says. He was, therefore, devastated when The Ranch's shooting scheduled conflicted with that of A Star Is Born's, forcing him to call Cooper and bow out. Elliott recounts, "He said, 'I'm not gonna let him go,'" and changed the shooting schedule of A Star Is Born — no small or easy thing to do — in order to keep Elliott on board. Elliott's screen time in the film doesn't total much, but he makes the most of every second of it. The New York Times review of the film notes, "In one of the finest [scenes], Bobby just wordlessly drives away from Jack, and Mr. Elliott lets you see the ferocity of the brothers' love — and their pain — in eyes that have begun to water and in a stone face that will shatter." Elliott reveals that scene was captured on the first of only two takes.

Elliott, a man who in real life, like his late father, does not emote easily, admits that he "wept" upon seeing the finished cut of A Star Is Born for the first time at September's Toronto International Film Festival. "It just destroyed me," he says, "because it was all there, and I realized that I was a part of something really fucking unbelievable, and what a gift this man [Cooper] had given me." He has since won the best supporting actor National Board of Review Award, was nominated for the best supporting actor Critics' Choice Award, is nominated for the best supporting actor Screen Actors Guild Award — and, on Jan. 7, had his handprints and footprints immortalized in cement in front of Hollywood's iconic TCL Chinese Theatre, an honor accorded to precious few character actors over the decades. "Not even remotely have I ever been involved in anything like this, and don't expect that I ever will be again," Elliott says. "It feels good. That kind of recognition where you know that it's from the heart and it's not bullshit that somebody's given you? It's a wonderful thing."