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Sam Elliott is in the midst of working on the largest, possibly most difficult project of his decades-long career with 1883, the prequel to the immensely popular series Yellowstone, out Dec. 19 on Paramount+.
And the Hollywood icon, 77, is having the time of his life.
The star — who appeared in such classics as Tombstone, The Big Lebowski and Road House and was Oscar-nominated in 2019 for A Star Is Born — uses two words more than any other as he discusses his projects, in that deeply rich and comforting voice: “grateful” and “fortunate.”
Anything you can share about the highly anticipated (and secretive) series?
It’s a story about the Oregon Trail in general. We start out in Fort Worth, Texas, and we’re headed to Oregon. Along the way, a contingent ends up in Montana. It is a couple of generations before the [Kevin] Costner tale.
What kind of experience has it been to make this show?
It’s been wonderful and grueling at the same time. [Showrunner] Taylor [Sheridan] told me, “You’ll hate me at the end of this thing.” There is no chance that is ever going to happen. But it’s a tough shoot. We shot in Fort West for almost two months in 106-degree temperatures. Montana was the complete opposite. Bitterly cold and freezing.
Taylor is a brilliant writer. He is a genius. It is really inspiring on a lot of levels. Isabel May is only 21. Never had much experience on a horse, but looks like she’s been riding a horse her whole life. And every time she opens her mouth in a scene, she is just mesmerizing. This is going to be the beginning of a long career if that’s what she wants.
How does the 1883 production compare to your previous Westerns, or any other project?
I have been in this game a long time; this is my 54th year in my career, and I have never worked on anything like this in terms of the scope and size. There are more horses, more wranglers and more production people than I’ve ever worked with. I’ve never worked on a show that has six cameras operating at the same time and a helicopter in the air. They’re getting their money’s worth.
Our directors on this thing were cinematographers that Taylor bumped up from Yellowstone. So they understand what they are looking for through the lens. It does not look like a television show by any means. They are not making a television show here, even though they say there are. It is a 10-hour story.
How did you become involved with 1883?
Like a lot of things for me, it is about what is on the page. Like any young actor, there was a time when I would have done anything for work. But then it got to a point in my career I felt like if I did anything that came along for money then it was going to be a short career. And I still believe that. So, what is on the page is what has always driven me. When I started reading this thing, I thought I was too old for it in the beginning, but Taylor kept telling me that I wasn’t. And that is what brought me to it.
Safe to say you greatly enjoy or are most comfortable in the Western genre?
It keeps coming around for whatever reason, and I am comfortable in it. My family hails from West Texas for three generations; I was the only one not born in Texas, but Sacramento, California. I’ve never lived that down. (Laughs.) But it speaks greatly to me, this genre.
How did you become involved with Family Guy, voicing the character of Mayor Wild West?
I am having a good time. I was doing a show called The Ranch, and that is where it came to me. Ashton Kutcher’s wife, Mila [Kunis], who plays Meg in the cartoon, came to me right after Adam West had passed away and said, “Family Guy wants you to come and be yourself as the new mayor of Quahog.” I said I was flattered, but I didn’t want to play myself in anything. About a month later, they came back with the idea about the Wild West character being Adam’s cousin. And I said, “Yeah, I’ll do that.” It is a different world, but they are brilliant in their own right. The table read for the first episode was one of my favorites because of the laughter.
Have you seen Val Kilmer’s documentary? There’s great Tombstone production footage in there.
I am embarrassed to say that I have not seen it yet, but I have heard nothing but raves about it, especially from Tombstone fans. I am a huge Val fan. I would go to the [Tombstone] set and watch Val work even when I wasn’t called that day. What he did with Doc Holliday, to me, was the best stuff in the film. He’s a good man and he’s a brilliant actor.
Kevin Jarre wrote that screenplay, which is what brought all the actors to it, I believe. But Kevin was an inexperienced director. They stuck with him for a month and then replaced him with George Cosmatos. It was a sad time to see Kevin go. But we had that script, and all the actors were determined to do what Kevin got on the page. I feel like we did a good job on it. Kurt [Russell] really held it together. At that same time, they were shooting the Costner Wyatt Earp and Kurt was all nervous about that. But Kurt held it together, and we had all the elements, and then George came in. It went well.
I am sure you are Big Lebowski-ed out, but I’m wondering whether you and Mr. Bridges are close, especially with his cancer scare which is thankfully in remission.
It’s a very odd thing about the movie business. Number one, my wife and I have lived in Malibu for 40 years. We don’t go to town much. We don’t hang in Hollywood much. It’s a double-edged sword. It is not good on some levels, business-wise, but it’s a choice, Most of our friends are not in the business. And beyond that, it is a strange thing: You go and work on these films. You get really close with the people you work with — and then you often never see them again. And that is the case with Jeff. I have run into Jeff on different occasions, and it is always like we just got off the set yesterday. We struck a chord with each other; we’re contemporaries. It’s mutual respect and love for each other.
You also have to understand that I only worked two days on that film and that was it. But it was a wonderful experience, working with the Coens and Jeff.
Do you have thoughts on the Road House remake in development with Jake Gyllenhaal?
I hadn’t heard about this most recent one. A couple of years ago they were going to remake the film with Ronda Rousey in the Patrick [Swayze] part. I think remaking stuff is — (grumble) — it’s always a gamble, I’ll put it that way.
I don’t think it was a great film, but it struck a chord with a lot of people. I know it was a lot of fun doing it. But I think on some levels it was some mindless male fantasy film. I loved Swayze. He was quite a man. He was the sweetest guy you can imagine. He was an incredible gentleman. He was born in Texas and just had this Texas gentleman thing about him. And he had an incredible work ethic.
You were in two Marvel films — Hulk and Ghost Rider — before the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Any interest in returning to the fold?
(Laughs.) Oh, gosh. I think I am way too old for the superhero thing at this point. But, I am open to doing anything as long as it’s good stuff. Again, it goes back to what’s on the page. If it’s something I can do and something I can believe in, I am all for it.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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