What makes Sam Elliott an interesting actor is the glint of monomania behind his straight-arrow stare, the hint of obsessiveness behind his slow smile.
The bee in Elliott’s bonnet all his career has been reviving the Western. “Westerns are stuff from the heart, dealing in basic values, showing you an ideal way to conduct yourself,” Elliott said, and he has said it a thousand times.
TNT’s “Conagher” is Elliott’s latest attempt to turn back the clock to the days when TV and movie screens were full of men on horseback. He and his wife and co-star Katharine Ross, co-wrote the script from the Louis L’Amour book. He also took executive producer credit.
“The story has every one of the great elements of a Western,” said the Sacramento-born and Oregon-bred Elliott, in a drawl like that of his Texas ancestors.
Elliott recalled first hearing the story of “Conagher” from L’Amour himself when he and Tom Selleck were filming L’Amour’s “The Sacketts” in 1979. Just before L’Amour died in 1988, Elliott bought the rights to “Conagher” and set a friend, Jeffrey Meyer, to writing the script.
“My wife and I kicked it around until we figured out how far off Meyer’s script was,” “Elliott said. “We decided to bite the bullet and rewrite it ourselves to keep it true to L’Amour. It turned out to be the most rewarding creative experience, including acting, we’d ever had.”
During the three years he and Ross prepared “Conagher,” Elliott was also busy seeking to steer his career back into feature films. His experiences with TV have been mixed. On the one hand, most of his TV jobs have involved Western settings: “Gone to Texas” (he played Sam Houston), “Murder in Texas” (as a homicidal Houston doctor) and “The Yellow Rose” (a 1983-84 series). On the other hand, TV Westerns are few and far between. “ABC doesn’t like horses,” he was once told.
In features, Elliott has played a wide range of supporting roles, often with an edge of left-field humor. He was a compassionate biker in “Mask,” an ambiguous security man in “Fatal Beauty,” Kirstie Alley’s terminal lover in “Sibling Rivalry.” (“For most of the movie I was a dead body. One reviewer commented on what an exceptional stiff I was. I knew I’d found my niche.”)
Elliott was in Houston last month to play a Texas lawman in “Rush,” a lightly fictionalized film about a real-life case of drug-abusing police in the 1970s.
“It’s hard to make the effort to do features,” he said. “You work with first-class people but you pay a price. You play supporting roles. That can be real frustrating.”
Between acting jobs, the Elliotts sat in their home in the canyons above Malibu and ground out five drafts of their “Conagher” script. He wrote during the day, she edited in the evenings after their daughter Cleo Rose, 6, was in bed. He recalls, “After the third draft we started shopping the project. Of course, we wanted to do it as a feature. Eventually we had to admit it would be better to do it for TV than not get it made at all.”
Elliott made a deal with Ron Howard’s company, Imagine, which at the time was seeking to become a factor in the TV business. It has since dropped out of TV, and “Conagher” is one of its few projects to get on the air.
Imagine had been wooing Kathy L’Amour, seeking rights to a package of the late author’s books. L’Amour wrote 107 volumes, which have sold 225 million copies worldwide and still sell 5 million to 6 million a year, aided by a continuing stream of posthumous work. But Kathy L’Amour has been reluctant to let film rights go for less than top dollar. The Turner Network has also sought and failed to make a package deal with her.
“We were in a strong position, since both the production company and the network were L’Amour fans,” Elliott said.
Elliott is notorious in Hollywood as a straight talker, as willing to admit his own mistakes as he is to expose others’. “The biggest mistake we made in dealing with Turner,” Elliott said, “was not realizing that TNT has commercials.”
Instead of running the usual 95 minutes for a two-hour time slot, the Elliott’s script was timed for 118 minutes.
“That’s what led us to this bastard 2 1/2-hour slot. I’d advise viewers to see it now because whenever this show airs later, 23 minutes will be torn out to make it fit.”
The biggest mistake Elliott’s partners made “was housing the unit more than an hour away from the set when we could have stayed a little less comfortably just 20 minutes away. That’s 80 minutes a day of extra traveling, times six days a week, times six weeks, and every minute of that time we should have been working.”
As for the budget, “That battle was ongoing. They said they had a hard line at $3 million. I’d initially budgeted it at $5 million. I felt pleased to get them up to $3.7 million. Westerns are expensive to make. Livestock and rolling stock are harder to come by than they were in the old days.”
Overall, Elliott loved producing. “It allowed me to stick my nose in where I often had before, this time without feeling I was infringing on people’s games. Katharine and I are eager to write together again. Next time we’ll know what to cut from the script before we shoot it -- paper is cheaper to cut than film.”
There’s another thing he learned, and it’s odd to hear it from such an outspoken man: “I learned not to be tentative when I know I’m right.” This is the actor who rewrote his own part in his last L’Amour Western, “The Quick and the Dead,” every night during shooting and slipped the pages under the director’s door every morning. “Next time I’ll be more careful about giving people I don’t know the benefit of the doubt.
“Katharine and I hope to do it again. I’m reading more L’Amour now, ‘The Haunted Mesa.’ It’s not very deep. It’s pretty spare. and that’s the beauty of it.”