First there’s the voice, that distinctive sonorous baritone. Then the thick silver hair and the handlebar mustache that would fit in perfectly in a saloon in the Old West.
Sam Elliott is instantly recognizable — it’s part of the reason he’s been working in Hollywood for nearly five decades with almost 100 roles. He’s been on countless TV series, including the original “Mission: Impossible,” “Justified” and his current part as Beau in the Netflix series “The Ranch,” which has been renewed for a second season (the second part of Season 1 is streaming). His movies includes such films as “Lifeguard,” “Mask” and of course the droll and mysterious “Stranger” in the cult classic “The Big Lebowski.”
The Sacramento native is as busy as ever, including recent roles as Lily Tomlin’s ex-husband in “Grandma” and the man who woos widow Blythe Danner in “I’ll See You In My Dreams.” He’s been married to actress Katharine Ross (“The Graduate”) for 32 years. His voice-over work on commercials for Coors and Dodge Ram are unavoidable on TV.
Elliott discussed his long career and “The Ranch,” which stars Ashton Kutcher as Eliott’s son who returns home after 15 years, over lunch in Bel-Air. And yes, he is as charming as you would hope.
Here you are at 72 and are working more than ever. What’s the secret?
I like to think some of it has to do with the choices I’ve made over the long haul and the way I have exposed myself in the long haul. I never worked for the money. I’ve never been driven by it. It’s always been about the part or the project or the people.
So have you turned down a lot of parts?
I didn’t turn down a lot down, but there were things I turned down much to my agents’ chagrin. I’ve always been kind of very opinionated about how I wanted to do my job or conduct my career I think to a fault, probably. I think being honest and opinionated is interpreted as being problematic to other people.
Was there a certain movie or actor that inspired you to become an actor?
I’ve wanted to do this since when I was a little kid. There were lots [of inspirations]. I used to go to the Saturday matinee every Saturday.
I would imagine you were a John Wayne fan.
Yes. “The Searchers,” films like that.… “The Quiet Man.” I was going to the [movie] theater and having that experience and thinking “wow, that’s incredible.” Then later on in high school I was always in plays. I was always in the choir, always in vocal ensembles. My mom dragged me to sing in the church choir — the Congregational church — when I was like 5 years old. That’s where it began.
I’m sure you didn’t have this voice at 5.
I think that’s before my voice broke, safe to say!
I went and got John Wayne’s autograph. He didn’t know me from Adam but he knew I was an aspiring actor.
Speaking of John Wayne, did you ever meet him when you began working in the late 1960s?
I went and got John Wayne’s autograph. He was doing “The Shootist,” his last film. I had this collection of water-colored prints called a John Ford Collection — beautiful paintings done by 14 of his favorite 20 actors he ever worked with. Wayne was among them. I think it was his wardrobe man, Luster Bayless, who showed me into his trailer. I went in and talked with him for a few minutes. He didn’t know me from Adam but he knew I was an aspiring actor.
You started working when a lot of the classic Hollywood actors were still stars.
I got an opportunity to work with some really wonderful old group of actors. People from that old world. I worked with Jimmy Stewart when he was doing “Hawkins” for CBS. I worked with William Holden on “The Blue Knight.”
You played Jane Fonda’s love interest in a few episodes of the Netflix comedy “Gracie and Frankie,” but “The Ranch” is your first starring role in a comedy series.
These guys [the creators] took a shot at me to see if I’d do it. And then I called Don Reo [one of the creators] and said I couldn’t do it. Then he came up to my house and we talked and then I got back on board.
The series is shot in front of a live audience. How do you like that?
I was terrified when we first started. That’s one of the reasons I passed up on it. It’s pretty scary still.
You have a wonderful rapport with Debra Winger, who plays your wife in the series.
She looks great and she’s incredible. She and I were the two fish out of water in that thing. It’s so much fun.
I would imagine Beau is a hoot to play because he’s so irascible and set in his ways.
He denies global warming, doesn’t like Hillary Clinton.
And boy does that family drink.
That was a big question mark for me in the beginning. But there’s a certain reality to it. Who am I to judge?
You recently finished indie feature film “The Hero,” directed and co-written by Brett Haley of “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” in which you play the lead.
I’m on every single page in this script. Brett Haley and I traveled a lot for press junkets for “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” Got very close. Became fast friends. We were trekking around the country and I talked about a lot of stuff. We got to know each other and he wrote this script based on all that conversation. He put together a brilliant presentation. But it was so personal in so many ways that I was like “Wow, are we really going to do this?”
Your wife Katharine is in it too.
Katharine plays [my character’s] ex-wife. Something else that was great about this was seeing Katharine work again.
You became a couple while making that 1978 movie “The Legacy” and have worked together many times over years.
I think we just like making movies and having that creative experience together is the best. It’s just fun. It’s a whole different kind of energy to go home with some you’re working with rather than go home to somebody who isn’t working. It’s a totally positive experience.
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