Not too long ago, actor Sam Elliott, who has spent much of his 46-year career alternately fighting and embracing habitual typecasting as America's cowboy, was referred to as a"male ing`nue."
At 71, Elliott is not young, and anyone who's witnessed the knowing gleam in his peepers wouldn't for a second peg him as innocent. But with lauded performances this year in three indie films and guest spots in two acclaimed television series, Elliott is definitely having a moment.
In May, he was named best guest performer in a drama series at the Critics' Choice Television Awards for his work on FX's 'Justified'. The film I'll See You in My Dreams, in which he played a leading man for the first time in years, opposite Blythe Danner, steadily drew crowds despite its limited release this spring. (It was a co-star of that film, Mary Kay Place, who slyly called Elliott an ing`nue.) He appeared in another Sundance indie, Digging for Fire, and in February returned to 'Parks and Recreation' to play the vegan hippie Ron Dunn.
But it is Elliott's turn as a spurned lover in Grandma, which stars Lily Tomlin and opens August 21, that has garnered him some of his warmest reviews yet: He brought a ferocious emotional rawness to the part that caught critics and even the director off-guard. Variety's Scott Foundas raved that Elliott had, in 10 minutes on screen, created"a fuller, richer character than most actors do given two hours." The Awards Circuit website said he should be considered for an Oscar.
"What he does in that moment in some ways became the emotional core of the film," said Paul Weitz, who wrote and directed Grandma."You're not used to the idea that this person is going to expose himself as an actor."
Indeed, Elliott's resonant baritone growl, which still weakens the knees of female fans, and mustache, rendered in multiple shades of handlebar, have, over the decades, become synonymous with stoic, steely dudes: usually cowboys (Tombstone, The Big Lebowski, The Golden Compass), followed by bikers (Roadhouse, Mask), pilots (Up in the Air) and military men (Hulk, We Were Soldiers). That Elliott has been able to remain, as a septuagenarian, the man many guys want to be and gals want to be with is also a testament to his sustained, indisputable, silver foxiness. Commenting on a video of him speaking in January at Sundance, one fan wrote,"This man must be at least 87 percent testosterone."
In Grandma, Elliott said, he was able to stretch beyond the narrowed bandwidth that comes with playing an idealised type of man. This break from character, he said, brought a measure of unforeseen relief.
"I came unglued a little bit, and it happened in the doing of it," he said, or, rather, drawled."It was a real catharsis, in a positive way."
Elliott was speaking in his rambling, Southwestern-style seaside home, as one of his dogs, Dionne, aged and ailing, lay sighing at his feet. Elliott and his wife, actress Katharine Ross (enduringly known as the bride in The Graduate), have been living on their 3 acres for some 40 years, first in a house that burned to the ground in a brush fire, then in a double-wide trailer, and finally in this home, set amid an Edenic thicket of flowering trees. They used to stable horses on the property but now just keep chickens, along with Dionne and a waddling, one-eyed Chihuahua named Marina.
The couple, who have a daughter, Cleo, 30, are toying with moving to Oregon, where Elliott spent his adolescence after an early childhood in Sacramento. But work has been coming at such a quick clip that he hasn't had the chance to clean out his mother's house there since her death three years ago. And while images of Elliott in a 10-galloner may be indelible, none of the recent parts have been in Westerns.
It is hard to pinpoint when exactly Elliott became fixed in popular imaginings as Hollywood's prototypical cowboy, but for Elliott it became starkly apparent in the late '90s, when he was approached for The Big Lebowski. By that time, roughly a quarter of all the parts Elliott had landed were in Westerns, a number that was growing, and he was eager to switch things up.
Then he was given Joel and Ethan Coen's screenplay.
"We hear male voices gently singing Tumbling Tumbleweeds," it begins,"and a deep, affable, Western-accented voice Sam Elliott's, perhaps." The voice belongs to the Stranger, later described as"middle-aged, amiable, craggily handsome Sam Elliott, perhaps. He has a large Western-style mustache and wears denims, a yoked shirt and a cowboy hat."
Elliott recalled thinking:"'Even in a Coen brothers movie, I can't play one of their wacky characters; I gotta play a cowboy.' I think you feel, on some level, when you get boxed in in this business, you get sold short."
Elliott ended up loving to work with the Coens, and the admiration was mutual. After shooting the last scene perhaps 15 times, Elliott finally said,"Guys, you've got to tell me what you want." They replied, he recalled, that they had gotten what they wanted on the sixth take but just loved watching him do it over and over again.
Since then, Elliott said, his resistance to playing cowboys has softened to gratitude. Appearing in The Big Lebowski, which starred Jeff Bridges as the Dude, helped get him a key role in The Contender (2000), playing a close adviser to Bridges' president. Elliott said the director, Rod Lurie, told him,"I just want to see more of you and the Dude." Elliott's casting in Chris Weitz's The Golden Compass, again as a cowboy, eventually led to the role in Grandma: Chris and Paul Weitz are brothers.
"I used to grouse about it, until I grew up a little bit," Elliott said of the typecasting."I really realised it was nothing but good fortune to be in any kind of a box in this business. You know what I mean?"