Sam Elliott has played cowboys throughout his career, off and on, and no wonder ” in or out of costume, he's a classic cowboy incarnate. At 72 he remains tall, lanky and sinewy from days spent digging and planting at his home in Malibu, California, overlooking the ocean. His trademark gray horseshoe mustache and mess of salt-and-pepper hair ” more salt than pepper these days ” make him more instantly recognisable than many actors who are richer and more famous.
Which makes a trip to the supermarket something of an adventure, as Elliott found out recently when his wife sent him out for eggs and bread.
"Early summer means tourist season," Elliott said, speaking by telephone from his newly provisioned home, safely back from the market."Thanks to cell phones, everyone becomes a photographer."
Twenty minutes at the market turned to 45 as Elliott posed with each fan, young and old. Not that he was complaining.
"Nothing against fans," Elliott said."I'm still lucky to be in the game."
That he is. Known for roles as cowboys in westerns and as cowboy-like characters in other films, Elliott stars in the upcoming drama The Hero as someone who sounds a bit like, well, Sam Elliott.
He plays Lee Hayden, an ageing movie star longing for one more great role. Time is running short, though, because Hayden has recently received a lifetime-achievement award ... and a cancer diagnosis.
As he struggles to come to grips with his life and his legacy, Hayden ” who is divorced from his former wife, played by Elliott's real-life wife, Katharine Ross ” meets a younger woman named Charlotte (Laura Prepon) and finds something new to live for. Also in the mix: Hayden's grown daughter, Lucy (Krysten Ritter), who resents the fact that her father was never around when she was growing up.
The resonances between Hayden and the actor who plays him are no accident. Writer/director Brett Haley worked with Elliott on I'll See You in My Dreams (2015), a critically acclaimed film that cast him opposite Blythe Danner. Haley then wrote 'The Hero' with Elliott in mind to star.
"I'm still kind of reeling from the fact that someone thought enough of me to write a script for me," Elliott said."I've never had that happen. Yes, people have written roles for me, but this was an entire movie about my character."
The two men really got acquainted while promoting I'll See You in My Dreams.
"It was weeks travelling, sitting on airplanes and waiting," Elliott recalled."Brett kept saying, 'I'm going to write something for you someday.' He really got to know me during those travels. He based the script on me ” although there are things that have nothing to do with me, especially on a personal level."
For starters, he's not dating a younger woman. Elliott has been married only once, to Ross, whom he met making The Legacy (1978) and married in 1984.
"I loved that the relationship in this movie is angst-ridden, painful and uncertain," he said."Laura is in her mid-30s and I'm in my 70s, but we connected as actors. And when you connect, magic happens."
He also appreciated the way Haley captured the reality of being an actor, even a famous one.
"The film tells the truth about the life of an actor, which is so tenuous," Elliott said."There's the frustration and the rejection factor. Then there is the not-working factor, which is one of the hardest things about the job.
"I'm one of the lucky ones," he added."I know people who have spent their careers sitting around and waiting, which is one of the hardest things to do. You can spend a lifetime waiting for a phone to ring."
Elliott has had some lulls, he admitted, but never has been one to sit around waiting.
"I'm a manual labourer," he said with a laugh."At heart I'm a farmer. I like to dig in the ground. I need to get up in the morning with a purpose, because I've always worked. I can't sit still. I have to keep moving. I also have this work ethic. So, if I'm between jobs, I have that shovel in my hands."
Another secret to living happily as an actor: Be careful with your money.
"In my real life I was always very cautious about spending my money," Elliott said."But that wasn't hard. I wanted to be an actor since I was a little kid and fell in love with movies. I wasn't ever motivated by stardom or money. It was always about the work."
So he and Ross don't own 10 houses and 12 cars?
Elliott responded with a deep, throaty laugh.
"We own one house," he said,"and that was a house I built. Yes, there is another house in Oregon, but it was my mom's house. And I was never into buying fast cars or putting on the Hollywood show. My wife and I don't believe in the show never did and never will.
"So we saved our money," the actor said."It was never about an image or working for the money. I saved because I never wanted to have to take a job just for the money. I wanted to take jobs I believed in and that moved me."
A native of Sacramento, California, where his mother was a physical-training instructor and his father worked for the Department of the Interior, Elliott moved to Portland, Oregon, as a teenager and later attended Clark College in Vancouver, Washington. There he found himself on stage as one of the leads in Guys and Dolls.
The acting bug bit, hard, and it wasn't long before Elliott moved to Hollywood, where he worked construction while studying acting and waiting for his big break. He made his small-screen debut with a few bit parts on The Felony Squad (1968-1969), and his big-screen debut in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) ” which co-starred a young actress named Katharine Ross, with whom bit player Elliott has no scenes.
Gradually the television and movie roles got bigger, and by now Elliott has an impressive filmography running from Lifeguard (1976), Mask (1985), Road House (1989), Tombstone (1993) and Gettysburg (1993) through The Big Lebowski (1998), The Contender (2000), We Were Soldiers (2002), Hulk (2003), The Golden Compass (2007), Ghost Rider (2007), Up in the Air (2009) and Grandma (2015).
He's also kept his hand in on television, starring in 'The Shadow Riders' (1982), 'Buffalo Girls' (1995), 'Rough Riders' (1997) and 'Parks and Recreation' (2013-2015), as well as the current Netflix comedy 'The Ranch'.
"I think I've learned to act over the long haul," Elliott said."I don't think I was particularly a good actor when I started out, but I got better.
"I always subscribed to the idea that, if it ain't on the page, then it ain't on the stage," he added."It has always been about the material being there from the start. It had to be honest. I can't do it if it's not honest."
It was a real pleasure to work with Ross, with whom he has a grown daughter named Cleo Rose, in The Hero, the actor said.
"It was great fun to work with her," Elliott said."I wish all of her scenes survived, but some ended up on the cutting-room floor just to be of service to the film. It was painful for all of us, because she did amazing work, plus she's such a beautiful woman to watch on screen.
"She's aged well," he said with a laugh."That's because my wife has such an amazing work ethic. She works out and really takes care of herself."
What is the secret of their long marriage?
"We're still deeply in love with each other," he said."But we also know that a marriage takes work. It takes mutual respect and all those trite things that people talk about, but are true."
Next up for Elliott is the upcoming new version of A Star Is Born, starring Lady Gaga and co-starring Bradley Cooper, who is also making his directorial debut with the 2018 release.
Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a star on the decline who helps a young singer/actress named Ally (Lady Gaga) launch her career while his is spiraling downward due to alcoholism. Elliott plays the manager who handles both actors.
"He came after me for the manager role," Elliott said."I was getting ready to go to Sundance. I looked at the script and it was wonderful. I said, 'Let's meet when I get back.'"
Cooper wouldn't hear of it.
"He said, 'I want to meet you now,'" Elliott recalled."I thought, 'Listen, if this guy wants to meet now, I'm having a meeting today.' I went to Bradley's place and got to know him. I saw how passionate he was about this project, and I was in."