“I’ve spent my entire career on horseback or on a motorcycle. It boxes you in, the way people perceive you. I read a lot of scripts. Most of ’em go to other actors.”—Sam Elliott.
Known for his lanky physique, iconic moustache and deep voice, American actor Sam Elliott has consistently been putting up great performances throughout his 50-year career.
Having begun his film career with minor appearances in westerns such as The Way West and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the actor has gone on to earn critical acclaim in a vastly expansive career. His nominations include an Academy Award nomination, two Golden Globe Award nominations and two Primetime Emmy Award nominations. He is the recipient of a National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor.
In the late 1960s, Elliott moved to Los Angeles to pursue his dreams of becoming an actor but his father was against it.”He gave me that proverbial line, ‘You’ve got a snowball’s chance in hell of having a career in (Hollywood),’” Elliott recalled. “He was a realist, my dad. He was a hard worker. He had a work ethic that I’ve fashioned mine after, and I thank him for that every day.” Almost half a century later, Elliott has established his on-screen persona as one of the most iconic ones in Hollywood.
On his 76th birthday, we celebrate his brilliant career by taking a look at some of his best performances.
Top 10 Sam Elliott Films:
10. Thank You For Smoking (Jason Reitman – 2005)
A brilliant work of satire, Thank You for Smoking criticises the widespread malpractices of the tobacco industry. The 2005 film features Aaron Eckhart as a tobacco lobbyist who struggles to find a balance between the moral vacuum of his work and his moral duty as a father. On a campaign, he meets with the actor who played the original Marlboro Man (played by Sam Elliott) who is now suffering from cancer and has become a staunch anti-smoking advocate.
This was the breakthrough film for Reitman’s career, bringing him a WGA nomination and earning Golden Globe bids for Eckhart and Best Comedy/Musical Film. In an interview, he said, “I see this as a film about common sense. I see it as a movie that’s constantly saying: ‘Why aren’t we just relaxing for a second and using common sense and being rational about the situation?’ That doesn’t happen enough.”
9. Gettysburg (Ronald F. Maxwell – 1993)
Ronald F. Maxwell’s four-and-a-half-hour epic about the Civil War’s most significant battle is a difficult watch for people who aren’t interested in the subject. However, those willing to immerse themselves in the experience will be stunned by the powerful performances and precise period detail. Sam Elliott appears as Brigadier General John Buford, a US calvary man who plays a major role in the first day of combat and is riveting in his relatively small but integral role.
Maxwell reflected, “Well, when I started on Gettysburg, anybody that works in the movie business knows, the first thing your confronted in is what is the upside potential, and what is the downside risk. You can apply that to almost any business, but those are the terms you hear in the movie business. So for the upside potential, most people, when they play that game, mean ‘Get me Brad Pitt,” or ‘Get me Steven Spielberg’.”
Adding, “Because unless you get those big names, it’s hard to even guess the upside potential of anything. As we know repeatedly, little films can suddenly do big business, anything can happen – you’re in a very volatile area.”
8. I’ll See You In My Dreams (Brett Haley – 2015)
Although this 2015 film revolves around Blythe Danner, Elliott is equally compelling in a brilliant supporting role. Co-written and directed by Brett Haley, the film follows the story of a 71-year-old woman (played by Danner) who finds a new lease on life thanks to a new lover (played by Elliott), her three girlfriends (June Squibb, Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place) and an amiable maintenance man (played by Martin Starr). It does not regurgitate the same old platitudes about what it means to be old. Instead, I’ll See You In My Dreams presents a tender and realistic microcosm that is inhabited by very real characters.
Director Brett Haley said, “It’s intimidating going up to Sam Elliott or Blythe Danner and say, ‘Hey, can you try it this way’ or ‘Hey, you don’t need to do this as much,’ but I got to the place where I was like, ‘This is my job.’ So on the one hand, you let the actors just run with it.
“On the other, your job is to step in and get some options, which again goes back to being an editor. You want to get as many options as you can on the day because we had 18 days.”
7. The Contender (Rod Lurie – 2000)
Elliott loses his trademark moustache for Rod Lurie’s engaging political thriller which might take some of his fans some time to process. The 2000 film features the Vice President’s sudden death. President Jackson Evans (played by Jeff Bridges) wants to replace him with Democratic Senator Laine Hanson (played by Joan Allen). However, Republican Congressman Sheldon Runyon (played by Gary Oldman) is staunchly against it and indulges in some nasty tactics to derail the nomination.
He brings up sexually-explicit opposition research from her college days, much to the disdain of the White House Chief of Staff (played by Elliott) and Press Secretary (played by Saul Rubinek). Allen and Bridges earned Academy Award nominations in lead and supporting, respectively.
6. Tombstone (George P. Cosmatos – 1993)
George P. Cosmatos’ 1993 Western recounts the frequently told story of Wyatt Earp’s legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral but this is, arguably, the most memorable depiction of the popular western hit. The iconic marshal (played by Kurt Russell) tries to enforce law and order to the chaotic town of Tombstone, AZ.
Sam Elliott and Bill Paxton are his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and Val Kilmer plays the role of the sickly, alcoholic Doc Holliday. The four of them team up to end the reign of terror propagated by the outlaws who are led by the villainous “Curly Bill” Brocius (played by Powers Boothe).
5. A Star Is Born (Bradley Cooper – 2018)
Elliott’s long career has been full of underrated performances but he finally earned his first Academy Award nomination for this acclaimed musical drama. Directed by Bradley Cooper, the 2018 film features Jackson Maine (played by Cooper himself), a rock star who has fallen prey to the evils of substance abuse. The only good thing in his life is Ally (played by Lady Gaga), a talented young singer struggling to get her big break. The two of them have unbelievable on-screen chemistry as they fall for each other but as she moves up in the world, he spirals.
Sam Elliott plays Bobby, Jackson’s hurt brother and manger, who has been at the receiving end of his sibling’s bad behaviour. Elliott won several major nominations for this role, including a Critic’s Choice Movie Award nomination and a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination.
Speaking about Bradley Cooper, Elliott said, “Yeah, I think everybody just threw in so deeply with Bradley, and the one thing he asked of all us was to trust him. A pretty amazing thing to ask somebody you don’t know. I’d never crossed paths with Bradley before this film, and he asked me to do that. I think it was the last thing he said to me the first time I met him, ‘Just trust me, and you’ll be glad you did’.”
4. Grandma (Paul Weitz – 2015)
This is undoubtedly one of Elliott’s best performances which earned him a Chicago Film Critics nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Paul Weitz’s road comedy, Grandma presents Lily Tomlin as an unapologetically witty poet who has recently been through a break-up with her girlfriend (play Judy Greer). Her pregnant granddaughter (Julia Garner) shows up to seek her support because she has decided to get an abortion.
On the way to the abortion clinic in Los Angeles, she drops in to visit her ex-husband (played by Elliott) to ask for money but ends up enabling past issues to resurface. Tomlin earned Golden Globe and Critics Choice nominations for her compelling performance.
Paul Weitz commented on the struggles of the protagonist, “Well, in a film like Grandma, there is an obstacle in the way of Lily’s character being that mentor to her granddaughter. She has an incredible amount of emotion, but it is a struggle for her to translate that into love, because she’s been through so much. She’s been through 50-something years of women’s history. Discrimination as a woman. Discrimination as a gay person.”
3. Mask (Peter Bogdanovich – 1985)
Although Cher and Eric Stoltz are most praised for their brilliant performances in Mask, Elliott deserves a lot of credit for his consistently wonderful performance as well. Peter Bogdanovich’s biographical drama features Stoltz as Rocky Dennis, a teenager who has some serious facial deformities. His mother (Cher) is a member of a biker gang who tries to escape the vicious cycle of drugs and provide a better life for her son with the help of her boyfriend (played by Elliott). Laura Dern also makes her film debut as a blind girl who falls in love with Rocky in this powerful social commentary.
Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich had some controversial comments about Cher, “Well, she didn’t trust anybody, particularly men. She doesn’t like men. That’s why she’s named Cher: She dropped her father’s name. Sarkisian, it is. She can’t act. She won Best Actress at Cannes because I shot her very well.
And she can’t sustain a scene.”
2. The Hero (Brett Haley – 2017)
The Hero feels semi-autobiographical when we take into consideration that Elliott plays an ageing star of the Western genre who doesn’t really take the time to think about his life until he finds out that he has cancer. It grabs him by the shoulders and jolts him awake. He is forced to adopt an introspective outlook, confronted by questions about his legacy and his own mortality. Elliott puts up a truly powerful performance as a troubled protagonist who tries to make sense of it all and rectify past mistakes.
In an interview regarding the film, Elliott reflected on his long career, “I’ve done films over the years that basically no one saw. And I’m thankful that some of them haven’t been seen. But I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been in a lot of films that a lot of people saw. It’s not about legacy for me.
“It’s about the people I’m working with at the time, and just going in and enjoying the process. It’s hard work, but it’s a creative, artistic process. And if you can’t enjoy that, then you’re going about it wrong.”
1. The Big Lebowski (Coen Brothers – 1998)
Elliott is the narrator of this hallucinatory neo-noir romp that the Coen Brothers constructed. Arguably the best film that the Coen brothers ever produced, this 1998 masterpiece presents a comedic revision of the stereotype of the detective noir genre through the character of Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (played by Jeff Bridges). The philosophy it preaches is a doctrine of laziness. As cases keep piling up, the urgency of detective stories is beautifully challenged by a detective who does not want to get up from his couch.
The Big Lebowski is a smooth journey through the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles full of experimental artists, cult members, and bowling-league superstars. Sam Elliott plays the mysterious role of The Stranger and utters the film’s most iconic line: “The Dude abides”. The Big Lebowski helped establish Elliott’s enigmatic on-screen persona.
Elliott said, “When I got the script for The Big Lebowski, I thought, ‘I’m finally going to play some wacky character.’ But then it said the character had a Southwestern accent ‘not unlike Sam Elliott’ and was dressed like a drugstore cowboy ‘looking not unlike Sam Elliott.’ I thought, ‘Holy shit, this really is what I’m known for.’ So, I figured, if the Coen brothers hired me because of that, I’m just going to embrace it.”