With his bushy horseshoe mustache, endearing bone-deep drawl, and homey but unintimidating frame (six-foot-two, lean, not brawny), Sam Elliott is something like the good neighbor of American movies and television. He drinks beer and rides motorcycles; wears jeans and charms women; and carries an eternal glint in his eyes that seems to say, “Hey, pull up a chair.” And yet he’s an utter paradox on the screen: a soft-spoken character-actor icon whose core traits (that voice, that facial hair) define his roles but also clearly exist outside of them.
“I’ve just been so fortunate in my life and career. I’ve just been so lucky to keep working,” Elliott, 72, tells the Voice. He’s calling during some downtime from A Star Is Born, Bradley Cooper’s 2018-slated version of the oft-remade saga of an aspiring actress. Elliott’s praise for his current director — “The level of control Bradley has displayed is incredible. He’s writing it, directing it, starring in it. It’s a load I’m not sure I could handle” — evinces the at-home affability of his screen manner. Elliott himself has reason to be proud these days: He’s the well-reviewed lead of Brett Haley’s The Hero, opening this week, as well as the subject of the Quad’s sneaky mini-retro, “Sam Elliott x 4” (June 7–8), which focuses on a quartet of curiosities from his salt-and-pepper phase.
The earliest selection, and the one in which he exhibits the least amount of gray, is Richard Marquand’s The Legacy (1978), a supernatural tingler that also represents a personal milestone — it’s the movie on which Elliott met his wife of thirty-plus years, Katharine Ross. The besotted pair portray Los Angeles architects who accept a vague but well-paying assignment in the London countryside; Ross’s Maggie Walsh is the imaginative instigator, Elliott’s Pete Danner the healthy skeptic who only begrudgingly agrees to the task out of affection for his partner and lover. As Maggie gets wrapped up in the narrative’s occult dealings (even recalling Vertigo in one scene as she, her hair in a bun, glimpses her likeness in the refined portrait of a dead woman), Elliott has a ball as the cardigan-draped American truth-talker, complaining about the English countryside’s confusing roads and gamely delivering lines like “And call me back at Mountolive’s house, will you?,” barked to a mechanic over a phone line in the study.
Also on deck is Peter Bogdanovich’s superlative tearjerker Mask (1985), about a bright California boy, Rocky Dennis (Eric Stoltz), with a facial irregularity and a likely limited lifespan. Elliott plays Gar, the biker-bro former flame to the adolescent’s loving but hard-living mother Rusty (Cher). (Elliott calls Gar’s inaugural appearance, in which the rascal gets flooded with good tidings from a big group at a picnic, “perhaps my favorite onscreen introduction ever.”) Few actors could embody such honest equilibrium between two scene-partner extremes: Cher and Stoltz, an unknown who, Elliott notes, “wouldn’t even take off his mask” during offscreen bonding in the mountains.
In offering number three, James Glickenhaus’s crime story Shakedown (1988), Elliott co-stars as Richie Marks, a cop and confidant to public defendant Ronald Dalton (Peter Weller). Weller’s slinky, wired-up theatrics carry the movie, but Elliott introduces slices of cozy reality, like his character’s beer-abetted catnap in a Times Square movie theater. At times, Shakedown is, oddly enough, a movie about men putting weird things in their mouths: Weller’s Ronald mixing a shake of milk, eggs, and coffee while lip-syncing along to Jimi Hendrix, or Elliott’s Richie brushing his teeth with baking soda in a public bathroom. But this full-bore physicality is instrumental to its grungy appeal. Elliott spent nights of the production in a midtown hotel with “both legs sunk in buckets of ice” due to stunt injuries. He no doubt suffered equivalent afflictions making the fourth selection, Rowdy Herrington’s beguiling Missouri-set beatdown Road House (1989), in which Elliott’s flowing silver locks lend his renowned-bouncer character, Wade Garrett, a totally uncalled-for poignancy. “I really didn’t know what I was getting into,” Elliott admits of the experience. This is the movie where Sam Elliott dies brutally, and also where he flashes his pubes to Patrick Swayze and Kelly Lynch.
Asked what he might add to the Quad series, Elliott lands on The Big Lebowski (1998). “I’m so grateful for those couple of days,” he remembers. His latest, like that perennial Coen brothers favorite (which name-checked him in its screenplay), also was tailored for him: “This is the first time anyone’s ever written a movie just for me,” he says of his second collaboration with Haley, who also directed Elliott in 2015’s I’ll See You in My Dreams. In The Hero, he finally gets to do the things plot-steering supporting actors normally can’t: drive home from work, disappoint a daughter, brush back his hair while looking into the distance. To watch Elliott do all this is to marvel at the notion of why no one thought to ask him earlier.