Sam Elliott is a well-known Hollywood tough guy, but there’s plenty about the all-American star’s past that’s not talked about so much – like the military career that sowed the seeds of his future as a regular onscreen soldier.
After his recent resurgence following an Oscar-nominated performance in ‘A Star Is Born’, interest in Sam Elliott has soared, so let’s dig a little deeper into the man himself.
Sam loves the great outdoors. In fact, the ‘Roadhouse’ actor’s father worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Growing up in Sacramento, California, Sam got to spend a lot of time in nature and developed a love of wildlife that lasted his whole life. But his animal-loving dad wasn’t too impressed with his dreams of becoming a Hollywood star.
The star’s dad wasn’t pleased when his son moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a movie actor.
“He gave me that proverbial line, ‘You’ve got a snowball’s chance in hell of having a career in Hollywood,'” Sam recalled of his father, who pushed him to get a college degree and a real job. But the star is grateful to his dad for giving him something that helped his eventual acting career.
Despite dissuading him from becoming an actor, Sam’s father instilled a solid work ethic that paid off in dividends when he eventually decided to go against his wishes.
“He was a realist, my dad,” Sam explained. “He was a hard worker. He had a work ethic that I’ve fashioned mine after, and I thank him for that every day.” And it was that very ethic that served Sam well when he decided to join the military.
Before he played Basil L. Plumley (pictured) in ‘We Were Heroes’, Sam enlisted in the military and served with the California National Guard.
Sam was able to hone the work ethic he inherited from his father before channeling his military experience into a number of roles in which he portrayed American heroes. But the National Guard Association never forgot the sacrifices he made.
In 2002, the National Guard Association awarded Sam the Spirit of America award in recognition of his service in the California Air National Guard’s 163rd Airlift Wings out of Channel Islands.
And even more recently, the ‘Gettysburg’ actor was honored when he was invited to give a speech at the National Memorial Day Concert on the White House lawn in 2019. He read an extract from Sgt Ray Lambert’s memoir of the D-Day Invasion before shaking his hand and thanking him for his service.
Elliott’s first foray into acting came while he was at college and starred in a production of ‘Guys and Dolls’ as Big Jule.
While Sam enjoyed his first experience in the limelight, it was a rave review of his performance that really inspired him to pursue his dream of becoming a professional actor. But tragedy soon slammed the brakes on Sam’s aspirations.
When he was just 18, Sam suddenly lost his father to a heart attack. This was a huge blow to the future star, who had yet to prove to his dad that he could make it as an actor.
But before he would take Hollywood by storm, Sam took a job that would likely have made his father proud.
Sam took his father’s desire for him to get a real job to heart. So to make ends meet, he worked in the construction industry while he pursued his acting career on the side.
And it wasn’t long before someone recognised his talent – not to mention his looks and voice that made him perfectly suited for a certain type of role.
Movie scouts soon spotted Sam’s potential when he was cast in his first movie role in 1967’s ‘The Way West’ as an uncredited townsman.
With only one small role under his belt, producers were quick to realize that Sam’s stoic presence would lend itself well to the Western genre – including one of the most well-loved Westerns of all time.
In the underwhelming role of “Card Player #2”, Sam broke out into bigger box office success in ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’. It was then that he met someone that would prove pivotal to his future, but we’ll get to that.
Soon after, Sam went on to star in TV shows including ‘Lancer’, ‘The Felony Squad’, and ‘Judd For The Defense’ before a more well-known TV role came knocking.
Sam’s first recurring role was in hit TV spy show ‘Mission: Impossible’, which has since become a massive action movie franchise starring Tom Cruise.
He played Dr Doug Robert in season five, which led to other roles in TV shows like ‘Gunsmoke’, and ‘Hawaii Five-O’. But as Sam was offered more big-screen roles, controversy wouldn’t be far behind.
While Sam was very proud of his performance in ‘The Lifeguard’ – one of his first lead roles in a movie – the actor confessed his attitude towards Paramount caused problems for him. He told Cinephiled, “I just said what was on my mind.”
Sam objected to the movie’s marketing, which focused on how he looked in a bathing suit rather than the plot of the movie. He regrets the interviews he gave at the time so much that when he discovered his mother had kept newspaper clippings, he promptly burnt them. But his next role reunited him with someone special from the set of ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
After walking away from Paramount, Sam landed a starring role in horror movie ‘The Legacy’, where he worked with Katharine Ross, an actress he’d met in passing on the set of the Paul Newman Western.
But even though he was a much bigger star by this point, Sam had a huge obstacle to overcome if he was to woo his co-star.
At the time of shooting the movie, Katharine was married to her fourth husband Gaetano Lisi. While nothing was able to happen while she was still Lisi’s wife, Katharine started a romance with Sam the following year after she was divorced.
The pair wed in 1984 and have a daughter, Cleo. And they’re still together today! But on their honeymoon, Sam would receive a phone call that would change the course of his career.
Sam got a call from his agent offering him a role as a biker in emotional drama ‘Mask’ opposite Cher. But being that he was only recently married and kicking back in Hawaii at the time of the call, he said he wouldn’t be able to make the screen test.
But his new wife certainly had something to say about that decision.
Katharine knew Sam couldn’t pass up the chance to be in a movie with Cher and promptly called his agent back herself to say he’d be there.
As it turned out, she was right to do so. ‘Mask’ was a critical and commercial success and Sam gave a solid performance. But there are three movies that Sam thinks best sum up his career.
‘The Big Lebowski’, ‘Tombstone’ and ‘Roadhouse’ are hugely popular movies, but not necessarily ones you would associate with Sam Elliott.
“That’s the big three,” Sam told Vulture. “And it’s really because they repeat them all the time. None of them had great box office, and I wasn’t so good in any of them. You just can’t escape them. They keep showing up.”