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Sam Elliott is a living legend. He's been one of the image holders of American masculinity in Hollywood for years. With an illustrious acting career spanning six decades, Elliot's face has been on our minds for quite some time. Despite that, not many people know that's he's had a pretty turbulent personal life. So much so that we just had to share it with you. Here's what we mean.
For most of you out there, you probably know Sam Elliott for being the manly voice behind the Dodge Ram or Coors commercials. Younger film and television viewers might not even be familiar with his name, no one will ever forget his face. Before getting to his story, let's refresh everyone's memory with his work. Can you remember where he's been?
He was the handsome, eye-candy of a man in movies like "Lifeguard," "The Quick and the Dead." and "The Legacy." These days though, he's most notably known for being a stunningly handsome silver fox. He was in the Coen Brothers' "The Big Lebowski", and most recently made a big impact in the Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper led "A Star is Born" which earned him his first and only Oscar nomination.
Just by watching five minutes worth of any of Sam Elliott's work, you'll know that he brings old school masculinity to the screens. He's definitely known for bringing the energy of the wild west into whatever role he's put into. Frankly, this has been a trademark of his career. It's probably the deep, baritone voice, and of course, that mustache that could give Tom Selleck a run for his money. Let's talk about his life before fame, shall we?
Elliot was definitely born to play tough, masculine cowboy-types simply because he was one himself! Though he was born in California, his mother and father, Glynn and Henry Nelson raised him in Texas. He told Parade magazine: “I’m a sixth-generation Texan!” At 13, he moved to Oregon, and then things started to get difficult for the young Sam Elliott.
Elliot's parents worked as a school teacher and predator control specialist respectively. Sam started to fall in love with films and acting at a young age. which would cause problems between himself and his father. As it's told, this love for the arts caused friction between him and his father.
Henry Nelson, Elliot's father, was a pragmatic man who believed in having a strong work ethic. He never finished college but encouraged his son to pursue academics to build a better life for himself. Unfortunately for him, Sam wasn't very much inclined in pursuing his studies. His father's pragmatism is understandable, but if only he knew what his son was in for.
Henry didn't want his son not to waste his time trying to make it big as an actor. That might have been a foolish pursuit for other people, but he was a strapping young man that believed that he had something special. It would take Sam bouncing around from school to school before he truly knew what he had.
Sam studied at the University of Oregon then transferred to Clark College in Vancouver, Canada. At Clark, Sam was able to get his first taste of acting success. He was cast and starred in a production of 'Guys and Dolls' and was said to have impressed audiences. Despite this event in his life, his father still wanted him to concentrate on his academics. Here's what he did next.
Although he knew that it was against his father's wishes for him to pursue his dream of becoming an actor, Sam couldn't bring himself to give up on it. The actor even shared that even took a piece of his father with him during his journey as an actor saying, "he had a work ethic that I’ve fashioned mine after, and I thank him for that every day.”
Eventually, Sam built up the courage to finally make his move and pursue his dreams. By the time the 60s came rolling in, Elliot decided to pack up his things and move to the bright lights of Los Angeles in the hopes of breaking into the wild world of Hollywood. But things had to get hard before the cameras started rolling.
To make ends meet, Sam had to take up a job other than acting. After all, auditions don't pay the bills, and not every Hollywood actor gets their big break at the very start of their career. Luckily for Sam, he was an athlete in his schooling days. This meant that he had a strong physique, suited for a physically demanding 'everyman's job' as a construction worker. But this was only the start of his Hollywood journey.
While he was working in the construction industry, taking up paying projects ever now and then, Sam also made sure that he was doing other things. He studied acting and even enlisted in the California Air National Guard's Airlift Wing. What a guy, right? This was the time in his life when things finally started to get more interesting.
During one regular day working at a construction project, a family friend decided to invite him to a real-life Hollywood set. One day, while pouring concrete, the family friend who he was working for invited him to see a real-life set! Can you guess what happened next?
Just imagine that at this time Sam Elliott was a tall, well-built young man, a construction and a serving in the National Guard. Let's not forget that he also had some acting experience. All these past and current experiences just seemed to be the perfect foundation for a young man to be placed in manly, masculine acting roles, right?
The quick trip to the Hollywood set was indeed a fruitful one for the aspiring actor. Soon enough, he earned himself a contract with 20th Century Fox. Not long after, Sam started getting cast in small roles in several episodes of "Felony Squad" in 1968. Within a year of his contract, Sam got his first film role! You'll never guess what it was.
For his first film role, Sam Elliott was cast as an extra in a little movie called "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid!" The film was lead by acting legends, Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Of his role, Elliott said: “I had one line, it was off-camera… I was nothing more than a shadow on a wall.” While it was a small role, the experience meant a lot because he met one very significant person.
If you know you're classic western films, you'll remember that the leading lady in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was played by the stunning Katharine Ross. While Sam was just an extra in the film, seeing Ross left him stunned. She definitely made an impression on the young actor. Here's more on Ross.
Ross is an Oscar-nominated actress. She is most famous for playing roles like Elaine Robinson in The Graduate, and for beating Diane Keaton for the lead role of Joana in the classic The Stepford Wives. Indie film lovers will also know her as Dr. Lilian Thurman from Donnie Darko, the film that launched Jake Gyllenhaal's career. Now back to Sam Elliott.
After his film debut, Elliot's acting career finally started to take off. His early roles were mostly one-off spots in television shows like "The Land of The Giants," "The FBI," "Lancer," and "Bracken's World." As he was honing his craft and continuing to work under contract for 20th Century Fox, his true big break came in 1970.
All of Elliot's hard work prior finally started to reap rewards for the actor. In 1970, Elliot was awarded his first recurring television role as Doug Robert in the popular television show, "Mission: Impossible." His name started to get some traction, and no one could get enough of the cowboy with the deep voice and mustache. Though, it didn't always play out the way he would have liked.
In 1980, Elliot shared that the early days of his career were met with a lot of roadblocks, especially in the casting room. “You cannot believe the casting couch stories I could tell you, man,” he said. We did say they couldn't get enough of him. He also mentioned that it may have slowed him down too.
In the same interview, Elliot recalled that "It’s probably hurt me, but I’m the one who has to live with that guilt. My conscience is clear, even though my career is still not setting the world on fire.” Regardless, of the impact it had on his early career, we're glad that Elliot kept his integrity instead. After all, it worked out in his favor anyway.
After years of working hard and dodging sketchy people, Sam Elliott got his first starring role. In 1976, he was cast in the steamy summer film, "Lifeguard." The film's plot revolved around him, a lifeguard, contemplating his career's future, and a teenage girl's obsession with him. Time to go big, right? Wrong, his debut in a leading role didn't pan out so well.
Elliot revealed that he wasn't very keen on how Paramount marketed the film. It was positioned as a melodrama as a sun-soaked teenage melodrama, which the actor disliked very much. The actor even complained to the press about his during the time of its promotion. He held nothing back and it got him in trouble.
He told NPR in 2017, “The one sheet [poster] for that film was an animated piece, and it had me in a pair of Speedos and a big busted girl on either arm, and it said, 'Every girl's summer dream' over the top of it. And I was like, wow.” It's also said that his complaints to the press back in the 70s kept him from getting hired by Paramount again.
It could be argued that the two years that followed "Lifeguard" were pretty slow for Elliot. He only landed a couple of projects, but definitely made the most out of them. He was cast in main castmember roles on two tv mini-series, Aspen and Once and Eagle. These two years would be followed by a very very important project for Elliot.
Remember when we said that Sam was stunned by the beautiful Katharine Ross? Well, in an amazing twist of fate, Sam would once again be able to work with the woman that wowed him so many years prior. The two were cast in1978 horror film, "The Legacy." This time around, Sam made sure to give Katharine a piece of his mind and heart.
So how do you think Ross reacted to Elliot's sudden profession of his love? As history tells us, the two fell madly in love. She was talented and beautiful and he was one of Hollywood's most eligible bachelors. Sparks were definitely flying this time around. When The Legacy hit theaters around the world, there was no doubting the couples' chemistry.
By 1979, Katharine had finalized her divorce from Lisi. Later that year, Playgirl magazine dubbed Sam Elliot and Katharine Ross Hollywood's Sexiest Couple. Despite all the love and passion they had for each other, Sam and Katharine didn't rush into marriage. As a matter of fact, they'd wait until 1984 to tie the knot. Boy, was it a good year too!
1984 would prove to be a great year for Elliot and Ross. Not only did they tie the knot, but they also welcomed their daughter, Cleo Rose Elliot. Family events weren't the only thing that seemed to bless this new family. It was also a casting call that graced them, but Sam - being the stand-up guy he was - turned it down in favor of spending time with his new wife and daughter.
The film he was called to star in was none other than 'Mask.' Who else was in that film? Well, there was the signing, and acting sensation Cher. Despite the heartwarming decision that Sam made, Katharine knew better! She convinced her beloved husband that this was an opportunity of a lifetime that he shouldn't pass up. So what did he do?
Sam did what any husband with a brain should do, listen to his wife! "Mask" ended up being a critical and commercial success. It earned Cher a Golden Globe. After Mask, Sam's career had what was like a second wind. From 1985 to 1991, he had a film role every year, as well as several tv roles that made him even more of a household name. He and Katharine even starred in Conagher which saw him get nominated for a Golden Globe award for Best Actor.
When most people think of Sam Elliott, they imagine him in a western setting with a cowboy hat on his heard. In 2007, he was honored by the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum and was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers. Some of his best westerns are The Tombstone, The Quick and the Dead, The Hi-Lo Country, and You Know My Name. Here's more of his work that you may know.
Another film that has added to the mythology of Sam Elliott is the Coen brothers' "The Big Lebowski." He plays the iconic narrator who also makes a cameo in the film. As it turns out the Coen brothers loved the way he delivered his lines so much that the shot extra takes of his scene just so that they could keep hearing him speak.
Finally, Elliot's life may have been full of ups, downs, and even some curve-balls along the way. Despite that, he's turned out to be an amazing actor that has given us unforgettable performances. He and his love, Katharine Ross have even proved to be one of the longest-standing Hollywood couples around. A true inspiration.
What do you think about Sam Elliott's life story? Which of his films is your favorite? It's a western, isn't it? Let us know in the comment section. If you had fun reading about this actor's life, you might enjoy reading about the other stories we cover on Amomedia.