With his trademark mustache, commanding voice, and rugged physique, actor Sam Elliott spent much of his career playing cowboys and soldiers, but he has also stretched his acting prowess by tackling more sensitive roles. His career has spanned more than half a century and has included some iconic films from Hollywood’s history.
Sam Elliott came by his “man’s man” persona honestly. While trying to break into show business in the 1960s, he moonlighted as a construction worker and day laborer. Today, he owns two ranches – outside Malibu and one in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Oh, and he got the girl. Elliott has been married to actress Katharine Ross, who played Robert Redford’s girlfriend in the 1969 movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, for nearly 40 years.
Sam Elliott Disappointed His Dad
Born in 1944 in Sacramento, California, Samuel Pack Elliott’s father was an animal control officer and his mother, a former high school state diving champion in her home state of Texas, was a gym teacher. His father tried to steer the teenage Elliott toward a college degree, but Sam Elliott wasn’t interested in following a traditional path.
Like many high schoolers, Sam Elliott didn’t want to listen to his dad’s advice. The two struggled to find common ground. Even though they didn’t see eye-to-eye on Sam’s goals for the future, Elliott insists that he got his determination and strong work ethic from his father.
Sam Elliott Was a Drop Out
At his father’s insistence, Sam Elliott enrolled in classes at the University of Oregon. His declared majors were English and psychology but dropped out after just two semesters. He returned home and took classes at a nearby community college. There, he performed in a school presentation of Guys and Dolls, playing the role of Big Jule.
The local newspaper praised his performances in the stage play and even stated that Elliott was so good, he should be a movie actor. Thrilled by the rave review, Sam Elliott set his sights on Hollywood, against his father’s wishes. Ever a realist, his father understood how difficult it would be to break into show business.
It Took a Life-Altering Event to Convince Him to Follow His Dreams
When his father died unexpectedly of a heart attack, Sam Elliott’s world was shattered. When he got over the shock of his loss, Elliott took the opportunity to evaluate his own life. With his new-found realization that life is short and unpredictable, Elliott decided to pursue his dream.
Sam Elliott moved to Los Angeles in the late 1960s. He took a job in the construction field, signed up for acting classes, and joined the California Air National Guard. In his spare time, he attended auditions. Casting directors began to take notice of this tall, handsome actor with the rich, deep voice.
Breaking into Show Business
Sam Elliott’s first movie appearance was as an uncredited extra in The Way West, a Western that was released in 1967. After that, he was cast in several small television roles. Elliott was learning the business and honing his acting skills, waiting for bigger roles to come his way.
Early in his career, Elliott landed a minor part in one of the biggest, most iconic Western films ever made, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The 1969 film starred Paul Newman and Robert Redford as the infamous Old West outlaws. Elliott appeared as a poker player in the opening scene of the film when the Sundance Kid shows off his marksmanship ability.
Prelude to a Lifelong Romance
Although he didn’t know it at the time, Sam Elliott would later marry one of the stars of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Katharine Ross had a lead role as Etta Place, the Sundance Kid’s girlfriend, but it wasn’t until a decade later that she and Elliott became romantically involved.
Sam Elliott and Katharine Ross didn’t share any scenes together in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In fact, they didn’t interact with each other at all. In an interview with AARP The Magazine in 2015, Elliott explained, “I didn’t dare try to talk to her then. She was the leading lady; I was … a glorified extra.”
Sam Elliott and Katharine Ross Made Eight Films Together
Although Sam Elliott and Katharine Ross first shared movie credits on the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and later reconnected on the set of The Legacy in 1978, their joint projects don’t stop there. In all, Elliott and Ross appeared in eight films together.
Ross and Elliott both starred in Murder in Texas in 1981, followed by The Shadow Rider in 1982 and Travis McGee in 1983. After that, the couple appeared in the 1986 film, Gone in Texas. In 1991, they starred in Conagher. The most recent joint project was the 2017 movie, The Hero.
Breakout Roles and Beefcake Poses
Following his appearance in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Sam Elliott took a starring role in the hit television series, Mission: Impossible, playing Doug Roberts in the 1970-1971 season. He followed this up with the made-for-TV movie, I Will Fight No More Forever, in which he was cast in the lead role.
Elliott also appeared in the TV miniseries, Once an Eagle, in 1976. That same year marked his breakout movie role when he starred in the summer beach flick, Lifeguard. The film wasn’t a blockbuster hit, but it did feature plenty of beefcake scenes of the Speedo-wearing, bare-chested Sam Elliott so Lifeguard had eye-candy value.
A Leading Man
After the recognition he got from Lifeguard, Sam Elliott was finally viewed as leading man material. More significant roles came his way, including a starring role in a 1981 television miniseries, Murder in Texas, alongside Farrah Fawcett and Katharine Ross.
This time, Elliott did work up the nerve to talk to the beautiful Katharine Ross. To his surprise, they had a lot in common and enjoyed each other’s company. The only problem was that Ross was still married to her third husband. Once her divorce was finalized, Elliott and Ross took the plunge. They married in 1984 … Elliott’s first and only marriage; Ross’s fourth and final one.
Sam Elliott and Katharine Ross’s Hawaiian Honeymoon Was Cut Short
The newlywed Sam Elliott and Katharine Ross honeymooned in beautiful Hawaii and enjoyed lazy days on the beach together. But then Elliott’s agent called. He had a role he wanted Elliott to audition for, so he asked him to return to California. Elliott didn’t want to cut his honeymoon short. He turned down the offer.
Katharine Ross, however, had a feeling that he should attend the audition. She reached out to Elliott’s agent and assured him that she would have her new husband back in time for the audition. Her intuition proved to be spot on. The role was the biker boyfriend of Cher’s character in the Academy Award winning film, Mask.
Sam Elliott’s Performance in Mask … Tough Yet Vulnerable
Sam Elliott’s performance in the film Mask is widely celebrated as a poignant and memorable portrayal. Elliott, in the role of Gar, Rocky’s motorcycle-riding, unconventional biker father, delivers a standout performance that adds depth and emotional resonance to the film. Elliott brings a rugged authenticity and warmth to his character, capturing the complexities of a father navigating the challenges of raising a son with a visible difference.
Elliott’s portrayal is marked by a delicate balance of toughness and vulnerability, creating a memorable and compelling father figure. Elliott’s nuanced performance in Mask contributes significantly to the film’s emotional impact, making it a standout moment in his extensive and illustrious career.
Sam Elliott View on Typecasting: If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them
From his physique to his prominent mustache, Sam Elliott gave off cowboy vibes, so he was often typecast as a Western character. For a time, he tried to resist typecasting, but he eventually decided to embrace it. He teamed up with hunky Tom Selleck to star in a miniseries based on Louis L’Amour’s The Sacketts.
Elliott and Selleck reprised their partnership in another Louis L’Amour film, The Shadow Riders, in 1982. He portrayed Wild Bill Hickok in Buffalo Girls, Sam Houston in Gone to Texas, Brigadier General John Buford in Gettysburg, and Virgil Earp in Tombstone. In the 1998 film, The Big Lebowski, Elliott played the cowboy narrator.
A Critic’s Choice Award Winner
In 2015, Sam Elliott won the Critic’s Choice Award for Best Guest Performers in a Television Drama for his portrayal of Avery Markham on the hit FX series, “Justified.” The television series is based on Elmore Leonard’s novels, primarily centered around the character Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, portrayed by Timothy Olyphant. The series follows Raylan’s return to his hometown in rural Kentucky, where he finds himself dealing with old acquaintances, criminals, and family issues.
Elliott’s appearance in the series takes place during Season 6, the show’s final season. His character is a prominent marijuana grower from Colorado who relocates to Kentucky, where the show is set. His commanding performance injected new life into the series, although not enough to save it from being canceled.
Sam Elliott and Katharine Ross Received Western Heritage Awards
In 2018, both Sam Elliott and his wife, Katharine Ross, were honored by the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, with their prestigious Western Heritage Awards.
Both actors were selected for their body of work and the contributions they made to western heritage through the characters they played on the big screen. The could is featured prominently on the museum’s website.
From Leading Man to Older, Wiser Supporting Character
As he aged, Sam Elliott found himself cast in supporting roles, often as the older, wiser confidant of the film’s main character. In the 1989 movie, Road House, Elliott played the bouncer and mentor to Patrick Swayze’s character. He portrayed the gruff father in Prancer.
Sam Elliott earned his first and only Academy Award nomination for his role as Bradley Cooper’s character’s older brother in the 2018 hit, A Star Is Born. He also earned the Best Supporting Actor by the National Board of Review and a Screen Actors Guild nomination for supporting actor. When he learned about his Oscar nomination, Elliott commented, “It’s about time!”
Sam Elliott’s Recognizable Voice
Sam Elliott has been blessed with a distinctive voice. Naturally, he has been tapped to do voice work. He was the voice of Buster in Marmaduke, Butch in The Good Dinosaur, Fleetwood Yak in Rock Dog, and Trusty in the 2019 remake of Lady and the Tramp.
He also lent his voice to animated television series, American Dad! and Family Guy. Elliott’s voice can be heard in TV commercials for IBM, Union Pacific, Ram trucks, the American Beef Council, and Coors beer. He has been the voice of Smokey Bear since 2008 and, ironically, he shared a birthday August 9, 1944 with this classic American character.
A Whole New Generation of Fans
Sam Elliott gained a whole new generation of fans starting in 2022 when he took the starring role of Shea Brennan in the Paramount+ limited series, 1883. The much-anticipated prequel to the acclaimed Yellowstone series, which stars Kevin Costner, 1883 focuses on Brennan and a group of immigrants who journey from Texas to the plains of Montana.
1883 lays the background story for Yellowstone and explains how the Dutton family acquired their Montana ranch. Elliott’s performance in the series was highly praised and earned him a Screen Actors Guild Award in the category of Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Miniseries or Television Movie.
Sam Elliott Is Still Going Strong
At nearly 80 years old, Sam Elliott is showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, he has several upcoming projects in the works. He splits his time between his Malibu seaside ranch, which he purchased in the late 1970s, and another ranch located in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
Next year, he will celebrate his 40th wedding anniversary with his wife, Katharine Ross. Their long marriage is a rarity in Hollywood and a testament to their love and devotion. The couple has one child, a daughter named Cleo who works as a musician.
An Icon of the American Entertainment Industry
Sam Elliott may not have an Oscar award sitting on his mantle, but he is, nonetheless, a Hollywood icon and a national treasure. His appearance, attitude, and voice all demonstrate the rugged, outdoorsy, cowboy persona, making his portrayals of historic and fictional Western figures all the more believable.
Not one to be pigeonholed, Elliott has shown that he is a versatile talent who can stand the test of time. From an extra in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to a bikini-clad heartthrob in Lifeguard to the rough-around-the-edges biker in Mask and his many roles as historic cowboys, Sam Elliott’s body of work speaks for itself.