By Nadine Bubeck
His career spans nearly 50 years. Often seen sporting a cowboy hat, Sam Elliott is a veteran actor with pop and pizazz. In addition to his vast resume, the Hollywood A-lister continues to indulge in new projects, including co-starring with Ashton Kutcher in The Ranch, and a recurring role in the series Grace and Frankie.
So how has he maintained such success and longevity in the notoriously youth-obsessed entertainment business? Well, simply put––his mustache stands out.
Elliott was born Aug. 9, 1944. He landed his debut role in 1969, appearing in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Through the 70s, he found steady work on TV shows like Gunsmoke, and then earned serious fans with 1989’s Road House. You’ll likely remember his role in the 1998 film The Big Lebowski. Throughout his career, he has played cowboys on TV and in films, including The Quick and the Dead, Tombstone, and The Golden Compass.
The native Californian grew up in Oregon, often playing outdoors or watching movies. According to biography.com, he decided on an acting career at 9 years old.
Surely, that came with skepticism.
Elliott’s father, a worker for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was concerned about his son’s chosen profession. The two were unable to resolve those differences before his dad died of a heart attack when Sam was 18 years old.
“He died thinking, ‘Man, this kid is going to go down the wrong path,'” Elliott said in a later interview. “And I think on some levels that was either hard on me or made me more focused in my resolve to have a career.”
But Elliott’s burning desire for Hollywood was overwhelming.
After moving to Los Angeles, he scored a role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, co-starting Robert Redford and Paul Newman. As luck would have it, that’s where Elliott met Katharine Ross, who was cast as Redford’s lover. Nearly a decade later, Elliott and Ross crossed paths again, fell in love and started a family.
Through the 1970s, Elliott did a lot of TV work, acting in shows such as Mission: Impossible, Gunsmoke, and Hawaii Five-O. He also played Evel Knievel in a TV biopic about the legendary motorcycle-jumping daredevil. While Elliott’s good looks could have placed him in the heartthrob category, he didn’t quite form a conventional Hollywood career. In fact, he often refused leading roles, instead maintaining what would become his signature long hair and handlebar mustache.
“I don’t want to be known as a sex symbol,” he told Playgirl magazine in 1976. “There’s a great stigma that goes with that tag. I want to be a Sam Elliott.”
And that he was.
The real Sam Elliott preferred taking on challenging, supporting roles, like starring opposite Cher and Eric Stoltz in Mask, a drama based on the true story of Rocky Dennis, a boy who suffered from craniodiaphyseal dysplasia. Three years later, Elliott was in 1989’s Road House, playing the mentor to Patrick Swayze’s James Dalton, a bouncer with a mysterious past. With that being said, his most beloved role may have been his performance as The Stranger in the cult classic The Big Lebowski (1998).
Elliott shines portraying Western heroes and outlaws. Over the course of his career, he played wrangling cowboys in television and films including The Quick and the Dead (1987), Houston: The Legend of Texas (1986), Tombstone (1993) and You Know My Name (1999). In 2007, he was even inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum––a well deserved honor.
As quoted on biography.com; Elliott has said of his penchant for westerns: “I think it has something to do with integrity and a man’s word and honor and all that kind of stuff––values, morality, all that kind of stuff that everybody looks kind of down their nose at.”
In 2005, Elliott appeared in Thank You for Smoking, as a former Marlboro Man advertisement cowboy who developed lung cancer. And in 2007, he joined Nicolas Cage in the comic book adaptation Ghost Rider, followed by starting in The Golden Compass as Lee Scoresby.
In 2009, Elliott had a small role in Up In The Air, in which he portrayed the chief pilot of American Airlines. And his career path doesn’t stop there. He has appeared on Parks and Recreation, The Company You Keep, and played a college football coach in 2014’s Draft Day.
Most recently, he played the role of Karl, Lily Tomlin’s former flame, in Grandma. He also joined forces with Blythe Danner in the romance, I’ll See You in My Dreams, and had a role in the independent film Digging for Fire.
His hard work was finally honored in 2015, when he won the Critics’ Choice Television Award for best guest performer in a drama for his role in FX Network’s Justified. Which brings us to today.
Over the last year, Elliot scored a key role in a new Netflix series, The Ranch, alongside Ashton Kutcher and Elisha Cuthbert. The sitcom takes place on a Garrison, Colorado ranch detailing the lives of two brothers trying to run a business. This past April, it was announced that Netflix had renewed The Ranch for a second season. Stay tuned.
On a personal note, Elliott married actress Katharine Ross in 1984. They have a daughter, Cleo Rose Elliott, who is now a musician in Malibu.
Sam Elliott has nearly 100 titles on his professional acting resume, and while he’s played a number of diverse roles, one trumps all: the cowboy. Hollywood is always on the hunt for a really good mustache, and Elliott flaunts perfection. And in most cases, his alter-ego inner cowboy is what keeps him going––and what keeps his career on fire.