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A laconic performer whose trademark bushy mustache and deep gravely voice made him perfect for Western roles, actor Sam Elliott unfortunately emerged at a time when that particular genre had run its course. As one of the last actors to sign an exclusive contract under the old studio system, Elliott struggled to find his footing in the feature world, which led to getting his start on the small screen with a regular series role on "Mission: Impossible" (CBS, 1966-1973) during the show's last season. Following several made-for-television movies and guest starring roles on episodes of "Hawaii Five-O" (CBS, 1968-1980) and "Police Woman" (NBC, 1974-78), he earned critical acclaim - as well as the enmity of Paramount Pictures - for his leading role in the cult favorite, "Lifeguard" (1976). But Elliott made his greatest impression in the following decade, particularly as a rough-and-tumble, but good-hearted biker in "Mask" (1985), a performance that brought the actor widespread attention. From there, Elliott went back and forth between television and features, turning in one quality performance after another, many of which were variations on the gruff cowboy or the tough, but wise authority figure. Though...
A laconic performer whose trademark bushy mustache and deep gravely voice made him perfect for Western roles, actor Sam Elliott unfortunately emerged at a time when that particular genre had run its course. As one of the last actors to sign an exclusive contract under the old studio system, Elliott struggled to find his footing in the feature world, which led to getting his start on the small screen with a regular series role on "Mission: Impossible" (CBS, 1966-1973) during the show's last season. Following several made-for-television movies and guest starring roles on episodes of "Hawaii Five-O" (CBS, 1968-1980) and "Police Woman" (NBC, 1974-78), he earned critical acclaim - as well as the enmity of Paramount Pictures - for his leading role in the cult favorite, "Lifeguard" (1976). But Elliott made his greatest impression in the following decade, particularly as a rough-and-tumble, but good-hearted biker in "Mask" (1985), a performance that brought the actor widespread attention. From there, Elliott went back and forth between television and features, turning in one quality performance after another, many of which were variations on the gruff cowboy or the tough, but wise authority figure. Though initially frustrated with playing virtually the same role in numerous projects, Elliott came to appreciate the fortune given to him. With rock solid supporting performances in "Tombstone" (1993), "The Big Lebowski" (1998), "The Contender" (2000) and "Thank You for Smoking" (2006), Elliott had established himself as one of Hollywood's most prolific and sought-after character actors.
Born on Aug. 9, 1944 in Sacramento, CA, Elliott was raised by his father, an official for the Fish and Wildlife Service of the Department of the Interior, and his mother, a physical training instructor, who supported her nine-year-old son's ambition to become an actor. When he was a teenager, Elliott's family relocated to Portland, OR, where he attended David Douglas High School. Because his father was the complete opposite of his mother and did not support his acting desires, Elliott moved on to attend college in Vancouver, WA, where he completed a two-year program at Clark College while gaining valuable stage experience as on of the leads in "Guys and Dolls." He soon moved on to the University of Oregon, but left before his senior year after his dad passed away and moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting in earnest. After attending the Columbia Pictures Film Workshop, Elliott signed a contract with 20th Century Fox at around the same time as future television star Tom Selleck, becoming one of the last actors to do so under the old studio system. Before long, he made his feature debut as an anonymous card player in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969), though the dying Western genre - for which his rugged looks were perfect - left the young actor struggling to find work.
Elliott soon found himself on loan to Paramount where the newly clean-shaven actor joined the cast of the long-running spy series "Mission: Impossible" (CBS, 1966-1973) for its final season, starring as Dr. Doug Robert (alias Lang), a medical expert who also specialized in role playing and rendering perpetrators unconscious with a drugged needle. Despite a misstep into feature leads with the dreadful horror film "Frogs" (1972), Elliott logged some significant screen time in two highly-acclaimed small screen projects with the miniseries "The Blue Knight" (NBC, 1973) and the made-for-television movie "I Will Fight No More Forever" (ABC, 1975). Meanwhile, he landed guest starring appearances on a variety of notable series including "Mannix" (CBS, 1967-1975), "Hawaii Five-O" (CBS, 1968-1980) and "Police Woman" (NBC, 1974-78). Following a starring role on the busted pilot for "Evel Knievel" (CBS, 1974), Elliott landed his breakthrough role with a critically acclaimed performance in the title role of the cult film "Lifeguard" (1976), in which he displayed an imposing physical presence as an aging beach bum who falls in love with his former high school flame (Anne Archer), leading to a re-examination of his career and lifestyle.
Perhaps due a public falling out with Paramount over his objections to their suggestive "Lifeguard" marketing campaign of him as every girl's summer dream man, Elliot had a less-than-worthy follow-up with "The Legacy" (1979), a second-rate gothic horror centered around the demonic possession of a English country home that introduced him to co-star and future wife, Katharine Ross. Turning again to television, the actor was finally able to establish himself as the quintessential cowboy in the miniseries "Louis L'Amour's The Sacketts" (NBC, 1979) and "Louis L'Amour's The Shadow Riders" (CBS, 1982), both of which starred fellow mustachioed actor Tom Selleck. In between, Elliott stayed in the realm of television with roles in the miniseries "Wild Times" (syndicated, 1980) and the real-life courtroom thriller "Murder in Texas" (NBC, 1981). By this point in his career, Elliott's bushy mustache had practically become a trademark, which only added to the middle aged actor's laconic, leathery appeal. Unfortunately, a regular role on the series "The Yellow Rose" (1983-84), a barbecue-flavored primetime soap developed to rival "Dallas" (CBS, 1978-1991), failed to ignite audiences. Meanwhile, he continued appearing on the small screen in titles like "A Death in California" (ABC, 1985) and "The Blue Lightening" (CBS, 1986).
Elliott returned to features after a six year absence with an acclaimed turn as Cher's tough, but tender biker boyfriend Gar in "Mask" (1985), director Peter Bogdanovich's poignant true-to-life drama about Rocky Dennis (Eric Stoltz), a charismatic young man who struggles to deal with a horrible facial disfigurement caused by Craniodiaphyseal dysplasia, otherwise known as lionitis. His accomplished performance reignited his film career, leading to a supporting role in "Fatal Beauty" (1987), starring Whoopi Goldberg, and a leading part as a veteran cop partnered with an idealistic lawyer (Peter Weller) in the crime drama "Shakedown" (1988). He delivered solid supporting performances as a no-nonsense father in "Prancer" (1989) and the mentor to a professional bouncer (Patrick Swayze) trying to clean up a rough-and-tumble bar in the ridiculous cult favorite, "Road House" (1989). After playing the potential love interest to an ignored housewife (Kirstie Alley) in "Sibling Rivalry" (1990), Elliott put pen to paper as the co-writer and also star of "Conagher" (1991), an adaptation of the Louis L'Amour novel that became one of the cable network's highest-rated originals. Meanwhile, he co-starred as the overzealous boss to a pair of drug-addicted undercover cops (Jason Patric and Jennifer Jason Leigh) in the underrated "Rush" (1991).
Amidst a cast of heavy hitters that included Tom Berenger, Jeff Daniels and Martin Sheen, Elliott was excellent as Major General John Buford, the unsung hero of "Gettysburg" (1993), whose tiny force checked the advance of Confederate corps, insuring Union control of the "good ground." Also that year, he provided rock solid support as the older and wiser brother Virgil Earp in "Tombstone" (1993), who comes to the lawless silver mining town with Morgan (Bill Paxton) and Wyatt (Kurt Russell) to strike it rich, only to find themselves in a bloody battle with a band of outlaws. After portraying an unforgiving marshal in "The Desperate Trail" (1994), he delivered an Emmy-nominated turn as Wild Bill Hickock in the miniseries "Buffalo Girls" (CBS, 1995). Following a turn as a retired bomb expert in the direct-to-video thriller "The Final Cut" (1995), he played Captain Bucky O'Neill opposite Tom Berenger's Theodore Roosevelt in "The Rough Riders" (TNT, 1997), which depicted the events at the Battle of San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War.
Back on the big screen, Elliott essayed a villainous corporate rancher antagonizing two World War II vets (Woody Harrelson and Billy Crudup) trying to live like Old West cowboys in the New Mexico countryside in "The Hi-Lo Country" (1998). That same year, he joined an excellent cast for the Coen Brother's cult classic "The Big Lebowski" (1998), playing a mysterious stranger who enjoys Sarsaparilla and narrates the film from a bowling alley bar while engaging in seemingly idle conversation with The Dude (Jeff Bridges). Elliot next played legendary lawman-turned-filmmaker Bill Tilghman in "You Know My Name" (TNT, 1999), which he executive produced while receiving excellent reviews for his tough-as-nails portrayal. The aging actor enjoyed something of a rediscovery when he played a hardened politico dealing with the alleged scandalous past of a potential vice presidential pick (Joan Allen) in writer-director Rod Lurie's sizzling political drama "The Contender" (2000), a performance that earned serious plaudits from critics while impressing audiences with his intense acting range. That same year, director Stephen Frears and producer George Clooney tapped Elliott to appear as a congressman in an all-star television production - including Richard Dreyfuss, Brian Dennehy and Harvey Keitel - of the classic Cold War thriller "Fail Safe" (CBS, 2000), which was performed as a live broadcast.
Elliott's next high profile turn came with a role in the Vietnam drama "We Were Soliders" (2002), playing real life Army officer Basil L. Plumley opposite Mel Gibson's Lt. Col. Hal Moore in this narrative depiction of the Battle of Ia Drang, the first major battle of the war. Following a standout performance as Gen. "Thunderbolt" Ross in director Ang Lee's angst-driven adaptation of the comic book creature "The Hulk" (2003), Elliott delivered an atypical performance as the depressed father of an eccentric family in small town New Mexico being held together by their bohemian mother (Joan Allen) in Campbell Scott's understated drama, "Off the Map" (2005). Elliott next appeared as a fictional former Marlboro Man dying of cancer, who allows himself to be bribed out of an anti-smoking campaign by an unapologetic tobacco lobbyist (Aaron Eckhart) in Jason Reitman's acclaimed satire, "Thank You for Smoking" (2006). That same year, he starred in "Avenger" (TNT, 2006), a vigilante thriller directed by Wolfgang Petersen in which he played a small town lawyer and former Special Forces soldier who goes on a mission to avenge the murder of his daughter.
Back on the big screen, Elliot voiced Ben the Crow in the animated "Barnyard: The Original Party Animals" (2006) before landing small, but critical roles as the Caretaker in "Ghost Rider" (2007) and a Texan aeronaut who helps a young girl (Dakota Blue Richards) fight evil and rescue her best friend in "The Golden Compass" (2007). Reuniting with director Jason Reitman, he played a chief airline pilot who informs a world-weary downsizing consultant (George Clooney) that he is the youngest person to fly 10 million miles in their lifetime in the critically acclaimed dramedy "Up in the Air" (2009). Following a supporting role opposite stars Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker in the rather forgettable romantic comedy "Did You Hear about the Morgans?" (2009), Elliott voiced the elderly English Mastiff Buster in the live action and critically maligned "Marmaduke" (2010). Returning the to small screen, he played a neighboring farmer who helps two distraught parents (John Corbett and Sarah Paulson) give their seriously ill eight-year-old daughter an early Christmas in "November Christmas" (CBS, 2010).
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"A few years back, in comes this script 'The Big Lebowski'. I'm thinking, 'Wow. A contemporary movie, a funny movie with the Coen brothers.' I start reading and here comes the character they want for me--and it's a fucking cowboy! So it's like, 'Is there an escape for me from this genre?' I don't know." --Elliott quoted in MOVIELINE, August 1999
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