SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Sam Elliott is thinking about the old days. About when he was just starting out in Hollywood in the late 60s as a contract player for 20th Century Fox, getting paid $85 a week and paying $85 a month for a little bachelor apartment near the studio gate. About how William Holden once took him to get a French Dip sandwich to calm his nerves after he froze up in a scene. About working with Jimmy Stewart and Slim Pickens and Ben Johnson.
They’re stories he’s told before, and will tell again, but there’s something else going on behind that all-too-familiar baritone.
As Elliott goes down the list of the people who helped the Saturday matinee obsessed kid get his start in Hollywood there comes a pause after every name and a sentence that will be repeated often. “Who is now deceased,” the 72-year-old says matter-of-factly.
It’s not that it’s a surprise for a man whose career has spanned 50 years. But this moment is different.
Blame it on “The Hero.”
“All of these people in my past at that period of time are gone. And I really wish they were here — particularly right now,” Elliott says on a recent afternoon in a sunny booth at the art deco Hotel Shangri-La in Santa Monica. “There’s something about ‘The Hero’ that sums it all up for me. If I never worked again after this movie, I’d be good with it.”
“The Hero,” out in limited release Friday, is a film that was made, literally, for Elliott. He plays Lee Hayden, a past-his-prime Western icon, who’s not getting roles anymore (only voiceover work), is estranged from his adult daughter (Krysten Ritter) and spends his days smoking weed with a friend (Nick Offerman). Then he gets the call — he has cancer.
It’s the first time anyone has written an entire script for Elliott, who has attained icon status in his half century of work playing strong and silent Western types, and send-ups of those men, from Virgil Earp in “Tombstone” to “The Stranger” in “The Big Lebowski.” And he doesn’t expect that it’ll ever happen again.
“We basically took what we loved about Sam, the legacy that he has, and we made him less famous, less successful and more of a screw-up,” said the film’s director and co-writer Brett Haley, who first bonded with the actor when he cast him as the man to sweep Blythe Danner off her feet in the charming indie “I’ll See You in My Dreams.”
A lack of work is not something that Elliott has to contend with either. In fact, he’s busier than ever juggling the shooting schedule of the Netflix sitcom “The Ranch,” with films and press in between. He just wrapped on Bradley Cooper’s remake of “A Star Is Born” (he plays Cooper’s agent) and will soon be off to do another film in Massachusetts.
“I’ve never had a schedule like this one. It’s like the order went down, ‘Don’t give him a minute’s free time,'” he says with a self-deprecating smile. “I’m embarrassed about the riches.”
He suspects his wife, actress Katharine Ross, is a little worried about him.
Elliott and Ross have been married for 33 years, and living in Malibu since they met. They have dogs and cats and chickens and worry about the Santa Ana winds and every year wonder whether or not the fires will blow their way. He misses the time when they could ride horses up and down the beach.
“We’ve had a really wonderful life together,” says Elliott, who married Ross, turned 40, and had his first and only child Cleo in the same year. “It didn’t come early, but it came.”
It pains him to think about how different his second act in Hollywood has been from Ross’. She actually had a bigger part in “The Hero,” but it was mostly cut.
“It’s brutal on her, as you’d expect because she’s a woman … Hollywood’s tendency for casting the woman out when she’s past 10-years-old,” Elliott says grimly. “I think she thinks that she has no value anymore, on some level, in the business.”
You get the sense that Elliott, who often ends sentences with a deeply sincere and elongated “incredible,” is infinitely more interested in others than himself — the antithesis of most actors. He wants “The Hero” to succeed so that Haley can move on with his directing career. He thinks about his legacy not in terms of his career or body of work, but his family. And he’s quick to point out that he is not his characters.
“I’m not those guys up there. That’s not who I am. It’s what I do. So many people confuse that. They think that that’s me. That’s me playing the part. I’m not one of those chameleon type actors that changes his visage and sound every time,” he says.
He will concede, however, that it has been a strange thing to watch himself grow old on film.
“I looked at this film last week and thought, ‘Jesus Christ I look old.’ It’s amazing. I don’t feel old. I don’t feel like that 72-year-old,” he says with a faraway smile. “Maybe 32.”
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr