Contributing Folklorist, Ron Carmean, continues his love affair with Hollywood cowboys. Today, Ron tells us about his favorite cinematic gun toter, Sam Elliott. Read on and you may well find yourself saying, “Oh yeah, I remember that guy!”
John Wayne died in 1979. Five years earlier he had been elected to the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum Hall of Fame, formerly the Cowboy Hall of Fame. But Hollywood cowboys did not die with Wayne. It wasn’t long before several picked up his trail and made names for themselves. Who stood out among them? My nominee would be Sam Elliott.
Elliott’s famous trademark is his world’s finest mustache. Many men would pay cash money to have one like his. Then, too, there’s the voice. It’s the equal of James Earl Jones’. You’ll recognize it when you hear it. It’s the voice of Coors beer and Dodge Ram trucks. It may be very similar to the voice we hear on Judgment day when, hopefully, it will give us good news. Combine those qualities with his height (6’2″) and muscular physique, plus his Hollywood’s Best Cowboy statement, “I’ve spent my entire career on horseback or on a motorcycle,” and you have Hollywood’s Best Cowboy.
Wait a minute, you say. He looks and sounds like an ideal cowboy should. But can he act like one, and not just once or twice? Elliott has been in over 80 roles, on TV and in theaters. At least 15 were westerns. I’ll give you my top five. The first two were adaptations of Louis L’Amour books for TV movies: “The Sacketts” (1979) and “The Shadow Riders” (1982). Elliott is joined in both films by Tom Selleck and both give fine performances aided by significant facial hair. They fight gamblers, do some prospecting and cattle herding, carry out some legitimate killing which provokes relatives of the slain bad guys to retaliate…and regret it. They survive everything. Tough guys with right on their side always triumph.
Moving to the big screen, Sam and friends gave their version of the Gunfight at the OK Corral in “Tombstone.” (1993). Wyatt Earp himself, living in LA many years later, said films were making too much of a street fight that lasted a few minutes. Nevertheless, all actors acquit themselves well and once again Wyatt wins. Sam plays the oldest Earp brother, Virgil, who is wounded. The film’s highest point is the performance of Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday. Both Siskel and Ebert thought it was Oscar worthy. I agree.
Elliott’s finest work came in “Conagher” (1991). He and real-life wife, Katherine Ross (Dustin Hoffman’s love interest in “The Graduate”) adapted another L’Amour story for TV. Sam was nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Actor in a TV Movie. He portrayed an honest, hard-working cowboy trying to herd cattle for his employer while fighting Indians, outlaws, a turncoat wrangler, loneliness on the range, and some really nasty weather. In the end, he overcomes everyone and everything and wins the hand of a frontier widow with a remarkable resemblance to his actual wife. Joking aside, it was an extremely accurate portrayal of cowboy life herding cattle.
The work for which Sam Elliott may be best known is his performance as The Stranger who narrates “The Big Lebowski.” He converses with The Dude during the film. Sam gives Jeff Bridges what I call “The Full Elliott” featuring the big cowboy hat, the fullest of mustaches, and a voice deeper than the Marianas Trench proclaiming “The Dude Abides.” It is these three words his fans request when meeting him on the street.
Elliott’s career began playing Card Player #2 in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969). He went on to play Wild Bill Hickok and Virgil Earp. In “Thank You for Smoking,” a scene called for him to threaten a visitor on his property. The director came on the set to find no crew member had furnished a gun. Elliott had arranged to use his own Winchester 1894 rifle. Why does he like playing in westerns? “I think it has something to do with integrity and a man’s word and honor.”
In 2007, Elliott was elected to the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum Hall of Fame. Good enough for me.