Some actors struggle as they age to find work, even leading men find themselves adapting to age, available roles and changing audience tastes. It happens.
Sam Elliott has had a very interesting career arc. A young actor, he was mainly a television actor, making the rounds of series and television movies. He was even a member of the MI Force on Mission Impossible for part of a season, replacing the popular strongman, Peter Lupus. His break came in a film called Lifeguard, which showed off his beefy good looks and soulful voice. The film utilized his athletic build, but seemed to typecast him. He appeared in several other, less than stellar films like The Legacy (1976). The one outstanding feature he appeared in was Mask, co-starring Cher and Eric Stoltz, however, television mini-series and TV movies proved to be his meal ticket.
Television Westerns were a perfect landing spot for Elliott. From the late 1970s to the middle 1980s, Elliott made a string of Westerns including The Sacketts, Wild Times, The Shadow Riders, Gone to Texas, The Quick and the Dead, and co-starred in a modern Western television series, The Yellow Rose. These roles allowed Elliott to move to feature films.
Fatal Beauty, Shakedown, Road House, Prancer, Rush, Gettysburg and Tombstone were high profile, feature film roles of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Elliott kept his hand in television, mostly Western films and mini series, like Buffalo Girls and The Desperate Trail. Elliott was now around age 50 and settling into character roles. He could be the Stranger in The Big Lebowski one day and Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley in We Were Soldiers the next. Even though his hair was now mostly gray, he defied age to play many quirky, independent characters. Usually he had that big, bushy mustache and often wore his hair uncharacteristically long. Did he look his age? No. As he aged, Elliott looked more comfortable. His handsome face didn’t age, it grew more defined. His slow, warm, deeply soulful voice made him a lot of money as a voice artist.
Elliott did not limit himself to Westerns and he was not always the hero or a weird sidekick, he played contemporary characters like a Congressman in Fail Safe (2000) and in The Contender (2000) a Presidential aide. For the next 20 years, Elliott would take a variety of roles, sometimes cameos and starring roles in small films. The one thing you can say about Sam Elliott is that he might have been typecast as a young actor, but he shed that dilemma and has navigated a career full of different, interesting roles. Not many 76 year old actors are in demand like Sam Elliott.
Here are four of the films Elliott has made in the last eleven years. There is very little in common between these films, only Sam Elliott.
November Christmas (2010) was a Hallmark Hall of Fame television film. It is one of my favorite Hallmark films. Yes, it is a bit weepy, but not artificially so. It is a poignant story of heart and faith.
Elliott is not the star of the film, it is really an ensemble cast, but he has a key role. He is a neighbor of a family with a sick girl, Vanessa, who may not survive to the end of the year. Jess (Elliott) helps the family celebrate Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas early, in case Vanessa does not make it. This kindness also has an effect on Jess, who feels himself healing from his own loss that he was buried over, instead of dealing with it.
November Christmas is film about the power of healing and an open heart.
I’ll See You in My Dreams (2015)
This is mostly Blythe Danner’s film, and she is very wonderful in the role of widow who has withdrawn from life, to protect herself from loss. The film opens as she has to putdown her elderly dog. Pushed by her friends, she eventually gathers the strength to enter the dating world, but seems more comfortable with her young pool boy in a platonic relationship, since he posses no threat.
Enter Sam Elliott as an eligible suitor who charms her and melts the ice. He has not family, but is financially comfortable, and decides that he wants a relationship, and wants it with her. They grow close, and it helps to bring her and her daughter closer. Tragedy strikes, but I will not give away the ending.
Danner has always been one of my favorite actors, not cute or flashy, but with loads of charm. You feel her ache. Elliott is charming, in a role that seems perfect for his laidback, folksy sex appeal. There is more to him than that, but you have to see the film to appreciate it.
The Hero (2017)
In this film, Elliott is pretty much in every scene. The story is one that fits Elliott well, not the personal character elements, rather the role of actor in many Westerns, who wonders where the work is as he is deep in his career. His character, Lee, is nearing the end of his life and he is not feeling good about it. He was not a good husband or father, and he seems to have mixed feelings about his fans. He sacrificed his personal life for chasing acting roles and it left him divorced and estranged from his daughter. To top it off, he has cancer and even with a procedure, the survival rate only increases to 25 percent. His life is a mess.
Lee spends the film trying to gain a foothold in where his life is now. He tries to reach out to his daughter, but it is awkward. He begins a relationship with a much younger woman, and that is awkward. He has a chance at a big acting job, but has to audition for it, and messes it up, because the role is akin to his current life.
As usual, Elliott gives a very measured performance. There is a lot of emotion crackling the air like electricity, but he often has to show it from the inside out, meaning it is his expressions and body language that have to carry the load.
The Hero is a reference to one of his film roles. Lee does not feel much like a hero, he certainly has not behaved as one in his life. It is ironic that he is honored with a lifetime achievement award when he does not feel he deserves it, and gives it to a fan in the audience. Heroes are not perfect, even if we want them to be. Somehow, flaws make them more lifelike.
The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot (2018)
I reviewed this film and did a short overview of his career. This was an usual film, an alternate universe that Quinten Tarantino usually explores. The film’s narrative is jumpy and at times challenging to follow. I am not sure what attracted him to this film, but it gave him a chance to play in a different kind of sandbox. This is the type of role Brad Pitt or Leonardo Di Caprio might take later on.
My original review below.