Sam Elliott has an axe to grind. Make that a spur to grind.
The actor best known to movie audiences for his work in Westerns says he's spent his entire career, "on horseback or on a motorcycle." He reckons he could do other roles.
And he's currently proving it. In writer/director Rod Lurie's new hit movie, The Contender, the 55-year-old Elliott plays a U.S. presidential adviser to a president played by Jeff Bridges. The Contender is a political drama about a vice-presidential candidate (Joan Allen) and the smear campaign to discredit her. It was shown during Toronto's recent film festival, which brought Elliott to town.
He got his role in The Contender, says the actor, "against some people's better judgement. Some said I was wrong for this part. It boxes you in, the way people perceive you."
The way Hollywood "people" perceive Elliott is very different from the way audiences perceive him. After 32 years in the business and roles in dozens of movies such as Desperate Trail, Lifeguard, Rush, Road House, Tombstone, Woman Undone, The Final Cut, Buffalo Girls, Gettysburg, Mask, The Big Lebowski, The Hi-Lo Country and The Quick & The Dead, Elliott is a favourite of moviegoers and critics alike.
And as a former film critic, Rod Lurie knew just who he was hiring for The Contender -- Elliott is part of a cast composed entirely of actors the studios don't quite understand and the audiences love.
Elliott read the script for The Contender, but doubted he'd get to be part of it. "I read a lot of scripts, but I'm choosy. Anyway, most of 'em go to other actors," he says. "I thought this one was just gonna go away. It's a great script, but it's out of that Western box. History tells me if it's in that box, I've got a shot, but otherwise ... "
Otherwise, he met with Lurie, who assured Elliott he was perfect for the part. "I've never had a writer/director go to bat for me before. He knew my work for a long period of time." The actor sounds frankly amazed by this himself.
The acting bug bit when Elliott was nine years old. "I wanted to be an actor from seeing too many films," he says, laughing. He started in film as an extra when he was still at the University of Oregon and had a small role in Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid . "I think I was a shadow on a wall or something," Elliott jokes.
Mind you, that's where he first spotted his wife, Katharine Ross, who had the female lead in Butch Cassidy opposite Paul Newman and Robert Redford.
They finally met in London, England, in 1978, working on a film called The Legacy. They've been together ever since. "Not a great film, but a legacy nonetheless for Katharine and me," says Elliott, smiling.
The couple has lived in Malibu for many years. They have one daughter who is 16. She is very bright, says Dad. She's a great artist. And yes -- she sort of wants to be an actress.
"We don't encourage her," says Elliott.