SEATTLE — It’s difficult, when interviewing the actor Sam Elliott, not to be distracted by That Voice. Listening to those mahogany-paneled tones — into which he’ll drop the occasional basso “yup,” like a raindrop into a quiet, dark pond — is a rare pleasure. He takes long pauses during conversation, to think about what he’s been asked, and the voice seems to echo even in the silences, filling the room.
The 72-year-old Elliott, who’s been making films for nearly 50 years, was in town late last month for the Seattle International Film Festival, where his new film “The Hero” had its local premiere. Written specifically for Elliott, the film’s central character is partially inspired by him: a veteran actor named Lee Hayden, best known for iconic appearances in movie Westerns, facing the mess that he’s made of his personal life.
“It was quite a gift,” Elliott said of “The Hero,” written and directed by Brett Haley, with whom Elliott had previously worked on the 2015 film “I’ll See You In My Dreams.” “I’ve had people write things for me — scenes, parts. But I’ve never had anyone even think about writing a screenplay for me.” The film was born, Elliott said, during the long travel days of doing press for “Dreams.”
“We covered a lot of territory, spent a lot of time with each other and got to know each other, consequently, fairly well. Out of that is where this story came from. There’s gotta be a certain amount of Sam in the piece, but at the same time, they took great dramatic license.”
Lee Hayden is divorced from his wife, estranged from his daughter, and spends his days in a haze of marijuana smoke. The gentlemanly Elliott’s life is in sharp contrast: “I’m still married to Katharine (Ross). We’ve been together for 39 years. I love my daughter more than anyone in the world.” As for the drug use, “I wouldn’t be alive if I smoked as much pot as Lee Hayden does.” And he described himself as “a little more productive than Lee is. I think he’s pretty much wasted most of his life.”
The similarities, he points out, include “that whole Western-heritage thing,” and the struggle to sustain an acting career. “My career has been much kinder to me than Lee’s has. But it’s not an easy world. There are sacrifices to be made along the way. You and your loved ones both pay for being involved in the game. I think that Katharine, (daughter) Cleo and I have managed to surmount the challenges that Lee didn’t. But I share that, I understand that tussle with the game.”
Elliott’s love of acting and performing began early, as a little boy in a “cherub choir” at the Congregationalist church in Sacramento he attended with his mother. “I loved singing in vocal ensembles and I loved singing in general, all the way through school,” he said.
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His first recollection of being on stage was from grade school, “singing a couple of songs from ‘Guys and Dolls.’ I remember some girl, a gal that I knew, she went like ‘ooh’ in the audience. That spoke to me, I thought, wow, this is fun.”
A kid who loved movies — he spent “a lot of time” at the neighborhood movie house growing up, “watching chapters of ‘Flash Gordon’ and some of the early Ford westerns” — he eventually left music behind for acting (though he says he’d like to sing in a movie musical someday).
After attending Clark College in Vancouver, Washington, he made his way to Hollywood and was signed by Fox, in the waning days of the contract-player system. His first role was in the 1969 western “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” where he was “an extra with a line.” (The line? “I’ll take two.”)
As with all long careers, Elliott’s has had its ups and downs — but, at an age where some might think about retirement, his career received an unexpected boost. “It was ‘Robot Chicken,’” said Elliott (and if you haven’t heard that voice uttering those two words, you’ve missed something) — “an animated thing, on the Adult Swim channel.” Elliott was nominated for a voice-over Emmy for his work on the show in 2013, and suddenly the phone began to ring again, with work in television (“Parks and Recreation,” “Justified,” “Grace and Frankie”) and movies (“Grandma,” “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” and the upcoming remake of “A Star Is Born,” directed by Bradley Cooper).
He thinks the new flurry of roles might stem from “the whole comedy thing — I’ve had opportunities over the last couple of years to do some pretty funny stuff. And that opened a door on a whole different perception of me, or the kind of work that came my way.” Regardless, he’s happy with the work, even if it does delay his eventual plan to retire with Ross to a home they own in the Willamette Valley. (“That doesn’t seem to be in the cards at the moment.”)
Talking with Elliott, enjoying both the velvet of the voice and the kindness of the man (he insisted that he remembered me, from a previous interview 17 years ago), you sense a quiet contentment. “I think it’s just, if you hang on long enough and try to do good work, it wins out sometime in the end,” he said, of his good fortune. “I’m doing what I wanted to do since I was a little kid, and I’m a lucky man.”