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The untold truth of Sam Elliott

As far as epically mustachioed, gravelly voiced, all-around tough guys go, there aren't too many actors in Hollywood who can stack up against Sam Elliott.

These days, Elliott is among the most recognizable faces in the business, but the funny thing about him is that even though he's spent more than 50 years acting, and even with his distinctive drawl and upper-lip adornment, it wasn't until relatively recently that he began receiving recognition befitting of his talents. In fact, while over the decades he's appeared in many movies that you've probably seen numerous times — a few of which are likely among your favorites — it wouldn't be surprising if you didn't know his name until the last handful of years.

While he's spent half a century working in the fringes of the film biz, he's had plenty of opportunity to accumulate a mysterious backstory about which we're all mostly ignorant. But now that he's stepped into the spotlight, it's time to take a look at the untold truth of Sam Elliott.

Sam Elliott's father didn't want him to act

Born in 1944 in Sacramento, California, Sam Elliott (who has the unique middle name "Pack" — there's a fun bonus fact for you) moved to Portland, Oregon, when he was still a kid, finding himself in a state where he and his father had plenty of access to nature. His father worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a predatory and rodent control specialist, and the two spent a lot of time in the great outdoors.

Young Elliott eventually enrolled at the University of Oregon where he studied English and psychology for just two terms before dropping out to pursue his passion for acting — a calling that made his father less than excited. The two sparred over the career choice and never were able to settle their differences as his father died of a heart attack when Elliott was just 18. Many years later while speaking in an interview with The Star, he explained, "He died thinking, 'Man, this kid is going to go down the wrong path.' And I think on some levels that was either hard on me or made me more focused in my resolve to have a career, you know what I mean?"

Luckily for Sam Elliott and his fans, he decided to follow his dream. Unfortunately, his father never got to see him achieve the success that the elder Elliott probably foresaw would be hard coming.

Sam Elliott's bit part in a big movie

When the wheels began rolling on Elliott's career, he started out in small roles in television Westerns, eventually earning slightly more substantial parts in the hit shows Lancer and Mission: Impossible.

His first role in a major film came in 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which featured the superstar leads Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the titular roles. A comedic Western based on the lives of two notorious bank-robbing outlaws, the film seems like a perfect fit for Elliott, who spent much of his career working within the genre. Unfortunately for him, he had a blink-and-you'll-miss-it part as a card player. He didn't even have any lines.

While the role didn't have much of an impact on his career, the movie did have a rather coincidental place in his life. Starring beside Newman and Redford was Katharine Ross, and though she and Elliott shared no scenes and didn't cross paths during filming, nearly ten years later, they did meet again and start dating as co-leads in The Legacy. It wasn't long before the couple were married. Today, they're still together, and they have a daughter.

His growing success and problems in the '70s and '80s

Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, Sam Elliott never quite hit it big, but he did enjoy increasing recognition as a character actor appearing in television shows, TV movies, and big screen productions.

His first major starring role in a feature film came in 1976's Lifeguard, which tells the tale of a lifeguard working in Southern California who's forced into self-reflection after attending a high school reunion and realizing that his classmates have accomplished greater things with their lives. While the movie performed decently in the box office, it was lampooned by critics, and Elliott himself was unhappy with its lowbrow marketing. He complained bitterly during the promotional tour, which caused the studio heads at Paramount to become displeased. As a result, he never worked with the company again.

That wasn't the only trouble he experienced during this period. During an interview in 1980, Elliott revealed that he'd been propositioned repeatedly during auditions, saying, "You cannot believe the casting couch stories I could tell you, man. The clichés are all true. I've had propositions from men and women, and I've turned them all down. It's probably hurt me, but I'm the one who has to live with that guilt. My conscience is clear, even though my career is still not setting the world on fire."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he later became a vocal supporter of the #MeToo movement, telling Variety, "Women in this town have been put upon by the men in this business the way they have for so long." However, these decades weren't all hard times, as he scored a number of high-profile roles that were instrumental in boosting his visibility. In 1985, he starred in a supporting role alongside Cher in Mask, then in 1989, he starred next to Patrick Swayze in the cult classic Road House.

He really got things rolling in the '90s

By the time the 1990s rolled around, Sam Elliott had spent more than 20 years in Hollywood, but he still didn't have much in the way of name recognition. For the most part, he seemed destined to forever be a somewhat acknowledged face without a name. With the arrival of his third decade in the business, however, that was about to change.

After playing a substantial part in the critically acclaimed civil war epic Gettysburg, Elliott starred alongside Kurt Russell in the now-classic Western Tombstone, which was hailed by audiences and critics alike. In the role of Virgil Earp — from the famous real-life Old West family of lawmen headed by the renowned Wyatt Earp — Elliott's many years of acting in the genre fit him into the role like a foot in a cowboy boot. This helped to propel him into prominent parts in future films like When We Were Soldiers, Thank You For Smoking, and of course The Big Lebowski.

Sam Elliott was written into The Big Lebowski before he even knew it

While today The Big Lebowski is known as something of a cultural touchstone, responsible for inspiring bathrobe-wearing dudes and white Russian cocktail parties everywhere, it's easy to forget that when it was initially released back in 1998, it was nothing short of a flop. The movie took in just $17.4 million domestically on its $15 million budget, and at the time, it was largely panned by critics.

Today, it's almost universally considered one of the Coen brothers' greatest films, in no small part thanks to Elliott's portrayal of "The Stranger," a surreal narrator who delivers some of the movie's most quotable lines. According to an interview in The New York Times, Elliott was initially disappointed at being cast as yet another cowboy. That was until he read the script.

Speaking to NPR, Elliott explained that as he looked through the screenplay, he quickly realized that it would be anything but a typical cowboy role. Then he spotted a surprise. "Over the dialogue, there's this tumbling tumbleweed blowing and talk about this Southwest accent and, 'Sounding not unlike Sam Elliott.' They had my name in the script," he said.

Later as they were filming his final scene, Elliott became exasperated by going through take after take. When he expressed his frustration to the brothers Coen, they admitted that they had already gotten what they wanted several takes earlier, but they enjoyed watching and listening to him so much that they had him do it again and again.

He helped you prevent forest fires

Part of what helped propel Sam Elliott to success was his distinctive voice, and over the years, he's lent it to a wide variety of high-profile commercials for Dodge, Union Pacific, IBM, and the American Beer Council. Perhaps the most notable products you might've heard his familiar voice hawking are Coors beer and Dodge Ram Heavy Duty trucks.

Since 2007, Elliott has also voiced Smokey the Bear, the U.S. Forest Service's mascot developed to help with wildfire prevention efforts. Elliott not only delivers Smokey's famous catchphrase — "Only you can prevent forest fires" — but he actually shares his birthdate with the fictional spokesbear: August 9, 1944. Stranger still, according to The Washington Post, Katharine Ross' home burned down in 1978, and according to The New York Times, a brush fire once got out of control and burned Elliott and Ross' house to the ground. So maybe that explains in part why Elliott is such a perfect advocate for forest fire safety.

He hit it big in the 2010s

While Sam Elliott's star had been rising steadily for some 20 years or so, in the 2010s, he really took off. By the middle of the decade, he had recurring roles in the Netflix series The Ranch and Grace and Frankie, then he provided his voice to the hit animated film The Good Dinosaur.

Then in 2017, Elliott starred in The Hero, a film about an aging Western star whose best days are behind him. Not only was it the perfect role for him, but according to the film's writer and director, Brett Haley, it was literally written for Elliott after the two met on the set of another film several years earlier and hit it off. As Haley explained to the L.A. Times, "To me, it was a love letter not only to Sam, but to a dying breed of actor and film in Hollywood."

Shortly after that Elliott starred in the flat-out bizarre B-film The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot, which fared well with critics thanks largely to — as Rotten Tomatoes put it — "Sam Elliott's world-weary work in the title role."

Sam Elliott made waves with A Star Is Born

In 2018, Sam Elliott hit what was arguably the apex of his career (so far) with his performance in A Star Is Born. Directed by Bradley Cooper and starring Cooper, Lady Gaga, and Elliott, the movie was a remake of a story that's been filmed several times over the past century about the relationship between an up-and-coming singer and her alcoholic mentor.

A Star Is Born was a massive success by every measure, earning $436 million on a $36 million budget, garnering almost universal praise from the critics, and scoring eight Oscar nominations including Best Picture, one win for Best Original Song, and one nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Sam Elliott. Shockingly, this was his first Academy Award nomination, indicating that even at 74 years old, his career still has exciting places to go.

Elliott's performance in the film also earned him a nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role at the Screen Actors Guild Award and a win for Best Supporting Actor at the National Board of Review Award. Not bad for an old cowboy.

Sam Elliott is in the Mustache Hall of Fame

Along with his smooth, deep voice and tough demeanor, Sam Elliott is best recognized by his iconic mustache, and we're not the only ones who think so. In 2015, Elliott was inducted into the Mustache Hall of Fame, alongside the likes of real-life legends such as Teddy Roosevelt, Hulk Hogan, and Billy Dee Williams, as well as fictional characters such as Ned Flanders and Yosemite Sam. Talk about a distinguished class of facial hair.

While we all know and love his superior upper-lip sweater, Elliott himself doesn't quite understand all the fuss. Speaking with Vanity Fair in 2017, Elliott explained, "The whole mustache thing is a mystery to me. ... Somebody showed me on their cell phone one day that there was this contest online between me and [Tom] Selleck about who had the best mustache. It's so bizarre."

Sam Elliott might not get all the attention, but we totally do. That's some ferocious facial fuzz he's got there.

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