Sam Elliott had a window when he might have broken through and become a bankable Hollywood leading man.
It was somewhere around 1976’s “Lifeguard,” which had him playing a hunk who held onto the beachside style of living and loving a little too long, his 1983 performance as the title character “Travis McGee” in a TV movie based on John D. MacDonald’s iconic Florida detective, and 1985’s “Mask,” which turned his manly mustache loose as the one biker sensitive enough to tame Cher and bond with her disfigured son.
Decades of stellar supporting work have been the rule ever since. Need a man’s man to play a military officer (“Hulk”), a growling coach (“Draft Day”) or cowboy? Sam’s been your man.
But maybe the window hasn’t quite closed, even at 70, as his notices in the new indie hit “I’ll See You in My Dreams” suggest. He plays a sort of last chance at romance for a widow (Blythe Danner) not looking for love at this stage in her life. Elliott turns on the flirt in the role.
“Nothing you learn in acting school,” he growls with a grin. “The way I was always taught to treat women kind of gets in there.” Born in Southern California but raised by West Texans, Elliott’s masculine courtliness is something of a trademark.
And “the unlit cigar between his teeth, the glint in his eye and his deep cowboy voice signal virility,” Stephen Holden wrote in The New York Times.
Elliott gives that a characteristic “Aw, shucks.”
“Maybe there’s a little of the old ‘leading man’ in there,” he says. “Maybe it’s a little late for that.”
His “Dreams” director, Brett Haley, who co-wrote the script and cast Elliott, begs to differ. “A LOT of women would disagree with Sam in that regard,” Haley laughs. “He’s back, and sexier than ever.”
It could be that the part is tailor-made for Elliott. Hollywood isn’t making many Westerns these days, so Elliott’s Old West mustache and ability to wear a ten gallon hat like he means it is rolled out in cult films such as “The Big Lebowski” (as the cowboy/narrator) or “Thank You for Smoking.” A “Tombstone” comes along rarely, these days.
Bill, his “I’ll See You In My Dreams” character, has a “Hemingway-esque masculinity” and swaggering “self-satisfaction” which Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal didn’t warm to. But that “that coy but confident head tilt he does…draws women in like an invitation to come closer,” says Kathryn Shiflett, “a big fan” from Virginia. There’s a touch of the courtly cowpoke to that this businessman who goes after what he likes, including Carol (Danner).
“He happens upon this gal who strikes who strikes his fancy, and goes to work on her,” Elliott says of “Dream.” “He’s kind of sensitive, I guess. But he’s also very direct. I like that. That directness appeals to Carol.
“That’s part of the real me, too. I’m probably more direct than some people would like, especially out here in Hollywood.”
Voice-over work in everything from car commercials to “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner,” sustains him and wife Katherine Ross (“The Summer of ’42”). Elliott says he and Ross talk about “how lucky we were to come along when we did, with parents who grew up during The Depression and all.” But it’s hard not to see his brand of masculinity, timeless as it is, as out of its time. So he’s grateful for the good reviews for “I’ll See You in My Dreams.”
“It’s been mind-boggling, on some level. Never seen the likes of it, myself.”
And there’s just a chance he’s hearing his director’s “sexier than ever” plug, and maybe wondering if those “Lifeguard” days could earn a reprise.
“I just had some gal interview me who wanted to know if I still had the red shorts from that m0vie,” Elliott says with a chuckle. “Man.”