Thursday, January 21, 2010

Some of Sam

Today Sam Elliott is about as grizzled and as masculine a man as one could hope to find, a rough-hewn, longhaired guy for whom a term such as “manscaping” couldn’t be more foreign. His low, growl of a voice is put to use in countless voiceovers and commercials, notably for the American Beef Council (“Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.”) In his early days, one could search the world and be lucky to find a hairy chest that could equal his and, fortunately, he left some evidence of it behind, though he has long resisted the sex symbol status that has sometimes been applied to him.

A native Californian (Sacramento), Elliott was born under the name he has always gone by to a father who worked for the government and a mother who was a physical training instructor, thus his emphasis on fitness was assured early on. The family eventually moved to Portland, OR when he was a teen and he eventually wound up at college in Washington. He performed in Guys and Dolls there and the reviews in the local paper were good enough to suggest that he pursue acting as a career.

He eventually moved to L.A. where he took acting lessons while also working in construction (this surely contributing to his good ol’ boy manner and strong physicality.) He landed a few bit parts on the TV crime series Felony Squad and appeared as a card player in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969. After a few more TV guest spots, he was given a supporting role in the Olympic-themed film The Games as Ryan O’Neal’s fellow marathon runner. He appeared in a towel in a Japanese bathhouse scene.

Following this, he had a part in the TV submarine movie Assault on the Wayne before appearing in 13 episodes of Mission: Impossible as a brief alternative to Peter Lupus’s strongman, who was being considered for elimination. Elliott’s doctor character, while appealing, proved no more useful in the end and fans wanted Lupus back, so he wasn’t used any further.

Next up was the hoot-filled Frogs, a horror film concerning man vs nature and costarring Joan Van Ark, back when she was human, and Ray Milland. Elliott played an ecology-minded photojournalist who comes upon wheelchair-bound Milland’s wealthy family, gathered for a birthday celebration (and being tormented and hollered at by him, seemingly just for fun!) Milland has never shown any respect for the surrounding species and so they apparently decide to get revenge on his family. Oddly, everything conceivable other than frogs, from snakes to spiders to igunasa to turtles, do all the harm until the end of the movie. Speaking of snakes, the already hunkalicious Elliott wears a pair of jeans in the film that ought to be mounted in some sort of shrine to the magic of denim. The 70s were a revealing period in men’s fashion anyway, but ol’ Sam takes the cake here. (And DO click on the top left photo with Milland to get the full effect!) This movie has some of the most amusing 70s costumes, too, on Milland’s family and guests, so is also worth checking out for that.

Elliott worked with Vera Miles in the low-budget western movie Molly and Lawless John that same year. He played a bad guy who seduces his jailer’s wife in order to get free. This, along with appearances on series such as Lancer and Gunsmoke, began building a solid background in the western genre, one that he would thrive in. He also worked frequently in projects with a military nature, such as the nine-hour miniseries Once an Eagle, which depicted the life of a soldier from WWI through WWII.

In 1976, he made what would later be regarded as a tribute to beefcake, the movie Lifeguard. Though the film strives to be far more than just a sand and surf flick (not that you could tell from the relentlessly tacky and misguided advertising!), it also delivers heavily in the beach body department. Sam plays an aging lifeguard who’s devoted to his profession, though his days are becoming numbered. Parker Stevenson costars as a newbie and Anne Archer and a very young Kathleen Quinlan provide the love interest. The most arresting sequence features a passel of young men in Speedos trying to beat each other in rescue and athletic feats. Sam’s character begins to feel his age in the midst of some stiff competition.

Does anyone else find it startling that this grown man (undeniably masculine, hairy, sexually provocative and ADULT) was considered fodder as a pinup for Teen Beat magazine?! Today, such a male would be considered not only too old, but downright gross because he isn’t waxed, gelled, plucked, rippled and ready to keel over from lack of food.
In 1978, Elliott filmed the horror film The Legacy in England. It was a fateful project in that the leading lady was Katharine Ross and the pair fell in love for real during the shoot (and are together even now.) She played an American girl brought to a creepy mansion in order to claim a secret inheritance and Sam was her boyfriend along for the ride. In it, he had a shower scene in which he is darn near scalded to death and it contains some thankfully gratuitous rear nudity from him. A lot of people fondly recall this sequence, which is usually trimmed for network and basic cable airings, as he truly had an eye-opening physique. I don’t usually post nudity here in The Underworld, but, please, museums have worse than this.

Following this film, Elliott moved more heavily into television for about seven years, filming several western movies and miniseries including The Sacketts, Wild Times and The Shadow Riders. In two of these, he costarred with Tom Selleck playing his brother, though they share very few attributes apart from heavy mustaches and hairy chests. Their voices certainly couldn’t be more diametrically opposite! He also menaced Farrah Fawcett in Murder in Texas and Cheryl Ladd in A Death in California.

One interesting blip on his resume is the 1983-84 primetime soap opera The Yellow Rose. (Even though he was one of the stars of the show, doesn’t seem to realize that!) He, David Soul, Cybill Shepherd, Edward Albert and others starred in the Texas-set series. While it didn’t last long, it does have a few diehard fans who remember it, and him, fondly. It was also close to the last thing Jane Russell ever did as she guest-starred three times. I also can't resist mentioning how foolish I think Susan Anspach looks here with that headband...

In 1985, Sam had another movie role that brought him a raft of fans. He played the motorcycle-riding boyfriend of Cher in Mask, the story of disfigured Rocky Dennis and his mother. Many a female (and presumably a few guys!) fell for his rough on the outside, tender on the inside characterization. The film got a healthy amount of attention (partly from Cher’s constant complaining about not winning an Oscar for it) and he began to win more work in feature films.

That role seemed to signify a move towards longer-haired, denim and leather-clad types for Elliott. His hair began to become more salt than pepper (eventually turning completely white, not an unflattering thing on him.) One of his films (that, ironically, had been slated to star Cher at first) was Fatal Beauty, in which he found himself working opposite Whoopi Goldberg. He and Goldberg filmed a love scene for the film (the mind boggles!), but it was left out of the American release, allegedly because it was still a controversial thing to have displayed (and this was 1987!) More likely the scene simply didn’t come off as intended, but what do I know.

Other notable later projects include the Patrick Swayze action flick Roadhouse, the civil war epic Gettysburg, the all-star, OK Corral shootout Tombstone, The Coen Brothers’ cult oddity The Big Lebowski, the comic book adaptation Hulk and this year’s Oscar contender Up in the Air, in which he plays an airline pilot who’s flying on the day that George Clooney’s character reaches the 10 million flyer miles mark.

Though his looks have changed considerably over the years from a dark hunk to a craggy, silver-haired, daddy-type, he has continued to work steadily. On six occasions, he was able to pair up with Ross, though she has scaled back her career considerably in recent years and seems content to attend events on his arm. Their last project was the TV western Conagher in 1991. They have been together since 1978, but did not marry until 1984 when she became pregnant with their daughter.

Sam was taken to task a bit by the gay community when he failed to sing the praises of Brokeback Mountain. His quote on the subject was, “I was really happy that Ang Lee won the Best Director award. I got to know him very well on Hulk. But I'm not the Brokeback Mountain crowd, what can I tell ya. I'm more of a purist. But at the same time, it's a new day.” I find nothing wrong with it because, just like there are many things I do not wish to see at the movies, I know that likewise there are things that others do not wish to watch. That’s why there are many viewing options. As a western icon, he was asked to give his opinion and he gave it. I didn’t find his words inflammatory at all.


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