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Actor Sam Elliott says he’s ‘good with’ being a career cowboy

One of the highlights of this year’s Seattle International Film Festival was the appearance of legendary veteran actor Sam Elliott. Shortly before his on-stage interview at the Egyptian Theatre, Elliott stopped by KIRO Radio to talk about his latest film “The Hero” and his storied career.

With almost 100 roles to his credit in movies and TV, Elliott has been a working actor for nearly half a century. He has a tall and lanky frame, a luxuriant head of hair (now silver), a killer mustache, and probably the best pipes in the business (he even sounds good when I’m checking my volume levels).

“Testing. One, two, three. Testing.”

Elliott’s played so many cowboys over the years, that he eventually became Hollywood’s go-to symbol of the West, a veritable embodiment of the Marlboro Man.

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I asked him if that identification was a godsend for his career or more of a strait-jacket.

“There was a time when I was a little perplexed by it, for lack of a better way of putting it and thought, Jesus, I’d like to get out of this Western box and be thought of in terms of being something else. But that’s the way it rolls.”

Elliott somewhat ruefully recounts how excited he was when he received a script from the very out-of-the-box Coen Brothers while in the midst of filming yet another Western.

“It came to me on the set and I couldn’t wait to get back to my hotel room that night and read it because I thought, wow, this is my opportunity to play some wacky character, totally unlike anything I’ve ever done,” Elliott recalled. “So I get back there and I started looking at it and they’re talking about tumbleweeds and this song and this voice sounding not unlike Sam Elliott. And when he shows up for the first time they describe this drugstore-like cowboy looking not unlike Sam Elliott. And I thought ‘Jesus Christ, again the Western thing.'”

That film, of course, turned out to be the cult classic “The Big Lebowski” and his role was so iconic that not only did the Coens not give him a new wacky role, they actually cemented his reputation for all time as the ultimate cowboy.

Elliott says he learned to stop fighting the typecasting.

“I think from then on I embraced it,” Elliott said. “And it took me that, maybe, to realize how fortunate I’ve been. Anybody that has had a career that’s gone on for 48 years — and I’ve basically worked throughout that period time — is a lucky man. And if they want to think of me as the guy that does Westerns, I’m good with it.”

Of course, Elliott’s played a lot of non-cowboys — the biker in Cher’s “Mask;” the President’s Chief of Staff in “The Contender;” a sergeant in “We Were Soldiers.” He’s had recurring roles on a number of TV shows, including the sitcom “Parks and Recreation.”

But his latest film, “The Hero” returns him to his Western roots. It’s a role written explicitly for him by director Brett Haley. Elliott plays a veteran actor, not unlike himself who’s made a career out of playing cowboys.

His character looks back over his long life with some regret. So I asked Elliott what his 25-year-old self would think of his career.

“I’d probably want to do what he did,” he said. “I would be really happy if at 25 I knew that this is where I was going to end up sitting next to this guy and having just done this film. Very fortunate for having the life and career that I’ve had.”

“The Hero” opens next Friday.

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