The Sam Elliott Story: Love, Life, and the Making of a True Cowboy

February 27, 2019 Updated: February 27, 2019

Know it or not, you’ve been watching Sam Elliott for decades. Listening, too: his rich, deep voice is arguably his most recognizable feature. And at the age of 73, this Hollywood movie hero has a lot to teach about life, and love, in the movie-making capital of the world.

©Getty Images | VALERIE MACON

Elliott has starred in numerous big-hitting movies over the years (remember “the stranger” from The Big Lebowski, or Basil L. Plumley from We Were Soldiers?). Far from being over, Elliott’s career remains alive and kicking today as he stars as Beau Bennett in TV’s The Ranch alongside Ashton Kutcher.

Elliott’s unmistakable western-style voice has become as famous as his acting career, however: brands like Dodge, Union Pacific, and Ram Trucks have all used his velvety timber to their benefit. Elliott was even the voice of Smokey Bear. “[My voice] just kept going down the older I got,” Elliott once joked. “I can’t imagine it’s going to go much further.”

The Legend Sam Elliott.

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The big-screen heartthrob was born in Sacramento, California, in 1944. He and his father were close, but his father wasn’t supportive of his decision to pursue acting; the concerned parent couldn’t comprehend how his son could make a living from the artistic craft. Elliott’s father had a heart attack and tragically passed away when Elliott was only 18 years old.

His father’s legacy is a huge, motivating factor for the actor, even now: “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,” Elliott shared in an interview. He added, however, that his mom “has always been completely supportive of my work.”

©Getty Images | Kevin Winter

Elliott made his first impression as an actor in Clark College in Vancouver, Washington, when he played the lead in a small production of Guys and Dolls. His performance received a glowing review. However, for the time being, Elliott’s father was right: the work was not lucrative. Elliott, young and strong, resorted to part-time construction work to pay the bills while he auditioned on the side.

He even joined the military, and it was there that he discovered a stoic self-determination. His efforts paid off: Elliott made his television debut as Dan Kenyon in the American legal drama Judd for the Defense in 1969. A bit-part as a card player in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was another step towards eventual movie stardom.

Sam Elliot and wife, Katherine Ross, in Universal City, California, June 1996 (©Getty Images | Albert Ortega)

Elliott later played the lead role, Pete Danner, in 1978’s The Legacy. Little did he know when he first walked on set, but his wife-to-be, Katharine Ross, was acting alongside him. Elliott was shy to talk to her, an endearing fact that he didn’t reveal until 2015: “I didn’t dare try to talk to her then. She was the leading lady. I was a shadow on the wall, a glorified extra in a bar scene,” he revealed, humbly.

Katherine herself added, in an interview: “We were working together. One thing led to another. And here we are.” The couple married in 1984.

Sam Elliott and Katherine Ross at the premiere of “Thank You For Smoking” on March 16, 2006 (©Getty Images | Kevin Winter)

Elliott carved out a reputation for himself as a “rugged cowboy” type in The Quick and the Dead (1987), Houston: The Legend of Texas (1986), and You Know My Name (1999). He has sported a moustache for decades that would rival even Tom Selleck’s. And he was inducted into the National Cowboy Western Heritage Museum in 2007.

In an interview with NPR, Elliott was quick to recall his original motivation: “I was with my dad and his peers, who were all men’s men and outdoors men. All had incredible work ethics … I learned what kind of a man I wanted to be when I grew up.” Were Elliott’s father still alive, there’s little doubt that he would be very proud indeed of his son’s numerous achievements.

Sam Elliott with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in Hollywood, 2019 (©Getty Images | Presley Ann)

Among others, Elliott has been nominated for two Golden Globe Awards as well as two Primetime Emmy Awards. And he remains happily married to his wife, Katherine, to this day.

“The two things that I wanted in my life were to have a movie career and to be married, to have a family,” Elliott shared. “And it’s an embarrassment of riches that I’ve got both.”

What’s your favorite Sam Elliott moment of all time?