Typecast As A Cowboy, Sam Elliott Came To Embrace That 'Western Box'

Typecast As A Cowboy, Sam Elliott Came To Embrace That 'Western Box'

2:19pm Sep 25, 2015
Sam Elliott played The Stranger in the Coen brothers film The Big Lebowski. "That was great fun," he says. "The Coen brothers are such brilliant guys."
Sam Elliott played The Stranger in the Coen brothers film The Big Lebowski. "That was great fun," he says. "The Coen brothers are such brilliant guys."
The Kobal Collection

At a bowling alley bar, The Dude, played by Jeff Bridges, sips a White Russian cocktail. The camera slowly pans over to a cowboy who orders a soft drink and offers up some wisdom:

"A wiser fella than myself once said, 'Sometimes you eat the bar, and sometimes the bar, well, he eats you.' "

He's The Stranger in The Big Lebowski, played by Sam Elliott.

But before Elliott portrayed cowboys, he worked construction in Los Angeles. That's what launched his big break.

It started with a family friend, whose house was at the bottom of a hill. Worried that water running down would damage the foundation, Elliott offered up his expertise.

"So I went over and I built this little dam out of concrete and steel, probably that I absconded with off the job, used rebar and stuff to go do it," Elliott says.

That family friend happened to be an assistant director in Hollywood. Knowing that Elliott was interested in the business, he invited him to hang around.

"He said, 'The door's open, man. You wanna come in and watch what's going on? Come.' And I did. I took him up on it," he says. "My big break — pouring cement."

Before long, Sam Elliott had quit his construction job.

His first film role was in the 1969 Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

"A glorified extra. I had one line, it was off-camera, I was nothing more than a shadow on a wall," he says.

He played the part of "Card Player #2" in the film's opening scene.

"It was an opportunity to sit on a set, watch [Robert] Redford and [Paul] Newman, and Conrad Hall was behind the camera. These were brilliant filmmakers," Elliott says. "That was kind of the beginning. I had an affinity for that whole Western thing. Being typecast, I was the guy that they went to."

He went on to star alongside Tom Selleck in The Shadow Riders, play a sharpshooter in The Quick and the Dead and portray Virgil Earp in Tombstone.

"Time went by and then I started to kind of think, 'Wow, am I ever gonna work out of this Western box? Am I ever gonna get something else?' " he says.

While he was filming another Western called Rough Riders, a PA came on set to hand Elliott a FedEx envelope from Hollywood — a script from the Coen brothers.

It was titled The Big Lebowski.

"And man, I could not wait to get back to the hotel and read this script that night," Elliott says. "I thought, 'Wow, this is gonna be something outside the Western box for sure.' "

Then he started reading the script.

"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 says. "And then I read further and you see the character come into the bowling alley and he's dressed like a drugstore cowboy or whatever he's dressed like. And looking 'not unlike Sam Elliot.' "

Even the Coen brothers cast him as a cowboy. And that's when Elliott learned to embrace his image of that deep-voiced cowboy with the handlebar mustache.

"You just grow up and you realize, you know, life serves up what it serves up. I got over being anything but thankful for being in any kind of a box — Western or not. It's been a rich life," he says. "It's been a rich life."

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

At a bowling alley bar, The Dude, played by Jeff Bridges, sips his white Russian. The camera pans over to a cowboy who orders a soft drink and offers up some wisdom.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BIG LEBOWSKI")

SAM ELLIOTT: (As The Stranger) A wiser fellow than myself once said, sometimes you eat the bar, and sometimes the bar, well, he eats you.

RATH: That's Sam Elliott as The Stranger from "The Big Lebowski." Before this cowboy hit the big time, he worked construction in Los Angeles. That's what launched his big break. It starts with a family friend whose house was at the bottom of the hill. Worried that water running down would damage the foundation, Elliott offered to help.

ELLIOTT: So I went over, and I build this kind of a dam out of concrete and steel - probably that I'd absconded with off the job - used rebar and stuff to go do it.

RATH: That family friend happened to be an assistant director from Hollywood. Knowing that Elliott was interested in the business, he invited him to hang around.

ELLIOTT: He said the door's open, man. You want to come in and watch what's going on? Come. And I did. I took him up on it. My big break - pouring cement.

RATH: Before long, Sam Elliott quit his construction job.

ELLIOTT: Worked at a movie called "Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid" as a glorified extra. I had one line, and it was off-camera. I was nothing more than a shadow on the wall.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID")

ELLIOTT: (As Card Player 2) Hit me.

It was a card game in the beginning of the show, and it was an opportunity to sit on a set, watch Redford and Newman. And Conrad Hall was behind the camera. Man, I mean, these were - these were brilliant filmmakers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID")

DONNELLY RHODES: (As Macon) Hey, kid, how good are you?

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

ELLIOTT: That was kind of the beginning. I had an affinity for that whole Western thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE QUICK AND THE DEAD")

ELLIOTT: (As Con Vallian) One of them wears a bowler hat. Keep your rifle on him. If you have to shoot, shoot to kill.

ELLIOTT: There was something about that genre that spoke to me from the get-go.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOUSTON: THE LEGEND OF TEXAS")

ELLIOTT: (As Sam Houston) Hit men don't smell me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You have a pistol?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Houston, don't.

ELLIOTT: (As Sam Houston) Sam Houston. And history will want to know who I kill tonight.

ELLIOTT: Time went by, and I started to kind of think, well, am I ever go to work out of this Western box? Am I ever going to get the thing else? A couple years later, I was down doing a film - another Western. I remember distinctly this PA that came out, handed me this FedEx envelope from Hollywood. And it was a script from the Coen brothers.

And, man, I could wait to get back to the hotel and read the script that night 'cause I think, wow, this is going to be something outside the Western box, for sure. And then I start reading the script. And over the dialogue, there's this tumbling tumbleweeds blowing, and then they talk about the Southwest accent and sounding not unlike Sam Elliott, you know? They had my name in the script. Then I read further, and you see the character come into the bowling alley, and he's dressed like a drugstore cowboy or whatever he's dressed like and looking not unlike (laughter) Sam Elliott.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BIG LEBOWSKI")

ELLIOTT: (As The Stranger) I like your style, dude.

JEFF BRIDGES: (As The Dude) I dig your style, too, man, with that whole cowboy thing going.

ELLIOTT: So I thought, wow, even the Coen brothers are going to keep me in this box. Then I got to where I've just embraced it. You just grow up, and you realize, you know, life serves up what it serves up. I got over being anything but thankful for being in any kind of a box - Western or not.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BIG LEBOWSKI")

ELLIOTT: (As The Stranger) It's good knowing he's out there - The Dude, taking her easy for all us sinners.

ELLIOTT: That was great fun. Working with those guys was an amazing experience. The Coen brothers are such brilliant guys and so much fun to be around. And I was really happy to be amongst them for two days. It was just a two-day experience for me. I was in and out. But it's really the people that you meet along the way - mostly enrich everything and certainly enrich the experience and the things you can carry away. It's been a rich life. It's been a rich life.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BIG LEBOWSKI")

ELLIOTT: (As The Stranger) Oh, look at me. I'm rambling again. Well, I hope you folks enjoyed yourselves. Catch you later on down the trail. Say, friend, you got any more of that good sarsaparilla?

RATH: Actor Sam Elliott. We want to hear about your story. Send us an email - mybigbreak@npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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