Hirsute. Rugged. Laconic. For more than four decades, actor Sam Elliott has practically trademarked the persona of a latter-day cowboy. When Patrick Swayze needed a mentor for his philosopher-bouncer in 1989’s Road House, producers called Elliott. When the Coen Brothers needed a wise baritone narrator for 1998’s The Big Lebowski, they cast Elliott. When Bradley Cooper needed a foil for his remake of A Star is Born, he wisely got Elliott, who earned his first-ever Oscar nomination (for Best Supporting Actor) for the role. (The actor's response to the Oscar nod? It's about f***ing time.")
In celebration of Elliott's 75th birthday, check out some facts we’ve wrangled up about the performer’s life, his time on the casting couch, and one strange coincidence involving Smokey Bear.
1. Sam Elliott's dad didn't want him to become an actor.
Born in Sacramento in 1944, a 13-year-old Sam Elliott moved with his family to Oregon, where both he and his father pursued their love of the outdoors. (His dad worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in charge of “predatory and rodent control.”) While they bonded over nature, their relationship grew divisive when Elliott told his father he wanted to become an actor. They were never able to resolve the matter before his father died of a heart attack when Elliott was just 18. “He died thinking, 'Man, this kid is going to go down the wrong path,” Elliott said. "And I think on some levels that was either hard on me or made me more focused in my resolve to have a career.”
2. Sam Elliott played Evel Knievel in an unsold TV pilot.
After moving to Hollywood in the late 1960s, Elliott scored a small role in a big film: 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. (He’s glimpsed only fleetingly during a card game.) In 1974, he had the opportunity to be the featured star, portraying daredevil legend Evel Knievel in a CBS television pilot. The series never went into production but wound up airing as a one-off special that March. Elliott went on to guest star in several series, including Hawaii Five-0 and Gunsmoke, before landing a lead role in a feature, 1976’s Lifeguard.
3. Sam Elliott got himself in some hot water with a studio.
Lifeguard looked to be Elliott’s breakout role: It’s a tale of a man approaching middle age who wonders if being a first responder is what he wants to continue doing with his life. Paramount, the studio behind the film, marketed it differently—as a sun-soaked teenage melodrama. Elliott chafed at the ads and made his thoughts known. “The one sheet [poster] for that film was an animated piece, and it had me in a pair of Speedos and a big busted girl on either arm,” he told NPR in 2017. “And it said, 'Every girl's summer dream' over the top of it. And I was like, wow.” Elliott complained in press interviews, a move he speculated led to Paramount cooling their heels on hiring him again.
4. Sam Elliott was the voice of Smokey Bear.
Early in his career, Elliott was advised by people in the industry to hone his smooth drawl into something more in the leading-man mode. “They wanted me to speed up and enunciate,” he told The Saturday Evening Post earlier this year. “I went through trying to do that for a time, but I’m glad it didn’t work out.” Elliott’s voice become one of his hallmarks and was eventually put to use as the voice of forest fire mascot Smokey Bear in 2007.
The message hit home for Elliott, whose wife of nearly 35 years—actress Katharine Ross, who earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for playing Elaine Robinson in The Graduate—saw her home burned down in 1978 after a camp fire spread. He and the spokesbear even share the exact same birthday: August 9, 1944.
5. Sam Elliott got propositioned. A lot.
Going from audition to audition early in his career, Elliott told syndicated columnist Rex Reed in 1980 that the proverbial casting couch was real. “You cannot believe the casting couch stories I could tell you, man,” he said. “The clichés are all true. I’ve had propositions from men and women, and I’ve turned them all down. It’s probably hurt me, but I’m the one who has to live with that guilt. My conscience is clear, even though my career is still not setting the world on fire.”
6. The Coen brothers kept Sam Elliott working just because they liked hearing him talk.
Shooting 1998’s The Big Lebowski, Elliott has a climactic meeting of sorts with The Dude (Jeff Bridges), whose adventures he’s been narrating throughout the film. Shooting the scenes, Elliott was beginning to get exasperated at the Coen brothers's insistence he keep doing it. When they clocked 15 takes, Elliott insisted they tell him what they want. It turns out take six was perfect. They made him do it nine more times just because they liked watching him deliver his lines.
7. Sam Elliott has got a "big three" resume.
Elliott has dozens of acting roles to his credit, but he believes he’s best-known for just three roles: The Big Lebowski, Road House, and 1992’s Tombstone. “That’s the big three,” he told Vulture in 2015. “And it’s really because they repeat that sh*t all the time. None of them had great box office, and I wasn’t so good in any of them. You just can’t escape them. They keep showing up.”
8. Sam Elliott isn't a fan of social media.
Elliott is not one to broadcast his thoughts on Facebook or Twitter. In 2015, the actor told AARP Magazine that social media is of little interest to him. “Everywhere you look, people are looking at their hands,” he said. “In restaurants, it's like you're sitting in a patch of jack-o'-lanterns because everyone's face is lit up by their phone. Nobody's relating to each other.”
9. Sam Elliott doesn't really get the fascination with his mustache.
For most of his roles, Elliott sports a soup strainer of a mustache: Thick, plush, well-weathered. When he goes without—as in his turn as a villain on FX’s Justified—it can be a little disarming, in the same way Superman looks a little odd without his cape. But Elliott doesn’t quite understand the cult of hair around his facial style choices. “The whole mustache thing is a mystery to me,” he told Vanity Fair in 2017. “I’m working on this thing now, A Star is Born—somebody showed me on their cell phone one day that there was this contest online between me and [Tom] Selleck about who had the best mustache. It’s so bizarre.” (For the record, Elliott won't comment on who has the better lip warmer.)
10. Sam Elliott is an Oregon local.
Elliott and his wife spend a month out of the year near Eugene, Oregon. The sight of Elliott visiting hardware stores, restaurants, and other local haunts is common, and Elliott has become a beacon for people seeking a selfie with the actor. (He usually complies.) Eventually, Elliott hopes to move to Oregon full-time.
11. Sam Elliott has a secret to staying grounded.
Elliott doesn’t appear to be too invested in the trappings of celebrity. “We stay out of town, and we don’t get in too deep,” he told Vulture in 2015. “We don’t believe all the sh*t in the rags. And we work hard. Katharine and I have a lot in common. We’ve got a 30-year-old daughter [Cleo] that we’re deeply in love with and still incredibly close to. Life’s good. We live in Malibu and have horses and dogs and cats and chickens. We shovel sh*t, man. That keeps you humble."