Dayton Daily News from Dayton, Ohio on January 27, 1980 · 91
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Dayton Daily News from Dayton, Ohio · 91

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Dayton, Ohio
Issue Date:
Sunday, January 27, 1980
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91
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I'm not a new face' 'Frogs' helps 'Wild Times' star leap into limelight after 12-year struggle By Rex Reed Sam Elliott, actor, used to feel like a freak in the chrome and rhinestone jungle of New York. Now that he's the star of movies, like "Lifeguard," and TV specials, like the new four-hour miniseries "Wild Times," his western gear has the Ralph Lauren fashion seal of approval. He lopes through the lobby of the plush Hotel Pierre in his lizard cowboy boots, ranch jeans and 10-gallon Stetson looking like the Marlboro man. But underneath, Sam Elliott is just another sensitive actor with a bruised ego, a confused image and a Malibu address in a lethal industry overcrowded with all three. "After 12 years in this business, I guess I'm not a new face anymore," he says with a Western drawl that wasn't rehearsed. "Still, it's a fight to get good parts, and every new one is like another notch on a six-gun." The starring role in "Wild Times" came about because last year he worked on a short-lived TV show called "The Swack-etts," produced for NBC by Doug Netter. "EVERYONE ALWAYS SAYS, 'Let's work together again someday,' but Netter was one of the few who came through. He optioned the book by Brian Garfield, and I got the part." Filming took seven weeks in Santa Fe, N.M., at a cost of a million dollars an episode. Sam plays Doc Cardiff, a sharp-. shooter in the Old West who ends up running a wild west show. "He's a Buffalo Bill type," Sam says. "But one of the reasons Garfield wrote the book was to set the record straight on what Robert Altman did to Buffalo Bill's image in that awful Paul Newman movie. The truth was that Buffalo Bill really only wanted to become the world's greatest rifle shot, not a legend of any kind." Sam Elliott comes by his accent, his out- doorsy ambiance and his lanky, hitching-post demeanor naturally. Raised in Sacramento by parents who were as Texas as tumbleweeds, Sam wanted to be an actor from the age of 12. His father started out trapping gophers in Marfa, Tex., (where 'Giant" was filmed). Then, he got a job with the Fish and Wildlife Service. The family moved to Oregon, where Elliott was in charge of "predatory and rodent control." "MY OLD MAN never went to college, but he saw so many kids with college degrees getting the good jobs that he wanted me to go. He thought the acting thing was a waste of time. "Realistically, he thought I wouldn't stand a chance. He died of a heart attack at the age of 54, very suddenly, while I was a senior at the University of Oregon. It was 1966. The draft board was hot on my tail. I didn't believe in Vietnam, so I joined the National Guard." Knowing nobody in show business, Elli- r i 4 i ; llJlll. II. 11,1 1 Actor Sam Elliott ott was just another pretty face in a town crammed with beautiful nobodies, so he worked as a construction laborer during the day and studied acting at night at Columbia studios. "After 18 months, I was getting nowhere, so I hit the streets looking for an agent. After a lot of rejection, I finally found one. He signed me to a seven-year contract at Fox in the new talent school. I took diction, voice, dance. As you can see, it didn't do much good. "THE TALENT SCHOOL was a tax write-off for the studio. Nobody took it seriously, and the only actors who ever got parts out of it were the ones who were sleeping with the right people. But it gave me a chance to get inside the studio gate every day and find out what was going on. "I got friendly with two ladies in the script department, who let me read the new TV scripts. I badgered my way into small parts on 'Land of the Giants,' 'Felony Squad' and all that crap Fox was turning out on television at the time. Then, I did 18 'Mission Impossibles' over at Paramount, and I've been free-lancing ever since. Nobody really took me seriously until 'Lifeguard,' which turned out to be a sleeper. And I almost didn't get that." It was a role in a Grade Z horror-called "Frogs," with Ray Milland, that marked the turning point in Elliott's career. Even the actors knew it was a turkey er, rather, a croaker. "ON THE SET, we used to kid around, saying, 'Today, the frog pond, tomorrow the world.' But I heard about this movie 'Lifeguard.' They wanted a blond beach boy. I was in shape. I had been a lifeguard. I had lived at the beach. I knew I was right for the aprt. "Nobody would see me. One night, the director, Dan Petrie, and his wife were watching TV, and 'Frogs' came on. They got my name off the credits and called my agent and set up a meeting, and I got my best break in the business. So, I never bad-mouthed 'Frogs' again." When he's not busting broncs or flexing his biceps, Sam Elliott lives a low profile off screen, currently as roommate of actress Katharine Ross in a mobile trailer on 3 acres in Malibu once owned by James Arness. Ross and Elliott met in London during the filming of another horror flick, "The Legacy." "I SAID I'D NEVER get involved with an actress, and yet she's the most positive thing that ever happened to me," Sam says. "She's smart, she has a heart, she's a great human being. We were stuck in London with a terrible script we had to rewrite as we went along, during one of the worst winters in the history of England. "For four months, I did nothing but open up and talk about myself for the first time in my life. When her house was destroyed Ton cannot believe the casting couch stories I could tell you, man; the cliches are all true.' by the big fire in Malibu, we got through it together, and now, we're living in this tiny trailer, and we are totally removed from all the Hollywood bull, and I have never been so close to another human being before. She has changed my life. Now, we both want a child, and the question of marriage has come up, and we're buying some land up in Big Sur where we can raise horses and build a trout farm. Things are looking just great." At no time during his Hollywood career could anybody call Sam Elliott's lifestyle pretentious. By avoiding the party scene, he might have done himself some harm in . a town where stars are born over vodka stingers in the Polo Lounge, not over marshmallow roasts at the beach. But his overhead is low. "1 KNOW ENOUGH now that I can get a job. I can get employment doing all their TV crap and all their dumb horror flicks. It's trying to find the quality roles that's the hard part. When a guy walks into the town who looks like me, the first thing they say is, 'He's another Clark Gable,' because of my mustache. Then, the minute they see you on a horse they say, 'He's another Gary Cooper.' But before they do anything about it, they pull so much on you that you have to run away before you fall for it. "You cannot believe the casting couch stories I could tell you, man. The cliches 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." "Lifeguard" almost changed that. It's still a cult film among movie buffs. "Wild Times" will certainly enhance the image. "I DON'T WANT to end up like a dozen guys I know who are still hanging in there after 20 years and their lives are eroding and their self-confidence Is shaken, but they still call themselves actors," Sam says. "It's devastating when that happens. The few of us who work once a year are the lucky ones. That's what keeps you from going crazy. Katharine has been kicked around in her career, too, because she won't have anything to do with the social crap that goes on in Hollywood. But we're OK. We don't need much money. We grow our own food, we raise dogs and horses and ducks and chickens. We have more fun sleeping out under the redwood trees than we do going to a movie premiere. You hear about all those overnight successes after 15 years of hard work and struggling maybe I'll be one of them. "The story of Sam Elliott in a nutshell is this, man: I've learned one thing. You can't count on anything in Hollywood. You've gotta count on yourself." Rex Reed Is a nationally syndicated entertainment columnist. Dayton Leisure Sun., Jan. 27, 1980 7

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