Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Sam Elliott got his start as a contract player for 20th Century Fox at the tail end of the ’60s, doing a fair amount of television before slowly but surely shifting gears and becoming a full-fledged movie star by the ’80s, starring in such iconic films as Road House, Tombstone, and The Big Lebowski. In recent years, Elliott’s TV work has mostly been limited to Westerns, but he has been tempted to make a rare small-screen appearance, bringing his mustache and his memorable voice to Parks And Recreation to play Ron Swanson’s Eagleton doppelgänger.
Parks And Recreation (2013)—“Ron Dunn”
Sam Elliott: I’m not sure where it emanated from or where the thought came from, because it’s totally off the wall for me. It’s kind of the antithesis of what I’ve been doing for most of my career. But, God, the opportunity, when it came along, it was a no-brainer to do it, ’cause I’m a fan of the show. Even after nearly 50 years in this business, I still feel like I’m lucky every time I get a decent job, but an opportunity to work with people of that ilk… I mean, they’re really smart people, and they’re doing something to give you a laugh. It was a pleasure to be around those guys. I don’t know where the idea came from, to be honest with you, although I think it was probably something that the people at Parks And Recreation brought to the agency. Somehow I don’t think it was anything that the agents went out and pursued. [Laughs.]
The A.V. Club: On the surface, the idea of you and Nick Offerman working together would seem to be almost too much testosterone for one show to handle.
SE: It was fun stuff. I must say that I’m not sure what I did there. I’m anxious to see it, because I have no idea. It’s not like I got called and they made a deal for me to come back. [Laughs.] Maybe they’ll never want to see me again.
AVC: How did you enjoy working alongside Ron Swanson?
SE: I really enjoyed Nick. Not to belabor it, but he’s a very smart guy. I left there with a couple of books that he passed on to me by a guy named Wendell Berry, and they’re pretty heady stuff. Even though they’re kind of simplistic on some level, they’re really well written, and they’re the kind of books that you’ve really got to work at to get into. I’m not a voracious reader, and I’ve been on kind of a fast track lately, so every time I sit down to read Wendell Berry at night, it’s like, I’ve got to fucking go back and find my way in, because it’s really incredible writing. In the last two months, though, my wife Katharine’s read both books. I’m still fighting my way through the first one! [Laughs.] That’s all I can say about Offerman, other than that he’s a fucking great guy: He’s a man of the earth, and he’s a smart guy. He’s going to make a big contribution to this game, I think. I’m actually going to go to a book-signing party for him. He’s written a book. I have no idea what it is, but I’m up in Oregon right now, and we’re going to drive back down to California to go to the signing.
AVC: Michael Schur said, “I want to know that we live in a world where Sam Elliott and Nick Offerman can sit down and have dinner together.”
SE: [Laughs.] Cool. Well, we definitely will do that. I’d say so, at least.
[We contacted Offerman to get his position on the matter. He replied, “Well, my God, I'll build a truck, and then I'll drive the truck to ferry him to dinner at the table of his choosing. I would walk a very long mile to share a sleeve of Saltines with Sam, let alone a plate of steak.”]
Felony Squad (1968)—“Jack”
AVC: In trying to find the role that’s the farthest back in your filmography, it looks like it was playing a character named Jack in an episode of Felony Squad.
SE: Oh, shit. That was when I was… That was the beginning! That was the first episodic TV show I did, and I was under contract to 20th Century Fox at the time. That was a scene with Howard Duff and a guy named Dennis Cole. It was a cop show.
AVC: It obviously stuck with you, since you just pulled out the names of those two actors immediately.
SE: Well, I certainly remember Howard, because he was around forever, and I remember Dennis because he had this incredible shock of blond hair. He was one of these really good-looking guys. I don’t know happened to him or if he’s still around in the business or even still alive. But I remember we shot in some gas station right down the street from 20th Century Fox. I was under a car that was on a hoist in the scene. It wasn’t much of a part; let me put it that way.
AVC: Everybody’s got to start somewhere.
SE: Well, that was my spot. [Laughs.]
AVC: What led you down the path of being an actor in the first place?
SE: Going to too many movies when I was growing up, basically. I just got fascinated by it early on. And it wasn’t like I wanted to be a legitimate actor, a real actor. I wanted to make movies. Consequently, I didn’t study, really. I did some. I did a lot of stuff all the way through school. But I just got bit by wanting to do films, and I had tunnel vision about it. But I had a lot of encouragement from different drama coaches along the way, and my mom was a big supporter. My dad thought I was fucking crazy. [Laughs.]
The Way West (1967)—uncredited extra
Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1969)—“Card Player #2”
AVC: The first film that you’re credited in was Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, where you had the lofty title of Card Player #2.
SE: [Laughs.] Yeah. But I actually worked as an extra on a movie up here in Oregon called The Way West, which was a Harold Hecht production. It was Kirk Douglas and… oh, I can’t remember at this point who the hell was in this thing, but I worked a couple of days on that one when I was up there going to school in summer.
AVC: Are you actually visible onscreen?
SE: Yeah, every so often in the foreground. It was about a wagon train that left Independence, Missouri at some point in the 1860s or whenever the hell it was, and I was walking along on foot behind a wagon that Sally Field was sitting on the tailgate of. This was when she was super young. Back in the day. But, yeah, Card Player #2 was the first credit, and the only reason my name was in there was because I was under contract to Fox when they made the film. I’m literally a shadow on the wall in that thing.
SE: Definitely a highlight. It came at a time when I’d done a year on Mission: Impossible, I’d done a few movies for TV at that point, I’d done a film called Lifeguard, and I’d just finished a year on an episodic television series called The Yellow Rose. So I’d been around, and I was pretty well established. But it just came at a great time, and it’s always gonna be a special one for me.
AVC: That was kind of a turning point for Cher as well, as far as being acknowledged as an actress rather than just a singer playing at being an actress.
SE: To be honest with you, I think that was one of the highlights of the experience for me, working with her, having been a Cher fan from the beginning. And Eric Stoltz was amazing. Eric literally was that character. I never saw Eric out of that. I think that was intentional on his part. He was really well invested in that part. He was in deep. He was eating his meals out of a straw. He dropped 10 pounds, I think, when we were working on that film, and he’s a pretty slight kid, anyway. He suffered through it in the summertime in Universal City and never complained once. He just was that character. It was an amazing experience. Not to mention László Kovács, the director of photography, and Peter Bogdanovich directing. It just was a wonderful experience.
Gettysburg (1993)—“Brigadier General John Buford”
SE: Because I like history and I’m a horseman, I think I always kind of gravitate toward those military roles or Western characters. And there was something about Buford. He was a soldier’s soldier. I think one of the interesting parts about that is that, when it came to me, there was an offer attached to it to play Robert E. Lee, but somebody who will remain nameless, somebody who was on the production playing one of the other parts, said, “If he plays that part, I’m not gonna do the movie.” [Laughs.] So they pulled that offer, and they offered me the part of Buford. And I was very glad that they did, because Buford, in my mind, was the more interesting of the two characters. Martin Sheen did a nice job playing it, but I thought Buford was a more interesting character. We were back there, right on the edges of those battlefields, where they shot a lot of that, so we’re pretty much shooting on hallowed ground, as far as I’m concerned. Those incredible experiences… if they come to you, you never forget ’em.
Thank You For Smoking (2005)—“Lorne Lutch”
Up In The Air (2009)—“Maynard Finch”
Draft Day (2014)—actor
SE: Maynard! The one thing I remember of that was looking at [George] Clooney’s eyes. Clooney’s got a set of shark eyes, man. I mean, they’re deep and they’re dark. And it kind of disarmed me. It took me a few takes to get into that thing. We kind of chuckled about it at the time. I remember Clooney saying something like, “Oh, I’m glad I still got it!” [Laughs.] I truly loved Jason Reitman. I was there on his first film, Thank You For Smoking, and I’d go work with him to do anything.
There wasn’t much to it. It was just one scene. I was actually on another job. I was shooting a not-very-good film called Something About The Morgans or Have You Heard About The Morgans? I think that’s what it was. It was in New York, actually, and I think they were in fucking Missouri, where they shot Up In The Air. So I flew over there and did that part, then I came back the next day. In shitty weather. It was a small plane, and I remember landing in New York, and the rain was, like, going sideways. But I’d do anything for the Reitmans.
I went and worked for Jason’s dad recently, actually. I met him through Jason a few times when I was with Jason—I met his mom and his dad both—and Ivan did this movie Draft Day this year that Kevin Costner starred in. He called me in to play a part, and it was literally… I was on the set for three or four hours. I did a scene with Costner on the telephone. So I guess that shows you how easy I am to get to work for you… if your name’s Reitman, anyway.
Land Of The Giants (1969)—“Martin Reed”
SE: Holy shit. [Long pause.] I’m trying to think of anything good to say about that one—
AVC: There may not be anything.
SE: It was one of those weird things, like green screen today is the weird way of working, with all this technology. Back in those days, you were looking at… maybe there were a couple of dolls in the corner, or you were looking at a spot, an “X” on the wall, to relate to these little people. ’Cause we were all giants, right? [Laughs.] But, you know, probably one of the fondest recollections I have of my career are the two years I was under contract to 20th Century Fox, because it was the beginning.
AVC: You certainly did quite a lot of episodic TV back then.
SE: Yeah. Felony Squad started it, and they had several shows there. A couple of ’em were Westerns, and I did those as well. But it was just about the opportunity to be on the lot, one of those major lots, before the whole thing turned upside down and the guys from Wall Street came in and took over the reins and it became big business rather than big studios making movies. So I really have some fond, fond memories of that time.
Mission: Impossible (1970-1971)—“Doug Robert”
AVC: Was Mission: Impossible the first time you had the opportunity to be a series regular?
SE: Yeah, I went from Fox to that. That was, like, my third year in the business. It was just one of those things where I got called in for an audition, I went in, and it wasn’t even really an audition. It was just kind of a meeting. I think the show went on for maybe one more season after I joined it. Lesley Ann Warren and I joined it at the same time. The one thing I remember more than anything else is the relationship that I developed with Peter Graves, who I knew as a young kid from a series that he did called Fury. [Laughs.] Peter was a real mentor with me. I spent a lot of time talking to him, and he was really an encouraging character in my life at a time when I was still trying to find my way, I think. But it was a great experience.
Prancer (1989)—“John Riggs”
SE: Wow. Another highlight. You are picking up some obscure pieces. [Hesitates.] You know, I don’t know why these things come. I think sometimes they come purely from luck. I know a lot of things have come to me because of my baggage. There’s this Western thing. Even though there’s times when I’ve thought, “Jesus Christ, I’d like to get beyond this,” it’s really kind of drawn a chain through my career. I remember flying to Indiana to do an interview with Raffaella De Laurentiis, who produced the movie, John [Hancock], who directed, and a gal named Susan Willett that was the casting director. They were all in this meeting, and I went in there, and I pretty much knew that I had it when the meeting was over. Again, I was playing one of those Nick Offerman characters, one of those kind of agrarians, somebody who was close to the land—and paid the price for being that close to the land at times. But he was a man who lived alone with his two kids, including an incredible little daughter. It was great stuff.
The Big Lebowski(1998)—“The Stranger”
The Contender (2000)—“Kermit Newman”
SE: Oh, yeah. That’s another one that came because of that background, that continuing saga of the Western thing. Although I’d had a moment in time when there were projects like The Contender, where Rod Lurie saw something way beyond that. Actually, that came after the Coen brothers encounter. Making movies is never going to get better than working on a Coen brothers project. [Laughs.] And it’s never going to get better than working opposite an actor like Jeff Bridges. That’s as good as it gets. I don’t even know what to refer to him as. He’s just a great guy. He’s iconic on his own merits. He came from the business, born into the business, he’s been a credit to the business, and he continues to be today. He’s winning Academy Awards, and at the same time, he’s got this beautiful family, a beautiful wife and a couple of beautiful girls. He’s just a real guy. He’s the fucking dude. Jeff is the dude. Period. I mean, that’s no bullshit. It’s just the way he is.
AVC: As far as your character goes, he doesn’t even have a name beyond The Stranger. Did they give you anything to work with as far as who this guy was?
SE: Well, they gave me a script. [Laughs.] I was in Texas doing a picture called Rough Riders that John Milius directed, and I got this script sent to me. I read it one night after we’d been shooting. I certainly knew the Coens. I hadn’t seen every movie that they’d made, but I certainly knew who these guys were. But I read the script, and I was like, “Hmmm…” There’s this description of a guy doing this voiceover, and it says in the script, “There’s this Western voiceover, and ‘Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds” is playing in the background, and the voiceover sounds not unlike Sam Elliott.” This is in the pages! So I read a little further on, and then this character appears, and it says, “And here’s The Stranger, looking not unlike Sam Elliott.” So it was, like, that was the pitch: “Let’s put his name in the script. Maybe he’ll bite for it.” [Laughs.] And I did. In a big way.
I remember talking to John the next morning, because he knew the Coen brothers—certainly better than I did—so I asked him for his opinion. And he said, “What do you mean? Is there a doubt in your mind?” I said, “No, I was just curious what you thought.” He said, “I think you should do it!” It was an amazing experience. I was there for all of two days, but sometimes… I don’t know, I’m a big believer in “less is more.” I mean, I had my shot. I had my moment, where I had the starring role in Lifeguard and all that, but I think I kind of fucked myself out of a career on that level from being too honest and too opinionated and not really very smart at the same time. I think I scared people off. But I’ve managed to be very fortunate over the years. These things have kept coming around and coming around.
Lifeguard (1976)—“Rick Carlson”
AVC: You’ve mentioned Lifeguard offhandedly a couple of times. Is there anything more to be said about it, really?
SE: Uh… no. [Laughs.] I mean, that’s one of those that was luck. I tried to get a meeting on that job, and I couldn’t get a meeting on it. I was at William Morris at the time, and I later found out that they were touting Beau Bridges for the part! Which is why I couldn’t get in: My agent handled him. Then time went by and time went by, they were getting very close to starting to shoot, and they hadn’t cast the lead part. And one night, Danny [Petrie], the director, was home brushing his teeth, and his wife, Dorothea, was in bed watching TV, and she said, “Danny, come and look at this guy Adam Rourke!” Adam Rourke was an actor that was in this movie I did called Frogs.
AVC: Oh, that’s on the list to ask you about.
SE: [Snorts.] I’ll bet it is. Well, Danny comes in, he looks at the screen, and says, “That’s not Adam Rourke.” And she says, “Well, who is he?” And he said, “I don’t know.” So they sat through this fucking movie and got my name off the credits. So that’s how I got in on Lifeguard.
Molly And Lawless John (1972)—“Johnny Lawler”
Frogs (1972)—“Pickett Smith”
AVC: As of this writing, Frogs is available for streaming on Netflix.
SE: I didn’t know that. That’s a scary thought. Shit. [Sighs.] Frogs. Frogs came because of another obscure movie I did called… well, the title when we shot it was Cactus. It was released as Molly And Lawless John, and it was a Western with Vera Miles. The greatest thing about that movie was, one day, John Ford showed up on the set, just to see Vera. And I got to spend some time with John Ford. That was huge. But that movie was produced by a friend, financed by the friend’s dad, and written by the friend’s brother. It was a guy named Dennis Durney, and Terry Kingsley-Smith was the writer/brother. Anyway, George Edwards, who produced Frogs, had seen Cactus, and that’s why I got called in to meet on it.
It’s really kind of a continuing saga, you know? People talk about how there’s many ways to design a career. I think a lot of mine was happenstance. If you’re there long enough, you accumulate this… baggage, as Joel Silver called it. When I was meeting on Road House, I said, “How’d I get in here?” He said, “You’ve got a lot of baggage, and it makes you right for this part.”
The Sacketts (1979)—“Tell Sackett”
The Shadow Riders (1982)—“Dal Traven”
The Quick And The Dead (1987)—“Con Vallian”
Conagher (1991)—“Conn Conagher”
AVC: You’ve done four Louis L’Amour projects over the course of your career. Were you a L’Amour fan before you did The Sacketts?
SE: No, I didn’t read a lot of Louis L’Amour until I got involved with his works as an actor. I was doing The Sacketts with Tom [Selleck] and the rest of the bunch, [with] some of the most iconic guys, like Ben Johnson and Slim Pickens. I’ve known these guys and watched ’em since I was a little kid.
When I was doing The Sacketts, there was a day when I was down, we were shooting in an area called Patagonia in Arizona, and I got a call to go pick Louis L’Amour up at the airport down in Tucson. So I went down and got him, and on the drive back up there, he asked me if I’d ever read a book called Conagher that he’d written. I hadn’t, but he said, “You ought to read it, ’cause you and your girlfriend would be really good for it.” That was before Katharine [Ross] and I were married, of course. But by the time I had enough money to buy that thing—I optioned it a couple of times, and then I did that year on The Yellow Rose and made some money—and we committed to it, it was one of the great experiences. I think [Conagher’s] probably the one I’m most proud of, in terms of a Western, because Katharine and I both wrote the screenplay, and I was one of the producers on it. It was really a labor of love. It took a long time.
But I liked all of ’em. They were all special on their own level, the Louis L’Amour projects. Working with Kate Capshaw was probably the highlight of The Quick And The Dead.
AVC: Was there a particular highlight on The Shadow Riders?
SE: There was a guy named Doug Netters who produced The Sacketts, and he wanted to do more and continue the saga. It’s kind of like today, what they do with sequels in the movie business. They’re very contrived a lot of times, and there’s not really anywhere else to go, story-wise, than where they’ve already been. He wanted to do that with The Shadow Riders, so they literally wrote a screenplay and shot The Shadow Riders before Louis L’Amour wrote the book. [Laughs.] Which was pretty mindboggling. But I was working with somebody I considered to be a very close friend in Tom. We both started out at exactly the same place at the same time: we were both under contract at 20th Century Fox out of college and with it all ahead of us. Katharine being in it as well, and Ben Johnson and couple of those people filled up the rest of the cast. It was all great stuff and a lot of fun.
SE: Yeah, with Hulk, I was in Oregon taking care of my mom, and I got a call to go south for a meeting. And I’m always available to go for a meeting for the right reason, and the reason for this one was because the meeting was with Ang Lee. So I got on a plane and flew down there, and… [Snorts.] I had my fucking hair down to my shoulders at that time. I think it was longer than it’d ever been.
So five minutes of the conversation was about my hair, and five minutes of the conversation was about a movie called Dog Watch that Ang had watched the night before, and he just fucking continued to rave about this movie, which was one of the most obscure films I’d ever done. It was directed by a guy named John Langley, who was the producer of Cops. When I say it’s obscure, it’s obscure only that I don’t think a lot of people saw it. That’s all I mean by that. In my heart, it’s special.
But Ang went and on about this thing, and, anyway, it all became about, “How do you feel about cutting off your hair?” Because I look like Ross. I look like that general in the comic books. And then it became about whether I was gonna cut my moustache. And whether I was gonna smoke a cigar, which I wanted to do, but Ang thought, “Nah, don’t smoke a cigar.” Ross was always chompin’ on a cigar in the comic book. God, he’s Ang Lee, you know? Jesus. A real gentleman, a family man, and a brilliant filmmaker. And I just loved him.
AVC: Ghost Rider, on the other hand, was a bit more mainstream as comic-book movies go.
SE: Ghost Rider is one of those things that came my way because of Old West Ghost Rider, or whatever the hell that character’s name was that I played in the end. I remember talking to Mark [Steven Johnson], the kid that directed that, and it was that whole thing, my backstory in these Westerns, that got me that one.
Shakedown (1988)—“Richie Marks”
AVC: Peter Weller spoke highly of the experience of working with you on Shakedown.
SE: I spent a winter in New York, it was colder than shit, and we shot a lot of nights on that abandoned freeway where they shoot so many films, right there close to the water. Can’t remember that section of highway. But I remember hanging off of bridges and doing weird shit in that movie. There was a shot in the end where I’m supposedly under the nose of a plane, hanging onto the landing gear, and I end up in the fucking bay. I remember being about as cold as I’ve ever been in my life, doing that fucking scene.
Peter was… Peter’s an interesting cat, you know? We kind of sniffed each other out, I think, for about half that film. And then one day in the middle of the fucking movie, Peter goes out and competes in the fucking New York Marathon, and I was standing there at the finish line… no, it wasn’t the finish line, but it was along the way. So I gave him a big shout-out. I gave him a big “Fucking come on, Peter!” [Laughs.] And he looked over, and I think it shocked him that I was there seeing him run. From there, we really got along pretty well. It was kind of a weird thing. We’ve also both had the same agent, which compounded the fucking problems, if there were any. It was all about script. It was all creative differences, as I recall. But I enjoyed that a lot.
AVC: He made particular mention of the fact that they actually closed down 42nd Street, and that you had armed guards on set because of all the lowlifes.
SE: Yeah. But that was a deal where I was coming out of a fucking window onto a fucking movie marquee, and the movie marquee ends up breaking or some shit. There was all these big stunts involved, but that’s not what I think of when I think of that movie. I think of that old defunct freeway. Or at least it was at that time. It was an old freeway that had been shut down. It was something that had a lot of traffic on it during its day, and its day had passed. I don’t remember where it was.
But, it was a trip shooting on 42nd Street. I’ll tell you what was weird about that: When the people around there recognized you. I get a lot of that. I think a lot of it is because a lot of those people are vets from my war, the Vietnam War. I call it “my war” only because it was the war I would’ve gone to had I ever gone to war. I was fortunate enough to be in the National Guard, so I didn’t go. But it’s always a trip to be exposed to people that are living on the streets. There but for the grace of God, you know?
Road House (1989)—“Wade Garrett”
SE: Well, I already told you about the meeting with Joel Silver. That meeting was at Fox, and I remember going in and meeting Joel and the director [Rowdy Harrington]. There’s been a lot said off and on from different quarters about Joel, but I really love this guy. He was like a throwback to old Hollywood. He was one of those larger-than-life characters… and larger than life physically! He was a fucking smart guy. I’m always intrigued by intellect. Maybe it’s because I’m not too fucking swift myself. I don’t know. But I really liked him, he really liked me, and we got on really well. I’m not sure that Harrington had shit to say about who he was going to direct in this movie. But I was in pretty much peak for that period of my life, physically. It was a very physical job. I mean, you hear all that bullshit about “It’s all stunt doubles” and all that shit. Well, it isn’t. All the actors, as far as I know, did their own fighting. I fucking got the shit kicked out of me for the entire film. [Laughs.]
AVC: When I interviewed Kelly Lynch, she talked about her own meeting with Joel Silver, and that he said, “I promise you that this will be the best drive-in movie ever made. It will be a movie that people will love. It will be fun, we’ll have a great time making it, and just trust me. And by the way, you don’t have a choice. You’re under contract.”
SE: There you go. That’s Joel Silver. And Patrick [Swayze]… I gotta say that was a fucking heartbreaker, losing him. It’s not like I hung out with him. I had encounters with him over the years a couple of times, but the thing that struck me about him—beyond his physical presence and his athleticism because of his dancing background—was that he was just such a fucking gentleman. He lived and breathed that shit, you know? He came from the South and obviously had a good upbringing. He was just a nice kid. What a fucking shame to lose him so young.
The Golden Compass (2007)—“Lee Scoresby”
AVC: Is there any project you’ve done over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
SE: Yeah, The Golden Compass. That’s another one that came to me because of that whole Western thing. That was a great piece in its potential, because it was a trilogy, and it was read worldwide and had a huge readership. At the box office, it did much better overseas than it did domestically. I think it did $80 million domestically and, fuck, they spent a hundred and whatever million on it. So it didn’t look good on paper.
But the interesting part about it was that the writer, Philip Pullman, went to the first press deal there in New York—it was kind of an international press conference—and said that he was an atheist in this fucking meeting. You don’t say that in front of the international press and think that you’re gonna come away unscathed. It’s one thing to do it on a personal level and be tainted by it or whatever. It doesn’t matter. So you’re an atheist. That’s somebody’s opinion. But this thing was he was out there selling a movie, and the fucking Catholic Church heard that comment, and they just jumped on that thing on all fours and would never let it up. They sent emails out to their congregation and boycotted the movie, they called it the worst possible family entertainment, they called it an assault on God. I mean, they just went after it and just knocked the shit out of the domestic box office. The rest is history, man.
New Line and Bob [Shaye], the guy that ran New Line… that ended it. He lost his job, and New Line became a little thing inside Warner Bros. It was tough. I remember Bob saying to me at a party afterward, “Your audience,”—he called ’em my audience, these churchgoers. Again, it’s back to that Western, middle-of-the-country thing—“they’re the ones that are gonna kill this movie.” I said, “Well, why don’t you send me out on the road and let me go out there with that rap? I’m prepared to do it.” I’d’ve loved to have gone on and talked to the press about it and called it what it was. Because it was unfair. I’d’ve gone on O’Reilly and talked about it: “You wanna talk about the Catholic Church with me? I’m all for it. What about those fucking guys within the church that you’ve been hiding forever?” That was before those guys came clean.
There was a great argument there to be had on behalf of the film, is all I’m saying. I wanted those second two films to get made. Particularly the second one. That character I was playing, he had some amazing shit to do in the second piece. I really would love to have done it. But, you know, that’s show biz.
Tombstone (1993)—“Virgil Earp”
AVC: You’ve done plenty of Westerns for television, but as far as your theatrical films, the one that’s the most iconic for most people is probably Tombstone.
SE: Well, for me, too. [Laughs.] You don’t get a chance to play those guys too often. There’s a lot of different elements that go into doing this shit, as you can well imagine. I remember getting this call to go meet this guy named Kevin Jarre down at a restaurant on Sunset. Mirabelle’s, I think, was the name of it. It’s gone now. But I remember going and meeting Kevin, and I’d read the script. He wrote the script and was going to direct the movie. As far as I know, he handpicked this cast, and he put together one of the greatest casts that I know of for a Western in this period of time. He’d written this brilliant fucking piece of material. I don’t know anybody who didn’t go to that job because of what they read on the page.
But we get over there, and a week into the fucking thing—a day if you were really watching—you knew this kid couldn’t direct. It was shocking and, at the same time, it was heartbreaking, because he was a real nice-looking guy and a soft-spoken kid, and you just wanted him to fucking succeed because of the thing that he put together. If he had any talent—he could’ve sat back and had conversations; none of us were inexperienced actors at that point, and he had one of the best D.P.s in the business in Bill Fraker—he could’ve gotten through it. But he didn’t. And what he was turning in was no good. A guy named Jim Jacks was producing that movie, and he was a very close friend of Kevin’s. I think he’s probably the one that got him the job directing it. He convinced the studio to stick with him. They stuck with him for a month, but after a month they had to let him go. That’s when they brought in George Cosmatos.
But Kurt [Russell] really took the reins in his hand. He was determined that he’d have that movie made the way it was and have it be the success that it was. So were the rest of us. It was a tough shoot, but it was well worth it, and, boy, it was a lot of fun. Those costume pieces are always fun. I mean, that’s the ultimate: getting to pretend that you’re somebody else.
Rush (1991)—“Larry Dodd”
SE: That came about because I’d been a contract player at 20th Century Fox. The man who was producing it was the man who’d been in charge of Fox at the time: Richard Zanuck. His wife, Lili, directed it, and… shit, it was incredible. I got to work with Jennifer Jason Leigh. One of my favorite actresses. I’d had an opportunity to work with her one time and turned away from it, a movie called The Hitcher. Rutger Hauer ended up playing the part. It was a crazy fucking part and a crazy movie, and I was always sorry I didn’t do it. Anyway, that opportunity to work with her came along again, and I really loved Jennifer.
The Legacy (1978)—“Pete Danner”
AVC: You were both technically in Butch Cassidy, but the first time you really worked alongside your wife was in The Legacy, right?
SE: That’s right. I saw her a lot coming and going, in the commissary and other places, when we were working on Butch Cassidy. The great opportunity that came with that one was when they were shooting at the studio. Before they went down to Mexico or wherever they were going on location at the time, they shot at the studio, and that part gave me an opportunity to get through the guy that was on the door, the guard. Those were closed sets in those days. But because I’d worked on the show and because I was under contract to the studio, I’d get past the guards, so I’d just go in there and camp and watch ’em shoot that thing. Back in the corner, out of the light. What an amazing experience to watch that bunch work. And I saw Katharine coming and going, but we never exchanged words, never exchanged a look, never exchanged anything. But then we ended up over there in England in 1978, and we’ve basically been together ever since.
AVC: How was it working with Roger Daltrey?
SE: Daltrey was a trip! I mean, he was a good actor, and he was another one of those guys who’s just a fucking good guy. No pretense, no bullshit. It’s incredible when you get around those people. I’ve been lucky to work with a bunch of those guys, particularly when I first got into the business. You get around any of those people that are really real people, that aren’t just fucking above it all, and it just reaffirms your belief in what a fucking great world this fucking entertainment business is. We can all call the assholes, we’ve all had experience with ’em, but I don’t think those people are good for the business. Tough is one thing, being an asshole is something else.
Hawkins (1973)—“Luther Wilkes”
AVC: In regards to actors from the old days, you did an episode of Hawkins—
SE: Yeah! With Jimmy Stewart! It was an amazing experience. I just did a piece for a magazine called Cowboys And Indians, and I talked about that with them. But to give you an example of the one thing that stuck with me about Stewart: I’d seen Stewart over the years at a place called the Bel Air Country Club, where he played golf. The one thing that stuck in my mind was that we shot [Hawkins] at MGM, where Sony is today, over there in Culver City. It was hotter than shit, and I remember Stewart, every time when he’d get up to work off-camera—he’d done his piece, and they were gonna shoot the other actor—Stewart had this stand-in that’d been with him for eons. And this guy would bring over his suit coat, Jimmy would put on this suit coat, and then he’d put on this fucking topcoat to stand there and do his lines off camera. He got in full costume just to go again!
I’ve worked with actors over the years who would do everything they could to fucking throw you off. Not to help you out, not to be there the way they were when they were in front of the camera. And that was just a great fucking lesson to me. It’s one of the reasons that I take it serious. It’s work. We’re there to work. We’re there to have a good time, too, but we’re there to fucking work. If you can't enjoy that kind of work, then you’re doing it wrong. It just comes out of being professional, or having enough consideration for your fellow actor. That really stuck with me about Stewart. He was an amazing man.