- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2017

That voice is simply unmistakable. And for nearly a half-century, Sam Elliott, the California-born actor and veteran of nearly 100 films, has made a career in which he is as known for his basso profundo voice as his 6‘2” frame that exudes masculinity, toughness and poise in films from “Road House” to “Tombstone.”

Yet Mr. Elliott, now 72, insists he never thought of his vocal chords as a ticket to work until an agent at William Morris inquired if he might like to step inside the recording booth to record commercials.

“That was the first time I ever really thought I’d have a career based upon my voice,” Mr. Elliott told The Washington Times. “I never thought about it” before, he insists, until that Ford truck campaign came his way.

Mr. Elliott has continued to stay busy in live-action work as well. The Netflix series “The Ranch” has already enjoyed two seasons. And in addition to his commercial work, Mr. Elliott has lent his voice to cartoons like “American Dad” and “Robot Chicken” in between film and TV projects.

But it was that voice, those unmistakable deep timbres, and his own history of voiceover, that provided the launching pad for filmmaker Brett Haley to pen a script specifically for Mr. Elliott. Directed and co-written by Mr. Haley, “The Hero,” opening Friday in the District, sees Mr. Elliott as Lee Hayden, an aging actor and voiceover artist known primarily for one role decades ago, and whose career unexpectedly gets a boost late in his life.

“Nobody’s ever written a script for me before,” Mr. Elliott told The Times, adding that while he and Lee share some similarities, Mr. Haley’s script takes care to separate the legend from the man. In “The Hero,” Lee is depicted as a one-hit wonder, whose little-scene but fondly remembered Western is about the only credit for which fans recall him. Mr. Elliott said this is where he himself and his fictional avatar break.

“I don’t understand the whole theory of being famous for one role. I’ve talked to Brett about that, and I don’t know if it’s possible,” Mr. Elliott said. “What happened after that one film? They would have had to quit, as far as I’m concerned.”

In an early scene, Lee appears in a recording booth, recording an ad for “Lone Star Barbecue Sauce.” The unseen director has him recite the copy several times over, but never quite telling Lee what is is he’s seeking from the reading.

“That’s definitely the way it is: ‘Just one more time,’” Mr. Elliott said of the repetitious nature of voiceover work. “You do it an endless amount of times, [but] who knows what he was listening for?

“When I go into a booth to do a voiceover, that’s my job. I don’t want to give them” what they don’t want,” he said. “That’s just the nature of the beast.”

In “The Hero,” Lee spends his off-hours smoking weed with buddy Jeremy (Nick Offerman) while waiting for the next job. But then he receives word from his doctor that he has cancer, forcing Lee to take stock of the wreckage of his life and perhaps reconnect with his estranged daughter, Lucy (Krysten Ritter). Lee also meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a struggling stand-up comic several decades his junior, but one with whom he connects with instantly.

“The one thing me and Brett set out to do with that relationship was we felt he had to earn it,” Mr. Elliott said. “We didn’t want it to be gratuitous.”

While much is likely to be made of the age difference between Lee and Charlotte, Mr. Elliott believes that is beside the point of their attraction.

“Because it makes somebody uncomfortable doesn’t mean that it’s impossible,” he said. “And it was uncomfortable for these characters. I think they’re very upfront with the awkwardness.

“They’re two people who are attracted to each other for whatever reason. And it’s certainly not just a physical attraction.”

Despite the new promise in Lee’s life, challenges still await. In addition to trying to reconcile with his daughter and deal with cancer, Charlotte’s life as a stand-up — a profession premised on brutal honesty — threatens her relationship with Lee.

As does his ongoing fondness for drugs.

“I think Lee is his own worst enemy. I think it’s one of the reasons Lee has failed his career and has failed his family,” Mr. Elliott, who has been drawing raves for the performance, said. “The guy doesn’t have his [life] together, no question.

Lee Haden is not a ‘hero,’” Mr. Elliott emphasizes. “That title is not applicable as far as” Lee’s place within the story, he said.

As distinguishable as his voice is Mr. Elliott’s signature mustache, which he has sported to varying lengths throughout his career. The actor said he leaves it up to the filmmakers who hire him as to what state they would like his facial hair to exhibit for their projects.

For the upcoming remake of “A Star Is Born,” director and star Bradley Cooper asked Mr. Elliott, who co-stars alongside Lady Gaga, to alter his mustache slightly.

“Bradley wanted me to not look like I looked on ‘The Ranch,’” Mr. Elliott said. “So I shaved off about half my mustache for that job.

“I’m happy to change my look, [but] there’s gotta be a reason for it.”

Perhaps nowhere in his storied career has Mr. Elliott’s look become as instantly recognizable to fans as his character known only as “The Stranger,” the narrator of the Coen brothers’ cult classic “The Big Lebowski.”

Mr. Elliott chuckles recalling when the script first arrived at his door: It featured the opening narrative accompanied by a note that it should be intoned “in a voice sounding not unlike Sam Elliott.”

“Yeah, it was strange,” Mr. Elliott said of the modern-noir comedy tale of The Dude (Jeff Bridges) and his coterie of bowling chums caught up in a Raymond Chandler-esque L.A. mystery. “And then [The Stranger] shows up [in the film], and it says in the description ‘not looking unlike Sam Elliott.’”

Mr. Elliott says “The Big Lebowski,” “Road House,” “Mask” and “Tombstone” are among the films fans most wish to discuss with him on the street. However, he entreats moviegoers this weekend to give him a chance to watch the Hollywood stalwart stretch some extra muscles in his acting profile.

“You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll have a nice filmgoing experience,” he said of the new film.

“The Hero” opens Friday at the District’s Landmark E Street Cinema and Landmark Bethesda Row in Bethesda, Maryland.

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