By Scott Holleran
Thank You for Smoking’s Marlboro Man, Sam Elliott, has played a range of characters—Cher’s lover in Mask, Jennifer Connelly’s father in Hulk, Farrah Fawcett’s murderer in Texas (Murder in Texas, 1981)—but, on Sunday, April 9 at 8 p.m. ET/PT, he goes solo as Turner Network Television’s Avenger, which is based on the novel by Frederick Forsyth (The Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File).
The popular and versatile actor, who provides the voice of a cow in The Barnyard and appears as a Mormon in The Alibi and a caretaker in Ghost Rider with Nicolas Cage, was interviewed by telephone.
Scott Holleran: In Avenger, your character’s motto is: No Peace Without Justice. Is this a moral ideal?
Sam Elliott: Yes—absolutely. You don’t have to look too far to see that the judicial system is pretty askew right now. This guy makes a living basically as a pro bono lawyer, defending those who can’t defend themselves, and he’s willing to operate outside the law. I understand where this guy comes from. He’s a Vietnam veteran—I know people who died in the Vietnam War and I have a lot of respect for those vets. They weren’t treated right when they came home to America. Like the character, I have a wife and daughter, too.
Scott Holleran: Is the tattoo real and what is it?
Sam Elliott: It’s not real. It’s a rat mooning whoever’s looking at him. In the book by Frederick Forsyth, which I had read before I took the part—it was one of the reasons I was interested in doing it—he’s a Tunnel Rat [an American military type during the Vietnam War] who would go down into these spider and snake infested holes and flush the [Communist North Vietnamese] Viet Cong out. TNT decided very early on to stay way from the Vietnam issue, which I think is unfortunate, particularly because we’re at war in a way that’s being compared to Vietnam. They ended up using a tattoo of the rat instead.
Scott Holleran: Did you work with Avenger producer Wolfgang Petersen (Poseidon)?
Sam Elliott: No. He was not directly involved, but he was there in the shadows.
Scott Holleran: How was working with Timothy Hutton?
Sam Elliott: I had never been around Timothy and he was great. We had a scene toward the end and, yes, I really did kick him.
Scott Holleran: How did you achieve the Avenger look?
Sam Elliott: I’d grown my hair long over the last year—past my shoulders—for Ghost Rider with Nic Cage. When I got over to South Africa [for Avenger], I had grown very attached to this long hair, and in the book, this guy changes his look. He has half a dozen passports. But the director was adamant about cutting my hair and I ultimately opted to cut it.
Scott Holleran: Have you seen Thank You for Smoking?
Sam Elliott: Yes, and I’m someone who can hardly stand to watch his own work. [Director] Jason Reitman sent me the script and he would not take no for an answer. He wanted me to play this Marlboro Man who’s dying of cancer. I ultimately caved in after he wrote me this letter. I only worked two days on it, but I saw the movie and I’m glad I worked on it. I was pleased with my work and, usually, I’m not. It’s a brilliant script.
Scott Holleran: Who was more fun on Mask, Cher or Peter Bogdanovich?
Sam Elliott: Fun? That was a pretty dynamic relationship and I was in the middle of it. In spite of their differences, they are both professionals and I have the greatest respect for both of them. The highlight was working with Eric Stoltz. He spent four hours a day in a make up chair and he ate all of his meals through a straw. Peter is grossly overlooked and he ought to be working. He is honest and he’s opinionated and that doesn’t always fare well in Hollywood. As for Cher, I love that woman. I’m a huge fan of hers.
Scott Holleran: You also appeared with Mel Gibson in We Were Soldiers (2002)—
Sam Elliott: —of all the films I’ve done, that was the most difficult to make. This was an opportunity to get the Vietnam War right and most of the veterans who come up to me tell me we did. It was a very powerful movie—I walked off some of those scenes in tears. By the time we’d gotten into production, I’d met my character in real life. He was amazing.
Scott Holleran: Are there any recent performances we might have missed?
Sam Elliott: Off the Map. It’s a terrific little independent film that Campbell Scott directed with Joan Allen. It is an amazing tale—a coming of age story about a little girl. I play her depressed dad.
Scott Holleran: In 1991, you were executive producer on TNT’s production of Conagher, based on the novel by Western writer Louis L’Amour. Any more Louis L’Amour adaptations?
Sam Elliott: I wish. Not one in the immediate future. With Westerns, I’ve learned that, if you want to get one done, you have to make one yourself. They’re just not making them anymore—at least not that idealized Western. I guess I’m a purist when it comes to the Western. I’ve been in this game for over 30 years and the most often asked question I get is ‘when are you going to do another Western?’ The demand is huge. Hollywood chooses to ignore that and they sort of look down the nose at making Westerns.
Scott Holleran: Have you seen Brokeback Mountain?
Sam Elliott: I did. I went with my wife [actress Katharine Ross (Mike Nichols‘ The Graduate, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)] and I didn’t really get what all the to-do was about. It is a beautiful film and I was thrilled for Ang [Lee, who directed Elliott in Hulk (2003)], but it isn’t a Western. For one thing, it’s about a couple of sheepherders, not cattlemen. The whole homosexual thing was interesting—they stepped over the line—but Katharine and I both looked at it and thought, ‘what’s the big deal?’
Scott Holleran: Some conservatives claim it denigrates the cowboy. What do you think?
Sam Elliott: I do not think it’s anti-cowboy. I have tremendous respect for Ang as a filmmaker.
Scott Holleran: Speaking of cowboys, why didn’t your NBC dramatic series The Yellow Rose catch on?
Sam Elliott: We went down to Del Rio, Texas, and the show was really about these guys who were trying to work out a lifestyle that was ranching and the oil business came into it. They were modern day cowboys but—and I don’t remember who was running NBC—they turned it into soap opera. They messed with it.
Scott Holleran: Avenger plays as if it might make a television series. Would you do one?
Sam Elliott: Not a weekly series, but I might want to think about doing occasional movies with that character.
This interview was originally published on Box Office Mojo in 2006. Elliott went on to star in numerous TV movies and feature films, including a role in 2015’s Grandma starring Lily Tomlin.