He's not dressed for the West this time, but Sam Elliott is still playing a lone ranger of sorts.
A veteran of numerous cowboy roles, the rugged, distinctively deep-voiced actor goes contemporary as an international troubleshooter in TNT's new movie adaptation of Frederick Forsyth's novel "Avenger" Sunday, April 9.
Hired to find a businessman's son missing in Bosnia, Cal Dexter (Elliott) turns the job into a hunt for the war criminal behind the disappearance. The target is working with the CIA, so two members of the agency (Timothy Hutton, James Cromwell) scheme to end Dexter's pursuit.
"It just came to me," Elliott says of the project, "about a year after the producers (including 'The Perfect Storm' filmmaker Wolfgang Petersen) and TNT started working on it. It was a good piece with a lot of good people involved, and it seemed like it would be a lot of fun, so I went for it. There's also a slice of reality to be taken away from it, if you want that."
Elliott admits he wasn't very familiar with the work of Forsyth, best known for "The Day of the Jackal," the saga of an assassin stalking French President Charles de Gaulle. "He is a prolific writer, but I hadn't read much of his material until this thing came around," Elliott says. "In defense of the production, the book was really convoluted, with a massive amount of characters. When you get 91 minutes to tell the story on screen, you can't do the novel. He's an amazing writer, though."
"Avenger" provides Elliott a now-rare starring role after his run of supporting parts in movies such as "Hulk," "We Were Soldiers" and "The Contender." He acknowledges, "It's the character actor versus the leading man, and in the arena of TV, I can do the leading-man thing. I can get those gigs. If I want to do features (in that vein), they're not handing those to me."
Once a regular on television's original "Mission: Impossible," Elliott's credits date back to the classic Western "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." One of his favorite projects remains one of his earliest, the 1976 character study "Lifeguard." He recalls, "That was probably five years in, careerwise, and it was a personal milestone. Dan Petrie did a great job directing that movie; it was shot for something like only $900,000. Those were the days."
Elliott is no stranger to TNT. He produced and starred in several Westerns for the network, including one of the top-rated cable movies to date: the Louis L'Amour story "Conagher," which also featured Elliott's wife, Katharine Ross.
Despite Ross' famous role as Elaine Robinson in the landmark 1967 film "The Graduate," she and Elliott haven't seen "Rumor Has It ... ," the recent Jennifer Aniston comedy about a woman who thinks her family was the earlier movie's inspiration. "It's like 'The Stepford Wives,' " Elliott maintains of the 2004 remake of the 1975 picture his spouse was in. "As much as I'm a huge fan of Nicole Kidman, I just could not get interested in going to see it."
Now in his eighth year of providing voiceovers for beef-industry ads, Elliott says he's proud that job wasn't "born out of anything financial. I think my affinity for the West and my history with the Western genre just came together.
"The cattlemen's association actually has a big winter convention in Denver, and I went there this year; that's an event my dad used to go to. I got up and spoke in front of about a thousand people at 7:30 in the morning, and I felt very welcomed. You're going to be, when you're the spokesman for a product."
Elliott's unique sound also won him the role of a cow named Ben in the forthcoming animated movie "Barnyard," and he calls the experience "a very strange thing. It's a three-year process to make something like that, and you just keep going over and over and over [the lines]. I may very well have to go back in and do my voice-over completely anew once [the animation] is finished, which would be great. I'm looking forward to seeing the whole thing; I've only seen a few frames."
If TNT opts for a series of "Avenger" thrillers, Elliott isn't opposed to having that conversation. "I don't think it's accidental that kind of stuff comes to me," he says, "and I'm sure it's not accidental that I respond to it. Certain actors are somebody else every time; they're chameleons, and my hat's off to every one of them. As much as I like to stretch, that's never been my game. And I'm not sure that's a bad thing."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun