Sam Elliott gave up chasing big summer movies a long time ago. So when he was approached about playing Gen. "Thunderbolt" Ross in the adaptation of The Hulk, Elliott was thrilled. But not because his gracefully aging mug would be splashed across thousands of theaters on opening day. Or that he would finally discover what it was like to work in front of a blue screen.
"It was the opportunity to work with Ang Lee," Elliott said of the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon director who becomes the latest to bring a comic book to the cineplex. "That's what this film was all about for me. It wasn't the big extravaganza. It wasn't the big paycheck 'cause I don't pull big paychecks. I'm always the other guy after the feeding frenzy over the money happens."
Elliott, 62, is a plain-spoken, humble-for-Hollywood guy, his hair and bushy mustache statesmanly white. He has kept his 6-foot-1-inch frame trim by kayaking and swimming near his Malibu home.
"It's Mother Nature," he said. "I got good genes, man. I never did any drugs; escaped all that."
The Hulk, opening Friday, features Eric Bana as scientist Bruce Banner, whose experiment gone awry makes him big, green and mean when he gets vexed. Elliott's cigar-chomping Ross runs the base where Banner works and is also the father of Banner's gal, Betty.
Elliott was being wooed for another movie before it fell apart, but the same casting director was also signing up actors for The Hulk and asked Lee to watch a segment of 2000's The Contender, where the presidential adviser played by Elliott berates a party hopeful played by Joan Allen over a sex scandal. It was similar to the behavior General Ross exhibits in the comic series, so Elliott won the role.
Allen had a more direct casting impact on Off the Map, a small film opening later this year that features Elliott as a profoundly depressed man. Allen, who plays his wife, recommended Elliott for the part. Elliott's Charlie is nearly catatonic for much of the film while his 13-year-old daughter begs for his attention.
"I think that's why Joan had me in mind," Elliott said, "because I have this overview of my career as the image of being strong, the cowboy thing, the silent kind of guy, and that was important for Charlie to be. He's wounded and ill but at the core strong."
Although such made-for-TV Westerns as Louis L'Amour's The Sacketts and Louis L'Amour's The Shadow Riders (1982) and a prime-time soap, The Yellow Rose, solidified his reputation as a cowpoke, Elliott has excelled away from the range. His under-appreciated turns as a beach bum clinging to an endless summer in Lifeguard (1976) and as a Harley hunk protecting his girlfriend's deformed son in Mask (1984) endeared him to another set of fans.
Beginning his career as a contract player for Twentieth Century Fox, Elliott got loaned out to Paramount and starred as Dr. Doug Lang in the final season of Mission: Impossible in 1971.
Elliott's first feature had him playing a bit part at the card table in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). On the set he met and fell in love with Katharine Ross, who was the female lead opposite Robert Redford and Paul Newman. Elliott and Ross, now his wife, would later collaborate on several projects, the last of which was a TNT Western they co-wrote and produced called Conagher (1991).
Although Ross chose not to work much after their daughter Cleo was born, Elliott quietly fumed that his wife was not invited recently for a cameo on the in-the-works remake of The Stepford Wives (1975), one of her better-known films. "It surprised me," he said. "She didn't have a second thought about it. I don't get it."
Now Cleo, 18, is making noise about a singing career.
"I certainly will support her," Elliott said. "How can I not? And Katharine feels the same way. But at the same time, having this career gives you this knowledge of what she may be in for, and it's not a pretty picture necessarily."