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August 22, 2017

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For Sam Elliott, 'The Hero' sums up his life, career nicely

SANTA MONICA, California — Sam Elliott is thinking about the old days. About when he was just starting out in Hollywood in the late 60s as a contract player for 20th Century Fox, getting paid US$85 a week and paying US$85 a month for a little bachelor apartment near the studio gate. About how William Holden once took him to get a French Dip sandwich to calm his nerves after he froze up in a scene. About working with Jimmy Stewart and Slim Pickens and Ben Johnson.

They're stories he's told before, and will tell again, but there's something else going on behind that all-too-familiar baritone.

As Elliott goes down the list of the people who helped the Saturday matinee obsessed kid get his start in Hollywood there comes a pause after every name and a sentence that will be repeated often. "Who is now deceased," the 72-year-old says matter-of-factly.

It's not that it's a surprise for a man whose career has spanned 50 years. But this moment is different.

Blame it on "The Hero."

"All of these people in my past at that period of time are gone. And I really wish they were here — particularly right now," Elliott says on a recent afternoon in a sunny booth at the art deco Hotel Shangri-La in Santa Monica. "There's something about 'The Hero' that sums it all up for me. If I never worked again after this movie, I'd be good with it."

"The Hero," out in limited release Friday, is a film that was made, literally, for Elliott. He plays Lee Hayden, a past-his-prime Western icon, who's not getting roles anymore (only voiceover work), is estranged from his adult daughter (Krysten Ritter) and spends his days smoking weed with a friend (Nick Offerman). Then he gets the call — he has cancer.

It's the first time anyone has written an entire script for Elliott, who has attained icon status in his half century of work playing strong and silent Western types, and send-ups of those men, from Virgil Earp in "Tombstone" to "The Stranger" in "The Big Lebowski." And he doesn't expect that it'll ever happen again.

"We basically took what we loved about Sam, the legacy that he has, and we made him less famous, less successful and more of a screw-up," said the film's director and co-writer Brett Haley, who first bonded with the actor when he cast him as the man to sweep Blythe Danner off her feet in the charming indie "I'll See You in My Dreams."

A lack of work is not something that Elliott has to contend with either. In fact, he's busier than ever juggling the shooting schedule of the Netflix sitcom "The Ranch," with films and press in between. He just wrapped on Bradley Cooper's remake of "A Star Is Born" (he plays Cooper's agent) and will soon be off to do another film in Massachusetts.

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