If there’s a name today that’s synonymous with westerns, it’s Sam Elliott. Here’s a look at 10 of his best.
There are some names that have become synonymous with certain film genres: Steve McQueen ruled '60s and '70s action flicks, James Cagney was inextricable from 30s and 40s gangster films, Jennifer Aniston has had a lock on romantic comedies since the '90s. For decades, John Wayne had a stranglehold on westerns, although Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, and Lee Van Cleef (among others) gave him a run for his money. Westerns have gone through a lot of changes, and over the last thirty years, instead of John Wayne’s big square mug in the opening scenes, it is the dulcet tones of Sam Elliott in the voiceover that let you know you’re in for a treat.
Elliott has over a hundred film and television credits to his name. He was born in California and spent his adolescence in Portland, Oregon, but his parents were from Texas, and, maybe it’s the voice; maybe it’s the mustache, but he’s always just seemed at ease in westerns. At the age of 78, he’s showing few signs of slowing down, having recently completed the Paramount+ prequel to Yellowstone, a limited run series entitled 1883.
Here’s a ranking of some of his best westerns. (Note: This is a mixture of film and TV Westerns. And you may note that a few of these films don’t exactly fit neatly into the western category, but rather, it’s the presence of Elliott that makes it feel like a Western).
We’re going to start with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it early appearance, but it’s in one of the great modern westerns, and it marks his entrance into Hollywood. Elliott was 25 when he landed the role of Card Player #2 in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The card game itself doesn’t last long, ending with another player accusing Butch of cheating, which leads to some shooting. In another interesting twist of fate, Elliott would years later marry the film’s female lead, Katharine Ross, but at the time was too intimidated to even talk to her. They eventually met properly while filming The Legacy in 1978.
In 1995, Elliott tackled the role of Wild Bill Hickok in the hit adaptation of a Larry McMurtry novel, told from the point of view of Calamity Jane as played by Anjelica Huston. Buffalo Girls was a two part miniseries, and ended up being nominated for a ton of TV awards, including both an Emmy and Golden Globe nod for Elliott’s portrayal of the legendary Hickok. Elliott plays the rapscallion sharpshooter with aplomb, loving and leaving Huston’s Jane, all the while sporting a truly glorious mustache and mane of curls.
Elliott tackled another TV adaptation, this time from a Louis L’Amour novel, in 1987 with The Quick and the Dead (no, not that The Quick and the Dead.) He played Con Vallian, who shows up on the scene to save Duncan McKaskel, his wife, and son, who are striking out into the Wyoming Territory in 1876. Vallian is chasing a mixed-race Native American who runs with a gang that threatened the McKaskel family. While fighting off the gang and keeping the homesteaders safe, Vallian does sneak in some passionate moments with the wife, played by Kate Capshaw. Ever the loner, Vallian is soon on his way again, probably to save another family and seduce another wife.
Many critics have compared the Coen brothers’ 1998 cult classic The Big Lebowski to a western in terms of structure: a likable anti-hero struggling against seemingly insurmountable odds with little but his wits and a motley gang of fellow outlaws. And of course, Elliott as The Stranger, introducing and closing the film with his signature gravelly narration. At the film’s end, he sits and chats with The Dude (Jeff Bridges) at the bowling alley bar for a second time, drinking sarsaparilla and summing up the events we just saw. He’s a throwback to the days of the cowboy, with his soft drink and his dislike of profanity. He’s utterly out of place yet completely at home.
This 1986 made-for-TV film is undeniably a Western. Elliott stars as Sam Houston, and the biopic focuses on the years he served as governor of Tennessee, through to the years when he joined the Texas Revolution and became the President of Texas. As usual, Elliott had the perfect mustache for the role, but the film came under criticism for historical inaccuracies, like leaving Davy Crockett out of the Battle of the Alamo, which he definitely was at because he died there. Katharine Ross, whom Elliott was married to by this time, has an uncredited role as a widow of a Texan soldier who lost his life at the Alamo.
In 1994, Elliott leant his talents (and his mustache) to the TNT film The Desperate Trail, starring as a Marshal tasked with transporting a very attractive murderess, played by '90s screen siren Linda Fiorentino. He’s escorting her to her hanging; her crime? Killing his son. Don’t let that sway you to sympathy, though, Elliott’s Marshal has a dark side, and after their stagecoach is hit by highwaymen, Fiorentino’s killer hooks up with another stagecoach passenger for possibly nefarious purposes. It’s a dark and twisty Western, full of bad guys, but without an obvious good guy in sight.
For something completely different, we have The Ranch, a sitcom that ran on Netflix from 2016 to 2020. It co-starred That '70s Show alumni Ashton Kutcher and Danny Masterson (who was written out as a character in 2017 following numerous sexual assault allegations) as brothers working on their parents’ Colorado cattle ranch, with the parents being played by Elliott and Debra Winger. Elliott shines as a curmudgeonly Vietnam vet who doesn’t get along with his sons; his scenes with Winger were considered the best of the show. It may be a bit formulaic, but is ultimately a sweet-natured show about a dysfunctional family and small-town life.
Again, we know, not precisely what you would classify as a western. But c’mon, it starts out with a deal with the Devil. What’s more Western than that? Elliott seems to have walked straight off the set of a Sergio Leone film: we first meet The Caretaker in a cemetery, wearing a grubby Henley shirt under a grubby vest and a grubby bandana, a mashed-up Indiana Jones-reminiscent fedora atop dirty gray hair. In true Western style, The Caretaker is not who he seems, telling Nicolas Cage’s Johnny Blaze (current ghost rider) about the previous ghost rider, a Texas Ranger named Carter Slade. When the truth comes out: surprise! The Caretaker and Carter Slade are one and the same, and he becomes a mentor to Blaze, who is trying to worm out of the deal he made with the devil when he was a teen desperate to save his father from cancer. Whether he’s sporting a leather duster and riding a motorcycle or just walking around the cemetery with a giant shovel, the scenes with Elliott are the best in this decidedly zany comic book-based film.
Patrick Swayze was supposedly the main draw in this 1989 action film that is highly tinged with western. Swayze plays a tough-as-nails nightclub bouncer from New York who ends up in a small town trying to protect the local dive bar, The Double Deuce, from a slimy businessman who already controls most of the town. To effectively sharpen up the Double Deuce’s image, he recruits a little outside help from his bouncer mentor, Wade, an almost alarmingly good-looking Elliott. (There is a Road House remake in the works starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Conor McGregor, so maybe we are looking at McGregor as the new Wade?) For audiences more accustomed to Elliott as an aging, silver-fox type, a look at ripped abs and rippling biceps Elliott, hair scraped back into a half-ponytail, is a revelation.
The gunfight at the OK Corral happened twice within six months in the 1990s, with the release of Wyatt Earp in 1994, half a year after the objectively superior Tombstone. The George P. Kosmatos film starred Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp, Sam Elliott as his brother Virgil, and the late Bill Paxton as their brother Morgan, versus the 1994 cast of Kevin Costner, Michael Madsen, and Linden Ashby respectively. Elliott’s Virgil is the most law-abiding of the brothers, and it is his decision to become Tombstone’s town marshal and ban guns within the town that leads to the much-chronicled fight at the OK Corral. Tragically, Morgan dies and Virgil is left handicapped. Virgil is a smaller, more restrained role than the flashier Wyatt, or Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday, the critical darling of the film. But it is a quintessentially Elliott-esque role, and not only because he wears a duster coat like no one else. Elliott is fantastic in his starring roles, but also as a supporting actor, when you’re waiting and hoping for him to come back on-screen.