Sam Elliott has a voice like a bear — big and strong, serious and smooth.
You may have heard him intone, “Only you can prevent forest fires,” while the mouth of Smokey Bear moves on TV. Or, you may have caught Elliott saying, “Support the campaign for Clark College, ensuring a bright future,” over appealing images of our local community college. Those Clark College Foundation spots ran in 2013.
Hard to say whether Elliott’s voice was quite so seductive, five-plus decades ago, when you could have caught him onstage at Clark. The California boy was a teen when he moved with his parents to Northeast Portland, graduated from David Douglas High School and, “after jumping around for a while,” he said, eventually landed at Clark.
“I found it a great school. My recollections are pretty keen. I just loved it,” Elliott said during a telephone interview.
Elliott got a lot of acting encouragement at Clark and appeared in various plays, including the classic musical “Guys and Dolls.” His role was only a supporting one — Big Jule, the fearsome but finally humbled Chicago gangster — but that was perfectly OK with him.
“I was happy to do whatever. The drama department there was great,” Elliott said. “But I knew I wanted to be a film actor. I grew up in Sacramento, and I’d seen too many movies, too many movie theaters. I didn’t want to do stage work. I wanted the movies.”
If You Go
• What: “The Hero.”
• When: Opens locally today.
• Where: Kiggins Theatre, 1011 Main Street, Vancouver.
• Tickets: $9. All seats $6 on Mondays.
• On the web: www.kigginstheatre.net
He got his wish. Within four years of his 1965 graduation from Clark, Elliott was onscreen in the hit feature film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Of course his role, “Card Player No. 2,” was small — but it was only the beginning of an illustrious career.
Pretty illustrious, anyway, given that Elliott’s macho-man drawl, long frame and distinctive horseshoe moustache resulted in decades of typecasting as cowboys, gunslingers, bikers and bouncers — plus lots of voice-over advertising spots for trucks, beef and beer. Elliott even spoofed himself in a recurring role toward the finale of TV’s “Parks and Recreation” — portraying a touchy-feely New Age cowboy whose foot-freeing sandals and Cat Stevens quotes alienate actual tough guy Ron Swanson.
That same acting chemistry is onscreen in “The Hero,” a new feature film starring Elliott and featuring Nick Offerman, who played Swanson in “Parks and Recreation.” But in “The Hero” the roles are mixed up even more, with Offerman as a weed-dealing former sidekick and Elliott as a version of himself: a semi-successful actor whose strong type always sidelined him.
“He hasn’t had the same opportunities to be ‘leading man’ as other actors from his generation,” writer-director Brett Haley says in the press kit for the film. “He told me, ‘For a while there, I could only get work if I was on a horse or motorcycle.'”
Haley, who worked with Elliott on his previous film, sensed untapped star power and based his new film on “a hybrid” of classic movie tough guys — Lee Marvin, Sterling Hayden, Robert Mitchum, James Coburn and Elliott himself.
In “The Hero,” Elliott’s aging character is busy wasting time until shocking news forces him to take stock of his life — and to search for one final role that cements his legacy.
In addition to Offerman, the film also co-stars Elliott’s real-life wife, Katherine Ross, who is best known as Dustin Hoffman’s love interest in “The Graduate.”
Elliott said he owns property in the Willamette Valley but hasn’t been there in about a year. “For whatever reason, I’ve been busier than ever,” he said. Which is the best way for an actor to be, he added.
Advance buzz for “The Hero” “has been crazy and nice,” Elliott said, “but you don’t make movies for good reviews. You make them for the work.
“It’s way too soon to tell if this will have some major effect on my career,” he said. “I’ve already had a blessed career and I’m thankful for it.”