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Film Sam Elliott: the rough-hewn voice of a generation

Sam Elliott stars in I'll See You In My Dreams.

Oh, how I wish I'd been at the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) convention in Miami in mid-May, when the actor Sam Elliott took the stage and 700 mature women screamed for him like giddy teenagers. "Man, they went wild," Elliott said over the phone last week. His voice rumbled in my ear like summer thunder, and he chuckled exactly the way you think he would.

You can't blame the women for shrieking. They'd just seen the drama I'll See You in My Dreams, which opens in select cities this week, starring Blythe Danner as an attractive widow who's cocooned herself in a too-safe life. They'd watched the scene where Danner, who is 72, catches the eye of Elliott, 70, who plays Bill, a newcomer to her burg. She's in a drugstore, throwing a load of vitamin bottles into her basket. He's standing nearby, regarding her, all snowy hair, crinkly eyes and wicked grin. Then he drops this line on her, a line anyone of any age wants to hear: "You don't need that stuff. You're just right the way you are."

"I get it," Elliott tells me. "You always see the older guy with the younger girl in movies. It's great to see it as it is for a change. It's not about beauty, because that old skin-deep line is sure the truth. It's that, the older you get, the more you get to see from the inside of a person. It's about communication. What it's really about is intimacy." Come on! You'd have to be dead to not swoon at that.

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Elliott has always been catnip to the ladies, just the right combination of gentleman and rogue, whether he's playing a scoundrel (Road House) or a rock (Tombstone). Many of his roles – his pilot in Up in the Air, for example, who awards George Clooney his ten-millionth air mile – require little more of him than simply showing up to remind us what manliness looks like.

But now, after nearly 50 years in the business, he's having a moment. As a baddie on this past season of the FX series Justified, he wooed Mary Steenburgen and gave Walton Goggins a run for his money. On the final season of Parks and Recreation, he was Ron Swanson's hippie doppelganger, the only man alive who can go mustache-to-mustache with Nick Offerman. Bathrobe-wearing, White-Russian-swilling groupies still accost him on the street, shouting lines from his most iconic role, The Stranger, who narrates The Big Lebowski. (Elliott lived in Portland, Ore., which has previously hosted the annual Lebowski Fest, for 10 years. "It's the strangest event," he says. They've invited him, but he's never gone.)

And always, always, there's Elliott's voice. Part lion purr, part gravel road, it's as deep and American-iconic as the Grand Canyon. It's the sound testosterone would make if it could. No wonder Dodge, Coors and the American Beef Council hire him to shill their trifecta of maleness (trucks, beer, meat). No wonder, too, he's the voice of Smokey the Bear. When we spoke, he was at his home in Malibu, Calif., and I was in a hot car on a highway rest stop, and that seemed just right; he sounded like the miles going by. (He phoned me himself, without the buffer of a publicist. "My only handlers are the four-legged kind," he joshed.)

Elliott, whose extended family hails from Texas, knew his voice was an asset at age five, when his mother "dragged me to a cherub choir." He continued singing in ensembles and choruses through high school in Oregon and a two-year college program in Washington. But when he arrived in Los Angeles to try acting, one of the first agents he met suggested he take diction lessons, to smooth out his flinty distinctiveness.

"I obviously didn't listen very hard to him," Elliott deadpans. "And I'm grateful for that, because my voiceover career has freed me up, so I've never had to take an acting job just for the money. I never had to do anything I didn't want to do." In early TV gigs, he worked with Jimmy Stewart and William Holden; in the Sundance hit Grandma, due out in September, he stars opposite Lily Tomlin for American Pie director Paul Weitz. (Now that's a career span.) He's been married to the actress Katharine Ross since 1984, and they have one daughter, Cleo, 30.

Mentioning his mother, who died three years ago, sends Elliott into a ruminative mood. "I was with her when she passed away and was kind of her caregiver for the last couple of years," he says. "I was very close to my mom. She was my greatest mentor in terms of pursuing my career. I lost my dad when I was 19, and my mom never remarried. Life and death, you know? It's one of the constants. The tide comes in and the tide goes out."

That conversation leads to his daughter, with whom he has a complicated relationship. (Cleo was served a restraining order in 2011 after attacking Ross with scissors.) "I'd like to do parenthood over again," Elliott says. "I feel like I fell short. Everyone says, 'I wouldn't change anything.' I can't believe that's true. Either that or I think, 'Wow, you're a lucky man to be able to be able to say that, if you really believe it.'"

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He calls marriage "work," and his explanation for the longevity of his marriage is simply, "You've just got to stick to it. You've got to listen. It's not all about me, it's all about you and us." He's not pleased with how today's Hollywood undervalues mature adults and their stories. "It's mind-boggling," he says. "The people you think we'd be going to for some answers are marginalized. We're always off to the side, playing the grandfather or the crazy neighbour. I certainly believe I'm better as an actor than I've ever been and that's because of the experiences I've had, both as an actor and in life."

Elliott is hardest on himself, however: "I agonize too much about things," he says. "I can be glib, which is a terrible trait. And I tend to be cynical. I've always been honest, and I've always been opinionated, but not terribly smart to go along with those two. I think if you're going to be honest and opinionated, then you better be smart. Know what I mean? Otherwise you're invariably going to piss somebody off."

All that said, he's grateful for his family and his long career. I ask him if the steadfastness he so often plays on screen is true in real life, and he takes a moment to ponder before answering. "I'm not a flawless character like Bill, that's for sure," Elliott says. "But I think I'm honest and direct. People always write that I have a twinkle in my eye. But what's at the heart of it, I like to think I'm a good guy. I know I'm a gentleman. My dad raised me to be one and I'm forever thankful about that. That part is real."

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