When Sam Elliott first met with director Peter Bogdanovich, he was sure that a coveted role in "Mask" would be his--just as sure as he knew sitting across from George Lucas a few years ago that he would never be Indiana Jones.
Sometimes, Elliott said the other day, you know right away if a role is yours or if you can kiss it goodby.
The tougher question is, what do you do when even the good roles don't seem to help?
Elliott, who expected to find himself immersed in a film career following the 1976 "Lifeguard," is hoping he doesn't have to ask that anymore. His portrayal of the compassionate biker Gar in "Mask" has received nearly as much critical attention as the performances by the film's stars, Eric Stoltz and Cher.
Now, Elliott says, "If I'm gonna have a prime time in my career, then it's right, right now.
"The position I'm finding myself in is I turned 40, I got married (to Katharine Ross), I bought a Mercedes-Benz, I had a baby and Katharine and I moved into a brand-new house that it took us three years to build. And I did a television series and, because of that series, I made more money than I've ever made in my life.
"Then this film happens, and because of all these radical changes I kind of feel like it's going to continue on."
The changes in Elliott's life nearly prevented him from getting in front of Bogdanovich. When Cybill Shepherd, Elliott's co-star in last year's "The Yellow Rose" TV series, told him that her ex-boyfriend was about to do a film with a role for "Gary Cooper on a motorcycle," Elliott immediately expressed interest.
But the first three times Bogdanovich called for a meeting, Elliott's TV work schedule intruded and he canceled.
A fourth meeting was set up, but Elliott decided he didn't want to postpone any longer a planned trip to Hawaii with Ross, whom he was to marry there.
"I had done an entire year of leaving Katharine at home and working 12 hours a day and driving three hours a day from Hollywood to Trancas," Elliott recalls. "She wasn't working and she wanted to work, and at the same time she was taking real good care of me. I was coming home to hot dinners every night. I felt there was something there I couldn't ignore any longer."
Elliott, who came to Hollywood with dreams of playing the old-time kind of movie cowboy, the kind who takes his hat off for a lady, decided in favor of home and hearth. He canceled yet again with Bogdanovich.
Too, 15 years in Hollywood had accustomed him to "losing all the features to those other guys." He had satisfied himself with steady and respected work in TV, which he had shied away from a decade earlier, when a one-year stint with "Mission: Impossible" was still high on his resume.
But two days later, Elliott says, Ross called his agent and had the meeting reset. The "other guys"--a group that reportedly included Kris Kristofferson--had already been tested for the role of Cher's boyfriend and father figure to the spirited deformed boy, Rocky Dennis.
What did Bogdanovich like about Elliott?
"Maybe that I was unknown, comparatively speaking," Elliott says. "I really don't know. I think there's a lot of real Western stuff about these bikers, these modern-day cowboys if you will, and I tend to have a lot of affinity for cowboys and Westerns and that whole genre."
Though he was born and reared in Sacramento, his entire family is from El Paso, and they imbued him with a spirit more closely associated with the Lone Star state than with Northern California. He also inherited their "lazy, easy way of talking."
"I'd run into more people than not who advised me to go take voice and diction lessons and learn to e-nun-ci-ate ," he says. "I didn't want to go in and try to be something I'm not."
But the description of Elliott as the strong, silent type--"able to speak without moving his lips," as one reviewer suggested--is deceiving. If anything has held back his film career, he says, it is his outspokenness.
"I think maybe I had a bad attitude that scared some people off," he says. "I was too honest, too talkative."
He says that Paramount was put off by his criticism of the studio's ad campaign for "Lifeguard," which should have been his big shot at the big screen. Elliott sharply disagreed with the marketing of the film as a sex-in-the-sun movie, when it was actually an introspective look at aging and career doubts.
He admits to "bad vibes" as well when "I sat across the street three years ago with Lucas and Spielberg" at the former's North Hollywood office during preliminary casting for "Raiders of the Lost Ark." "They kind of started with this same kind of questioning (about his career) and I was stupid enough to tell them what I thought.
"Lucas is sitting back there and giving me his beady little eye look, thinking, 'Who's this cocky jerk sitting across from me?' I knew when I left there, 'you ain't gonna get this role.' I shoulda spent 25 minutes telling Lucas about seeing 'Star Wars' six times. One of the greatest Westerns I had ever seen. . . ."