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Cowboy, biker . . . rabbit?

Don't be fooled by the special effects and furry alter ego. Elliott plays his usual tough guy in 'Golden Compass.'

December 06, 2007|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Sam ELLIOTT has played his share of hardscrabble characters, plenty of them in the Old West. But the 63-year-old actor, famous for his bushy handlebar mustache and mane of silver hair, says that there is an emotional through line connecting his body of work, uniting the cowboys, military men and rebel bikers who have populated his 40-year career.

"There are certainly cowboys out there who would be chagrined to be compared to a guy on a Harley-Davidson with long hair," Elliott concedes, "but they share a common vein -- I think it's very simply the code and a sense of freedom and a sense of responsibility to someone."

Those attributes are evident in his latest creation, laconic Lee Scoresby, a dapper "aeronaut" in the epic fantasy tale "The Golden Compass." The film, adapted and directed by Chris Weitz based on the first novel of British author Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, opens in wide release Friday. It is set in a parallel universe where every human being has an animal companion called a daemon that reflects the person's inner self. Scoresby's is a Texas jack rabbit named Hester, voiced by Kathy Bates, that sounds a bit like Ma Kettle.

Scoresby comes to the aid of the story's 12-year-old heroine, Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), who has headed from England to the Arctic Circle after her best friend has vanished. Lyra teams up with the nattily dressed Scoresby, an ageless witch named Serafina (Eva Green) and a white warrior bear named Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen), who is old friends with the cowboy.

Elliott says that it was a bit disconcerting working in a special-effects-laden movie. "But, God," he adds, "it's sort of the ultimate in pretending. You need to understand as much about whatever this final vision is that these guys are going to create at the end so you don't look like a total buffoon. And fortunately they had it pretty well figured out by the time you [were] called on stage."

A small lime green pillow served as Hester's stand-in for Elliott's scenes. "It was the size of a football. Pretty incredible," he says.

"A lot of people have asked me -- here is this macho guy that you're playing, and you have a rabbit for a daemon," the actor continues. "But I remember going back and forth from Texas a lot as a child to see family. At that time there were tons of billboards on the highway, and in the shadow of every billboard there was this sea of long ears of jack rabbits that populated the state of Texas. I thought how insightful for Philip Pullman, the Englishman, to come up with the jack rabbit. They are survivors, and that is really what Scoresby is."

Which also makes him the ideal character for Elliott. Although his childhood was spent in suburban Sacramento, he carved a niche for himself playing men who adhere to a cowboy code of honor -- Wild Bill Hickok in the CBS miniseries "Buffalo Girls" or the Stranger in the Coen brothers' cult favorite "The Big Lebowski." But early roles in westerns really "fell" his way, Elliott says. "I did episodes of 'Daniel Boone,' a show called 'Lancer.' That's kind of where it all started. They kept coming my way, and I have no explanation for it. It's not like I went after them necessarily."

His affinity for those kinds of characters did grow out of his family heritage, however. "My family on both sides for several generations all hailed from Texas," says Elliott. "My dad was with the Fish & Wildlife Service and got transferred from West Texas to Sacramento. I was born the year after they got there. I never heard the end of the fact I wasn't a Texan. In fact, my dad referred to me forever as a prune picker, which is kind of a positive slang term for being a Californian.

"I spent a lot of time around ranchers and real-deal cowboys and sheepmen. There is something about that sensibility in general that appeals to me."

And though he has played other types of men in films such as "Off the Map," "We Were Soldiers" and "Mask," the Western influence retains a certain hold over Elliott's personal life. Along with his wife, Katharine Ross, and his daughter, Cleo Rose, Elliott lives in the wilds of Malibu and owns a ranch, complete with horses, south of Portland, Ore., not too far from where his 92-year-old mother resides.

Elliott says that he's ready to revisit Pullman's fantastic universe -- he still has the long hair that he grew to play Scoresby, and he's waiting to hear if the second film in the trilogy will get the green light. "I think in a week after the movie opens we'll know" if the series will continue, Elliott says. "I would love to continue on with this thing right now."

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