Sam Elliottdoesn’t have a lot of the screen time in the Coen brothers’ Jeff Bridges-starring 1998 stoner comedy,The Big Lebowski. But his drawling, cowboy-hatted character “The Stranger” is beloved to the cult movie’s many fans. The role also had a major impact on Elliott who, ironically, was concerned about being typecast as a cowboy-type before he was sent theLebowskiscript.
“I was at that point in my career where I was thinking I was never going to be thought of as anything else other than a laconic cowboy,” says Elliott, now an Oscar nominee for his role in the Bradley Cooper-directedA Star Is Born. “I was in Texas doing a thing with John Milius (director of Conan the Barbarian and Ted Dawn) called theRough Riders. I was playing another guy wearing a hat riding a horse, a military man, a guy named Bucky O’Neill. And I got a script delivered to me from the Coen brothers. My agent sent it to me. Because I felt like I was in that box, I was so excited to get back to the hotel. I’m thinking, the f—ing Coen brothers, man! This has got to be some wacky f—ing character, as far as possible from being a cowboy! I get in there, and I started reading it, and it’s talking about this voiceover in a southern drawl, and ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds’ is mentioned playing in the background, and this voice ‘sounding not unlike Sam Elliott.’ Then he shows up in a bowling alley dressed like a drugstore cowboy looking ‘not unlike Sam Elliott.’ [Laughs] So, I went from feeling boxed-in, into just realizing how thankful I was that that was the box I was in, because it just led to all this other great work.”
Indeed, the film would directly lead to a very different role for Elliott, that of Kermit Newman, the White House Chief of Staff in writer-director Rod Lurie’s 2000 political drama,The Contender, which costarred Bridges as the US President.
“I’m indebted to Rod because hereallygave me an opportunity to step away from that western thing,” says Elliott. “He said, ‘I want to see you in a three-piece suit, no hair, no mustache.’ I was totally up for it. When I got the script, and I knew Jeff was playing it, and I knew Gary Oldman was set for it, and f—ing the loveliest woman in the business at that point in time for my money was Joan Allen, brilliant actress, and just an amazing woman. The chance to go and work with them and play a part unlike anything I’d ever played before, was just amazing. I remember asking Rod, I said, ‘How the f— doIplay into this fucking thing?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. I just, I was watchingThe Big Lebowskithe other night and I just want to see more of you and Jeff. I want to see more of you and the Dude! I went, ‘Okay, man.’”
See Elliott and Bridges in a clip fromThe Big Lebowski above.