‘The Hero’ Shines An Overdue Spotlight On Sam Elliott

Editorial Director, Film And Television
06.07.17

The Orchard

There are few actors better suited for Westerns than Sam Elliott. Even putting aside a mustache that most men seemingly lost the ability to grow at the end of the Taft administration, Elliott has the weary eyes of a trail-hardened frontiersman and a deep, resonant voice seemingly designed for campfire stories.

So it’s odd to discover, looking at Elliott’s filmography, that it’s not littered with classic Westerns. Elliott had a small role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and a more substantial part in Tombstone, but his most memorable appearances have tended to be as characters who embody elements of the Old West despite never having been a part of it, be it The Stranger in The Big Lebowski, his mentor role in Road House, the T-Rex cattleman in The Good Dinosaur, or his work as a late-run bad guy on Justified. He might still have a great Western in his future — filmmakers looking for ideas, take note — but he’s equally effective acting as a man out of time.

Brett Haley, who directs The Hero and co-wrote the script with Marc Basch, gets that. And for his second film he set out to tailor a film to Elliott’s strengths, and maybe push him a bit further than usual. Elliott plays Lee Hayden, a septuagenarian cowboy star whose steadiest employment comes from voiceover commercial work trading on his on-screen past. As the film opens, we hear him espousing the virtues of Lone Star barbecue sauce (“the perfect partner for your chicken”) before we see him — and the barely contained frustration on his face as he goes through take after take.

It’s no wonder Lee spends most of his days getting high with Jeremy (Nick Offerman), a genial actor-turned-drug dealer with whom he has a long history. With nothing better to do, why not kick back, chill out, and listen to upbeat reggae music while watching Buster Keaton movies?

But a couple of things happen to kick Lee off the couch: He’s approached to receive a lifetime achievement award by the Western Appreciation and Preservation Guild, and he’s diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a tough diagnosis to beat even for someone who’s not entirely sure he has that much to live for.

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