A Lackluster 1976 Film ‘Lifeguard’ Jumpstarted Sam Elliott’s Illustrious Career

Western movies and TV shows are a big part of American entertainment history. Featuring cowboys and gunslingers, the genre is beloved for its action and drama. Sam Elliott is a veteran character actor that is best known for his work in the Western genre. Some of his most popular roles include The Stranger in “The Big Lebowski” and Virgil Earp in “Tombstone.” Ironically enough, however, Elliott got his first big break in the industry with a movie that couldn’t be further from a western.

Elliott began his career playing minor characters in “The Way West” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” His TV appearances include “Gunsmoke,” and the television films “Murder in Texas” and “The Shadow Riders.”

In 2015, Elliott guest-starred on the series “Justified” and won a Critics’ Choice Television Award for his performance. The following year, he began starring on the Netflix comedy series “The Ranch.”

In 2017, Elliott starred alongside his wife, Katharine Ross, in the film “The Hero.” The film is about an aging Western actor who spends his time reliving the glory days and smoking until he is diagnosed with cancer. The film served as a resurgence of sorts for Elliott, who later found himself attached to big-name projects such as “A Star Is Born,” for which he picked up his first Academy Award nomination. He was also cast in the “Yellowstone” spin-off “1883.”

“The Hero” wasn’t the first film Elliott worked on with his wife. They starred in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” while Elliott was an extra in the film, but they didn’t meet until 1978 when they were both cast in leading roles in “The Legacy.” The couple married in 1984 and have a daughter together.

Elliott was born on Aug. 9, 1944, in Sacramento, California, to Glynn Mamie and Henry Nelson Elliott. His father was a predator control specialist for the Department of the Interior, while his mother worked as a high school teacher and physical education instructor. His parents grew up in El Paso, Texas, but moved their family to Oregon when Elliott was 13.

Elliott moved to Los Angeles in the late 1960s, where he studied acting while working in construction. With his masculine face and deep voice, he found regular work as a character actor in westerns. However, the parts were all on television, and Elliott was keen to make the jump to the big screen. The opportunity came in the form of something distinctly different for Elliott: a contemporary feature film called “The Lifeguard.” However, his eventual casting as the lead in the 1976 movie couldn’t have happened without his appearance in a budget horror cult classic: 1972’s “Frogs.”

In 2017, Elliott explained to Den of Geek what the horror classic had to do with his breakout film. “I tried to get a meeting on Lifeguard for a long time,” he said, adding, “My agent wouldn’t or couldn’t get me a meeting on it… I’d been a lifeguard in a pool situation when I was a kid. Both of my parents were lifeguards in El Paso, Texas in a big lake. And I was living on the beach, and I was in really good condition because I was in the water every day and I just really was dying to meet on this film.” He said it was actually the wife of the director of the film who had seen him in “Frogs” and encouraged her husband to audition him. He eventually landed the part, and his dream career finally took off.

“The Lifeguard” tells the story of 32-year-old Rick Carlson, a lifeguard who experiences an existential crisis. He attends his 15-year high school reunion, where he reconnects with his former sweetheart, Cathy. However, despite actually enjoying his job, he feels ashamed to still be a lifeguard in his 30s and doesn’t tell anyone the truth about what he does for a living, including Cathy. Around this time, Carlson is also approached by a friend to work as a car salesman at a Porsche dealership. He is ambivalent about the offer but considers it to keep the affection of Cathy, who has been encouraging him to move up career-wise.

The film was not a critical or box-office success. In a New York Times review of the film, Vincent Canby wrote:

“As a film, ‘Lifeguard’ is romantic twaddle, but as sociology, it’s a spontaneous assault on a very American way of life. … as entertainment it ranks somewhat above ‘Bikini Beach’ but below ‘Godzilla Versus Megalon.’”

While the film did not make much of a dent in Hollywood, it introduced many to Elliott, whom they found a joy to watch.

“The most interesting thing about ‘Lifeguard’ is the sight of Sam Elliott, who plays the title character. He is truly a splendid-looking specimen, from the sun-beached top of his fluffy-haired head right on down the tawny, blemish-free body to his trim, straight toes,” the Detroit Free Press wrote.

The Los Angeles Times wrote the film “boasts a star-making role for Sam Elliott, a good actor with plenty of magnetism, who’s waited a long time for a break like this.”

While the film may not go down as a classic, we’re glad it was the catalyst for introducing the world to Elliott, whose career has only gone from strength to strength since.

Are you a fan of Sam Elliott’s work as well? Which of his performances stands out to you the most? Let us know, and be sure to pass this along to friends, family and all the movie buffs you know.