Sam Elliott and Katharine Ross: Committed to Each Other—On Screen and Off
By Henry C. Parke
When a showbiz couple like Sam Elliott and Katharine Ross is married and still going strong after 38 years, it’s not beginner’s luck. In a business that can separate people for extended periods, and frankly, expose them to all manner of distractions and temptations, the longevity of their marriage speaks of commitment and hard work as well as love.
Born in Los Angeles and raised in the San Francisco Bay area, Katharine, a striking natural beauty, began acting on television in 1962. She made guest appearances in Western series like Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, and The Virginian. She finally got her first feature with 1965’s Shenandoah. “I really got that because of the Gunsmoke [episode] I did that Andy McLaglen directed; he cast me in Shenandoah.” She played daughter-in-law to widower James Stewart in this unconventional anti-war Civil War film. Patrick Wayne played her husband. “Not bad duty,” Wayne recalls with a grin. “She’s a great gal. We probably remain friends because we didn’t go beyond what was happening on the screen. There’s something to be said for friendships.”
Shenandoah led to a Universal Studios contract. “You get a weekly salary and you’re assigned parts to do. They did a lot of television series. And out of some sort of arrogance, coming from Northern California, thinking that I was going to be a ‘theater’ actress, I had it negotiated in my contract that they couldn’t put me (as a regular) in a television series.” That decision made her available when a big feature was being cast. “I did tests with two different actors. Dustin Hoffman was one of them, and Charles Grodin was the other.” Dustin Hoffman won, and Katharine would be nominated for an Oscar for The Graduate.
That led to her next success, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, her first film with husband-to-be Sam Elliot. Only they didn’t even meet. She was Etta Place, the friend of Butch, and girlfriend of Sundance. Sam was Card Player #2 in the opening scene, who loses his nerve when he realizes the man he’s accused of cheating is the Sundance Kid. It’s a nice bit, but he’s unrecognizable with his pre-mustache face.
While Katharine embarked on an eclectic series of films—tough Westerns like Tell Them Willie Boy is Here; disaster films like The Swarm; and the sci-fi classic The Stepford Wives, her future spouse was working his way up in the industry. Along with random TV episodes, he became a regular on Mission: Impossible. He starred with Ray Milland in the schlock horror film Frogs, starred in a small but solid Western, Molly and Lawless John, and an unsold pilot for an Evel Knievel series. In 1976, Sam donned trunks, and won the role that made him a sex symbol and a star: the title character in Lifeguard.
Finally, nearly a decade after Butch Cassidy, fate and Hollywood threw Katharine and Sam together, to co-star in the big-budget horror film, The Legacy. She plays a not-that-successful American architect who is offered a job in England. Her boyfriend, Sam, comes along, and they find themselves captives at an estate where a dying practitioner of the black arts is trying to choose a successor. A fun if silly movie, one of the most enjoyable sequences is when, knowing the stars’ skills, the filmmakers have the couple steal horses and ride all over the countryside, trying to escape.
It would be six years before they married, but in the meantime, they were both in demand and busy. In 1979, Sam made his first appearance in a Louis L’Amour story, costarring with Tom Selleck, Jeff Osterhage, Glenn Ford, and Ben Johnson in The Sacketts. Katharine, meanwhile, was also back in the saddle, playing the title role in the TV movie Rodeo Girl. Their next chance to co-star together was in 1981’s based-on-fact mystery, Murder in Texas. Sam is at his sinister best as a suave, clean-shaven plastic surgeon who is milking his heiress wife Farrah Fawcett dry, and taking up with Katharine, who thinks he’s getting a divorce, but not the lethal kind. It’s grimly amusing, and Andy Griffith, as Farrah’s father was nominated for an Emmy.
The following year, for the first time, they shared the screen in a Western, Louis L’Amour’s quasi-sequel to The Sacketts, The Shadow Riders: same three brothers, but with different names. As the brothers, and Uncle Ben, reconvene after the Civil War, they learn that a die-hard Rebel leader has kidnapped women to sell into prostitution in Mexico, to finance his private war. Among them are their sister, Dominique Dunne, and Sam’s betrothed, Katharine. Jeff Osterhage, the youngest brother, had been thoroughly smitten with Katharine even before they worked together. “Tom (Selleck) and I were having breakfast during The Sacketts three years earlier. Sam picks her up at the airport, brings her in, we meet her, and Tom and I were just jaw-dropping, dude! Then on The Shadow Riders, I got to know her really well; we just hit it off. We did our first scene together, on the beach. We did the first take and I said, ‘Katharine. I can’t believe I’m doing a scene with you. I have been in love with you ever since I was a little boy!’ And she goes, ‘Oh, thanks a lot! And I’m…‘No, no—I didn’t mean…’”
Their best collaboration would be 1991’s excellent Conagher, another based on a Louis L’Amour novel. Sam produced Conagher, and he and Katharine wrote the screenplay, along with Jeffrey M. Meyer. In the film, Katharine, husband Billy Green Bush, and their children move onto a ranch, and Bush disappears on a cattle-buying trip. As Katharine tries to make a go of running a stagecoach stop, she meets a local cowboy, Conagher, played by Sam, who comes along, and is helpful. Also in the cast is Barry Corbin, in his third film with Katharine and fourth with Sam. He plays Charlie, the stagecoach driver, who meets Katharine long before Conagher does, and is of considerable help to her. While it’s unspoken, Charlie’s feelings towards the widow lend poignancy to the scene. “I figured old Charlie was secretly in love with her,” Corbin remembers, “and he’d like to marry her, but he is a confirmed bachelor. He had to see Conagher get her. I gave Katharine Ross a prize at the Cowboy Hall of Fame several years ago. And in my introduction, I said, ‘Katharine Ross, I’ve always secretly been in love with you, but I can’t do anything about it, ‘cause I never saw Sam lose a fight.’ Sam said, ‘You got fifty pounds on me. You can take me real easy.’”
Their most recent collaboration is 2017’s The Hero. Sam plays an aging and ailing former Western star who’s now doing voice-overs in barbecue-sauce commercials and needs to come to terms with his life and his daughter, played by Krysten Ritter. Katharine plays his ex-wife. At the time, Hollywood was sure Sam would get an Oscar nomination, but that had to wait until A Star is Born the following year. Are there more films together in the future? Nothing’s been announced. But their on-screen chemistry is so strong, one can only hope.
About Henry C. Parke
Brooklyn-born, L.A.-based screenwriter and wanna-be cowboy Henry C. Parke has been Film Editor for True West since 2015 and has written Henry’s “Western Round-up,” the online report on Western film production, since 2010. His screenwriting credits include Speedtrap (1977) and Double Cross (1994). He’s the first writer welcomed into the Western Writers of America for his work in electronic media. He’s done audio commentary on a fistful of Spaghetti and domestic Westerns, and he’s got a saddle-bag full of Western scripts.
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