How a Cult Horror Movie Launched Sam Elliott’s Career

The iconic actor may owe his long and illustrious career to a ‘nature run amok’ quickie.

The legendary Sam Elliott is currently moving audiences to tears with his powerful star performance in the indie drama The Hero, in which he plays a fading character actor facing the end of more than just his career. Of course, Elliott is known for dozens of roles in movies like The Big Lebowski, Mask, Tombstone and The Incredible Hulk, along with acclaimed small screen work in projects like Parks and Recreation, Justified and The Ranch. But Elliott may owe 40-plus years of memorable film, TV and voiceover roles to a relatively small horror cult classic: 1972’s Frogs.

Elliott starred with Ray Milland (X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes) and Joan Van Ark (Knots Landing) in the picture, in which a Southern estate is attacked by various species of lizards, birds, snakes and other creatures as revenge for the owner’s spraying of pesticides. A few years after Frogs was released, Elliott was scraping by with other small roles in TV and film when he got the chance to land the lead role in a movie called Lifeguard (1976), directed by Daniel Petrie.

While he did get the part and it proved to be the first big break of his career, Elliott recalled that the opportunity almost passed him by: “I tried to get a meeting on Lifeguard for a long time,” he told us recently while doing press for The Hero. “This was in 1974. 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.

“One night, 10 days before they were gonna start, Dan Petrie and his wife were getting ready to go bed while Danny’s in there brushing his teeth and Dorothy’s sitting on the bed watching TV,” continued Elliott. “And she said, ‘Danny, come look at this guy. Adam Roarke. He’s perfect for the (lead in Lifeguard).’ And Danny’s in there going, ‘I know Adam Roarke. He’s not right.’ She said, ‘No, no! He is.’ And so he finishes up in the bathroom, comes out and sits down with her, starts looking at this thing, and (says) ‘That’s not Adam Roarke.’ (Roarke did appear in Frogs as well.)

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“So they sit through this movie, Frogs. Got my name off the credits and the next day, I went in and had a meeting on the movie and walked out of that office knowing that I had that part. So, I got that part because of Frogs, number one, and number two, because of Dan Petrie’s wife.”

The Hero is out in theaters now.