Sam Elliott: Looking Back on the Film That Launched His Iconic Career

by Matthew Wilson

Sam Elliott may have risen to superstardom in westerns. But it was a film in an entirely different genre that launched his career and turned him into a sex symbol.

Elliott starred as Rick Carlson, the titular lifeguard, in the 1976 film “Lifeguard.”

Elliott was out patrolling the beaches long before David Hasselhoff or Pamela Anderson ever entered the scene. (Of course, they were always known for moving slow. So it’s little wonder why Elliott beat them). The film was Elliott’s first-time stepping into a lead role. Despite its evocative imagery, the film was actually a drama that explored a mid-life crisis of sorts. Elliott looked back fondly on the film.

“We all took ‘Lifeguard’ very seriously when we were making it,” Elliott told Cinephiled. “It’s a coming-of-age story for Kathleen Quinlan. And it was also about this guy I played who was doing what he loved to do instead of succumbing to pressure to do something else. It’s a very good movie that I’m proud of. But Paramount sold the film in very specific way.”

It was probably easy for the actor to step into the role. Because Elliott had lifeguard experience himself. He worked the job back before he became an actor. Elliott actually comes from a long-line of lifeguards. Both of his parents also patrolled the beaches for a short time during their lives. The actor drew upon all this experience for his character Rick Carlson.

Sam Elliott Hated How the Movie Was Promoted

While the actual film was a character-driven drama, the marketing for the film was anything but. Paramount laid on the heat during its promotion of the film. It cast Elliott out front and center, wearing a speedo. The actor wasn’t a fan of how the studio tried to turn him into an object to be ogled at.

“Their catchphrase was “Every girl’s summer dream” and they used this artwork of me in my Speedo with a big-titted girl on either side of me,” Elliott said. “There weren’t even any big tits in that movie but they sold it like it was about that.”

While promoting the film, Elliott made his displeasure known during a series of interviews. Looking back, the actor realized he could have jeopardized his career by badmouthing the studio. But Elliott’s never been one to mince words.

“I went on the road doing press for six weeks, one city after another,” Elliott said. “You get into these towns and do interviews and usually, the reporters had seen the film the night before. Invariably, every f–king interview started with, “This movie isn’t anything like I expected!” And man, when somebody said that, it just made me start sharing what I thought about the way Paramount was promoting the film.”

Perhaps due to how Paramount promoted the film, “Lifeguard” didn’t end up being the success that Elliott hoped it to be. But it put his foot in the door. And more leading roles followed.