Sam Elliott’s emotionally-charged portrayal of Shea Brennan in the Yellowstone prequel 1883 left viewers moved to tears. The role stretched the veteran actor, showcasing his iconic gruffness, sardonic humor, and vulnerable yet masculine persona. The performance earned the Tombstone star Best Actor in a Limited Series at the 2023 Screen Actors Guild Awards.
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Of course, Elliott is a film icon thanks to decades of work in beloved movies such as The Big Lebowski, A Star is Born, Roadhouse, and We Were Soldiers. His television career has been equally impactful with roles on hit shows like Parks and Recreation and Justified. However, Elliott’s earliest lead role was much less prestigious. A young Elliott headlined the 1972 animal attack horror film, Frogs.
Sam Elliott starred alongside an Oscar winner in the 1972 horror film
Elliott starred with Ray Milland (himself an Oscar winner for 1945’s The Lost Weekend) and Joan Van Ark (Knots Landing) in the film. In this tale, a Southern estate is besieged by an array of lizards, birds, snakes, and other creatures in retribution for the owner’s usage of pesticides. Fans of the gritty mustached actor should brace themselves: He plays the part clean shaven.
Since 1933, when King Kong made its debut on the silver screen, science fiction, and horror pictures have included rampaging creatures as a key component. This genre was further enhanced in the 1950s after radioactive pollutants transformed ordinary beasts into massive monsters. These stories reflected nature taking revenge for atrocities done to her.
After the success of Willard (1971), which depicted rats being trained to target humans, Frogs emerged and became a cult classic. Similar to The Birds by Hitchcock, it was heavily influenced by ecological awareness during the 70s. This replaced nuclear fears that had been prominent up until then.
Like many 1970s animal attack films, ‘Frogs’ has an environmental theme
As scenes of lush, tranquil beauty fill the screen with shots of an exclusive island estate in Florida Everglades, Frogs gives way to a stark contrast: evidence of industrialization’s poison seeping into this idyllic landscape. Sam Elliott’s character, a photojournalist, leads the way as he navigates through the swampy waterways while capturing images of environmental pollution. As if summoned by his progress, an assembly of frogs accompanies him until they reach their destination – a lavish mansion in this once vibrant yet now contaminated paradise. Ray Milland stars as the dominating father of an expansive family, believing it’s his mission to manage them like a despot and harness nature with harsh pesticides and other dangerous toxins.
Many viewers were bemused by the fact that frogs themselves contributed very little when it came to mayhem in Frogs. Instead, snakes and lizards did most of the damage while alligators chipped away at whatever remained. Still, one could argue that this only adds to the charm of the film. It has enjoyed a cult status (in part because of Elliot’s involvement, no doubt).
‘Frogs’ helped Sam Elliott land a much more substantial film role
While the film is something of a clunker of Sam Elliott’s otherwise prolific resume, Frogs did help him land a juicy role. “I tried to get a meeting on Lifeguard for a long time,” Elliott told Den of Geek in 2017. “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. 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 went on to explain that one of Lifeguard‘s producers spotted Elliott while watching Frogs on tv. His wife insisted Elliott would be perfect for the lead role. “So they sit through this movie, Frogs,” he recalled. “Got my name off the credits. The next day, I went in and had a meeting on the movie. [I] 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 [the producer’s] wife.”