Sam Elliott: Looking Back at the Cowboy Icon’s First Starring Role in a Western Film

by Matthew Wilson
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Though he had a bit part in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” Sam Elliott didn’t star in his first western until the 1972 “Molly and Lawless John.”

The 1972 made for TV film showed the actor embracing his dark side as the titular Lawless John. Indeed, fans may hardly recognize Elliott in one of his first leading roles. For one, the actor hadn’t grown his signature his mustache. His voice had also not quite dropped to the same register as it would. And his shaggy hair hadn’t turned to whitened snow as it would with age.

All that to say that Elliott was young, only 28-years-old at the time. He received second billing behind actor Vera Miles as Molly. The film acted as a cautionary tale that maybe bad boys are bad for a reason. At least, you probably shouldn’t fall for a hardened convict and spring them from jail.

Molly finds out the hard way when she springs Lawless John from jail. And the two go on the run together. To make matters worse, Molly is the wife of the sheriff, not that he’s a particularly noble character in this film. For his part, Elliott has to play charming and charismatic with a hint of danger. Even without his mustache, Elliott had that in spades.

Elliott showed off his acting chops, proving he had what it took to carry a movie. In some respects, Elliott portrayed two different characters in the film. There’s the charmer that draws in Molly with his sad tale of how he became an outlaw. Then there’s the cold and selfish man, John reveals himself to be after successfully escaping prison.

Sam Elliott Grew Up Watching Westerns

For his roles in westerns, Elliott said he drew on his upbringing as well as his heritage. Elliott is what he likes to call a sixth-generation Texan, even though he wasn’t born in the state. For instance, his parents both grew up in El Paso, Texas before deciding to leave the state.

“Somebody fought at the Battle of San Jacinto, somebody was killed by Indians, and somebody got shot off his horse after coming out of a bar in Giddings, Texas,” Elliott told Cowboys and Indians. “It’s a heritage that I’ve always been proud of and something I was aware of early on. And I saw a lot of westerns when I was a kid at the Saturday matinee back when I got hooked on wanting to be an actor. It’s just a way of thinking. And it’s certainly a way of living.”

The role of Lawless John helped get Elliott’s foot in the door. It showed off his skills as an actor. Soon, he got the chance to portray a more heroic character and a few true cowboys later in his career.

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