Can you be a movie star on the sly? Sam Elliott is an instantly recognizable and much-liked actor, with a collection of leading roles behind him.
And yet Elliott never quite became a top-line star. He didn’t seem interested in the trappings of Hollywood, he worked in TV before TV got cool, and he stuck with the Western long after the genre had gone out of style.
Ever since “The Big Lebowski,” in which he plays the twangy cowpoke who counsels Jeff Bridges in the ways of the world, Elliott has become an even more treasured figure. You couldn’t hear his resonant commercial voiceovers extolling the virtues of beef — “It’s what’s for dinner” — without smiling.
All of this makes him the ideal actor for “The Hero,” a pleasant character study. Elliott plays Lee Hayden, an actor almost exclusively known for a single iconic role he played 40 years earlier.
Lee can’t find much work — we first see him doing commercial voiceover for barbecue sauce — and he’s got mixed feelings about an upcoming Lifetime Achievement award from a small Western-movie organization. (This film was shown at the recent Seattle International Film Festival, with the actor in attendance for an achievement award — a nice bit of serendipity.)
The screenplay, by Marc Basch and director Brett Haley, wastes no time setting up Lee’s life. In the first five minutes we learn of his career doldrums, the looming award ceremony and a cancer diagnosis.
He visits his pot dealer buddy (reliable Nick Offerman) and meets a mutual friend, Charlotte (Laura Prepon, from “Orange Is the New Black”). Lee is 71 and Charlotte is not much older than Lee’s estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter), but that never stopped a movie romance from moving forward.
Nothing earth-shaking happens, and there are too many flat dialogue scenes with people standing around talking. But it’s a pleasure to watch Elliott stretch out in a big, emotional part. His slow drawl makes a quirky rhythm with Prepon’s rapid-fire millennial delivery.
Elliott even shares a few scenes with his real-life wife, Katharine Ross (the leading lady of “The Graduate”), who plays his ex. Clearly, this project, however modest, is a labor of love.
For diehard Sam Elliott fans, think of this as a bookend to his 1976 cult picture, “Lifeguard,” in which he played a beach hunk contemplating the meaning of it all. He’s not riding off into the sunset just yet, but “The Hero” is a genial gift for a hard-working actor.
“The Hero” (2½ stars)
Sam Elliott plays an actor known for an iconic role 40 years earlier, and now in a long career doldrums. Nothing much happens, but Elliott’s signature laconic charm carries this character study.
Rating: R, for language, subject matter
Opening Friday: Pacific Place, SIFF Cinema Uptown, Sundance