Sam Elliott shows how the West was fun

Butch (Sam Elliott) shares a story around the campfire in “The Good Dinosaur.”
Butch (Sam Elliott) shares a story around the campfire in “The Good Dinosaur.” Pixar/Disney

You hear it the moment he says hello. Sam Elloitt’s deep, gravely voice comes across like he’s spent a lifetime drinking the cheapest whiskey at the most rundown saloon in the Old West. He can read a Chinese menu and make it sound like a Louis L’Amour novel.

That’s why Elliott was the only person “The Good Dinosaur” director, Peter Sohn, thought of when casting the voice of Butch, an animated T-Rex who with his two children herd bison. The film looks at what would have happened had the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs missed and the massive creatures evolved into farmers and ranchers.

Casting Elliott for the segment of the film that harkens back to the Old West makes sense because there are few actors working today more closely associated with Westerns than the Sacramento native. In the late ‘70s and the ‘80s he was rarely off a horse starring in “The Sacketts,” “The Shadow Riders,” “The Yellow Rose,” “Houston: The Legend of Texas” and “The Quick and the Dead.”

These days, the closest he can get to being in a Western is playing an animated dinosaur.

“I really don’t know what it is,” Elliott says. “I think on some level, a part from the early days of Hollywood where the Western was a staple and really helped build the business, from that day on there has been this pervasive attitude in Hollywood that they were above the Western.

“They didn’t think they would play in the key cities because it was about Middle America. I think on some levels that rings true today. There’s no place for a computer in a Western.”

That’s why Elliott is always happy to land roles like “The Good Dinosaur” or “Justified,” a cable series that was a modern take on Westerns.

Even if Hollywood suddenly embraced the Western, Elliott is certain that it would be difficult to shoot a project in Los Angeles because all of the open spaces, ranch locations and props are long gone. He does agree that Fresno would be a great place to film a Western because of all of the different locations available.

He knows about the locations through his connection to the city. Elliott’s niece, Denise Ford, and her husband, Fresno State’s Dirk Ruthrauff, live here.

It may not be Fresno, but the 71-year-old actor is determined to film more Westerns somewhere before he hangs up his acting guns. He would like any future Western roles to be as good as the animated Butch, who is both a caring father and tough guy.

“My intention with the role was to find a nice tone of Butch being authoritative and caring,” Elliott says. “That came easy for me because I’m a dad and a bit of an authoritarian, I suppose.”

Elliott’s distinctive voice has landed him numerous voice jobs from commercials to animated series such as “Axe Cop” and “Robot Chicken.” Both require him to perform in front of a microphone but that’s where the similarities end.

When he’s voicing a commercial – whether it be for Dodge or the American Beef Council – Elliott knows his primary job is to satisfy the client. It’s not as creative a process as doing animated work like that in “The Good Dinosaur” where the voice work can spark all kind of emotions.

And the clients keep coming back because of Elliott’s voice. He gives credit to his mother for his vocal skills.

“She drug me to sing in a Cherub Choir when I was 4 years old. I think I was singing sopranos in those days. I was certainly at least a high tenor,” Elliott says.

Butch is very similar to the kind of tough-as-nail roles Elliott has played for more than 45 years. Some, like in the “Good Dinosaur,” are good guys while others, as in the case of “Justified,” are very, very bad.

He plays tough but Elliott’s actually a very sensitive gentle man – and gentleman. Elliott gets a little misty-eyed when he starts talking about working on the 1989 film “Road House” with Patrick Swazye. Portions of the movie were shot in the Fresno area.

“I have fond memories of shooting the film. I miss Patrick. It’s heartbreaking when I think about him being gone,” Elliott says. “He was such a beautiful man. He was a Southern gentleman who always talked about his mom who was a huge influence on his life.”

Rick Bentley: 559-441-6355, @RickBentley1