SLO film festival welcomes ‘The Graduate’ actor Katharine Ross
In an industry plagued by ruined relationships, Katharine Ross and Sam Elliott represent one of Hollywood’s rare romantic success stories.
Ross, the star of “The Graduate” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” has been married to Elliott, the deep-voiced, mustachioed actor whose credits include “Road House,” “Tombstone” and “A Star Is Born,” for more than three decades. They have a daughter, a farm in Oregon and a seaside ranch in Malibu; they’ve even shared the screen a handful of times.
Staying together in show business can be “sort of a roller coaster ride. It’s ups and downs,” Ross said. “Hopefully, underneath it all you have a solid base and friends.”
Ross, 79, will talk about her life and career on the opening night of the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. The event, March 12 at the Fremont Theater in downtown San Luis Obispo, will feature an on-stage conversation with Ross, followed by a special 50th-anniversary screening of “Butch Cassidy.”
In addition, Ross will perform “Kate Shelley and the Midnight Express” with the Malibu Coast Silent Film Orchestra, led by composer Maria Newman. A combination of spoken word and orchestral music, “Kate Shelley” tells the story of a teenage girl who helped avert a train disaster in Iowa in 1881.
“It’s quite timely to do this with everything that’s going on in the world, particularly with women being recognized for more than just being mothers and nurses and teachers,” said Ross, who canceled a November 2018 film festival event when the Woolsey Fire forced her family from their Malibu home. (The ranch escaped major wildfire damage, she said.)
Ross, who grew up in the Bay Area, had been acting professionally for about a decade when she caught her big break in 1967’s “The Graduate.” She won a Golden Globe Award and earned an Oscar nomination for her role as Elaine, the love interest of Dustin Hoffman’s aimless college alumnus.
“In some ways it’s a universal story about growing up, about not knowing what you’re going to do with your life after you’re graduated from college,” she said of “The Graduate.” “It resonates even now.”
Ross followed up “The Graduate” with another iconic role in 1969’s “Butch Cassidy.” She plays Etta Place, the school teacher who runs off with the Wild West outlaw duo played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford.
“It was this blend of modern humor and western lore, which made a really nice combination,” Ross said.
Although Ross and Elliott, 74, both appear in “Butch Cassidy” — he’s credited as Card Player No. 2 — they didn’t actually meet then. “She was the leading lady. I was a shadow on the wall, a glorified extra in a bar scene,” Elliott told AARP The Magazine in 2015.
Their paths crossed again about a decade later, when they co-starred in the 1978 horror movie “The Legacy,” filmed in England.
“It turned out we probably grew up about 80 miles apart in California but we had to go ‘across the pond’ to meet,” Ross said. (Elliott was born in Sacramento and spent his teenage years in Portland, Oregon.)
One of the first things that struck Ross during the initial London table read for “The Legacy” was Elliott’s perfectionism. “He was very particular about the script and the dialogue and how things were said,” she said. “He was not afraid to speak up about what he thought.”
A couple other traits also stood out. “There are two things that are iconic (about Elliott): his mustache and his voice,” Ross said.
Early in their relationship, Ross said, Elliott surprised her by abruptly shaving off his famous facial hair.
While Ross chatted with friends outside her Malibu home, “Sam went inside the trailer without saying a word to anyone,” she recalled, only to emerge clean shaven. “Oh my gosh, it’s amazing how a face can change without a mustache.”
She and Elliott, who married in 1984, have appeared in eight big-screen and TV movies together, most recently co-starring in 2017’s “The Hero.” (Elliott plays an aging Western movie icon, while Ross plays his ex-wife.) The couple has one child, model and musician Cleo Rose Elliott.
Working together can help foster a relationship, Ross said.
“Sometimes that’s easier than real life,” she said. “You’re got a script. You’ve got a part. You’ve got your creative juices flowing together. It’s not about the dirty dishes in the sink or whether you’ve picked something up at the laundry. ...”
While Ross is best known for her roles in the 1960s and 1970s — her screen credits include “The Stepford Wives” and “Voyage of the Damned” — Elliott has built a career playing cowboys, ranchers, bikers and other tough customers in movies and TV shows including “The Big Lebowski,” FX’s “Justified” and Netflix’s “The Ranch.” (Fun fact: He’s been the voice of Smokey Bear, the U.S. Forest Service mascot.)
According to Ross, there are elements of Elliott in all the parts he plays — “You can’t totally get away from yourself,” she said — but one recent role comes the closest.
In January, Elliott received his first Oscar nomination for his supporting turn in 2018’s “A Star Is Born,” a drama about love, loss and addiction that netted a total of eight Academy Award nods, including best picture and best actor. (The movie won an Oscar for best song.)
In “A Star Is Born,” Elliott plays Bobby Maine, older brother, manager and surrogate father to troubled country rocker Jackson “Jack” Maine (Bradley Cooper). The two have a thorny relationship rocked by resentment over Jack co-opting Bobby’s voice; in fact, Cooper modeled his character’s gravelly growl after Elliott’s deep, folksy drawl, USA Today reported.
“You see (Elliott) when he’s kind of pissed off at Jack. You see him emotional and caring and sort of helpless to really do anything,” Ross said. “There’s a lot of detail in there ... a lot of nuance.”
For some, Elliott’s Oscar nomination marked the culmination of a five-decade acting career. “I think the thing off the top of my head might be, ‘It’s about f-----g time,’ ” he joked to Deadline when news of the nomination broke.
“Maybe it’s about time and maybe it’s about a body of work. We’ve talked about this a lot, Sam and I,” said Ross, who earned her own Academy Award acting nod “a lifetime earlier.” “The nomination truly is the win. They’re all the best in a field. … They’re all good in their way.”
Besides, she and her husband have already won a bigger prize: a healthy relationship.
Asked what it’s like be married to a man widely viewed as a sex symbol, Ross laughed.
“I never thought about it,” she said with a chuckle. “I totally appreciate that men and women find him attractive. He’s quite the gent. He’s pretty much always nice and gracious; it’s lovely to see and to be around.”
‘An Evening with Katharine Ross’
7 p.m. March 12
Fremont Theatre, 1035 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo
$25, $15 students; $350 festival pass