Beings of Oregon: A conversation with Sam Elliott (and how we got his phone number)

Chris Pietsch
Register-Guard

I would like to meet Sam Elliott again some day, but my motives are purely selfish.

His last appearance in The Register-Guard, in a 2017 story written by Mark Baker, is the single most-read story in R-G online history.

Since the story ran, Elliott has become an even bigger star. His portrayal of Bobby Maine opposite Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in "A Star is Born" earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. 

He is presently starring in "1883," a prequel to "Yellowstone," streaming on Paramount+.

So yes, scoring another interview with the man would be good for business. 

'I've always loved the Willamette Valley:'1883's' Sam Elliott at home in Oregon

And it isn't like a meetup couldn't happen naturally. He and his equally famous wife, actress Katharine Ross, are part-time Linn County residents, after all. There have been numerous Sam Elliott sightings from Market of Choice to Newman’s Fish Co. over the years.

By his own telling, he has visited the Saturday Market, with a stocking cap pulled over his signature white haired head and his mouth "shut" to avoid attention.

"I looked just as weird as the rest of ’em," he said in 2017. 

That interview was a big get, as they say in the business. But truth be told, the meeting almost went sideways from the start. 

You see, Elliott is not an easy man to track down. 

Baker was on the hunt anyway, and his persistence paid off when he met a person who knew Elliott and had been entrusted with his personal phone number. 

In Baker's telling of the call, Elliott was not pleased to hear a reporter's voice on the other end of the line. For reasons I do not know, he agreed to a meeting anyway. (Baker can be a persuasive man.) The two arranged to meet at the Starbucks in north Eugene on a sunny day in July. Baker brought me along to make some photos.

Chris Pietsch, left, and Mark Baker, right, interview Sam Elliott in Eugene in 2017.

A successful photographer learns to size people up quickly. Body language? Tone of voice? Choice of words? All help when making a portrait. When Elliott arrived, I could tell something was up and it was not good.

But, before much more than "thanks for meeting us" could be uttered, Baker announced he needed a cup of coffee and offered to buy a round. Elliott's tone as he said "no thanks" reinforced my instincts that we were on probation.

So what happened next surprised the hell out of me. As Baker left, Elliott turned the tables and became the interviewer. 

He asked me in that deep, hypnotic voice of his if I was "from around here?" When I told him I grew up in Sandpoint, Idaho, he squinted off into the ether and asked, "The town with the beautiful beach on the other side of the train tracks?" with the conviction of a man who was piecing together a recessed memory. 

The City Beach is a well-known landmark, to locals as least, on the shore of Lake Pend Oreille in North Idaho. One of the crown jewels of the little town.

Beings of Oregon:Dolly Parton's ode to 'Eugene, Oregon'

As it turns out, Elliott had driven though the area once. He had visited the very beach where I learned to swim. 

As we chatted, he nodded his head in acknowledgment when I mentioned the town had been discovered by equity refugees from California and he laughed at my joke about the proliferation of real estate sale signs after a hard winter. 

I began to appreciate his easy manner and felt the charisma that has helped make him a star.

When Baker returned with coffee, the mood changed in the blink of an eye. Elliott fixed Baker in his gaze and asked sternly, "Who gave you my number?"

Now one of the things reporters pride themselves on is not revealing their sources, a maxim that goes back to at least to colonial times. While the Elliott story was not going to save democracy, the unwritten rules of the trade must be observed for the good of the order.

We were in a standoff. 

Elliott broke the ice first by revealing that he had planned to leave abruptly if Baker did not give up the name of the person in question. 

But ... even as he said the words, I knew that he had changed his mind. 

What just happened? 

OK, now I am going to climb out on a limb. This may sound immodest, is admittedly based entirely on gut instincts and the truth may never be known, but here is my take on this sudden turn of events.

I think the witty banter regarding sandy beaches, appreciation for the beauty of the Pacific Northwest and a shared awareness of how easily it might all change, played some weird and unexpected role in defusing the tension in that moment. 

Sam Elliott and I hit it off, as they say. Hubris or not, that is my story and I am sticking with it. 

After the air clearing, we had a fine time, soaking up the sun, drinking coffee, making pictures and hearing Sam Elliott's life story. The chatting went on so long I began to worry I might end up with a sunburn. 

As we talked, I had another, not-so-fun revelation. Along with the unrelenting cosmic rays came the star-struck fans.

Each time we were interrupted, Elliott would stop in the middle of a thought to sign an autograph or pose for a selfie, but then firmly let it be known he needed to return to his interview. 

Sam Elliott soaks up the morning sun during a visit to a local coffee shop in Eugene in 2017.

After one such interruption he lamented the creation of the phone camera. Selfies have changed the fan experience for the worse in his opinion, taking more time as they do for the phone finding, the launching of the app and the arranging of the pose, compared to the old school signing of autographs.

Despite that, Elliott leaned in and smiled through his famous mustache for each shutter click, without complaint, for all who asked. Thankfully, there were only a handful this day.

But, as I witnessed each interruption, I began to appreciate what a pain in the gluteus maximus it must all be for him.

I could easily imagine that given a larger crowd or different circumstances, there would be no end to it. Each person, wanting a piece of the man — for just a second, please, but followed by another and another — until there might be no other option but to flee the scene.

Fame and fortune do in fact come with a price. Elliott cannot have a normal life. I began to feel empathy for his dilemma.

So, I have decided if I do happen to cross paths with Sam Elliott again, as much as I might wish otherwise, I plan to offer him a nod of recognition and walk right on by. 

I think he will appreciate the gesture.

Contact photographer Chris Pietsch at chris.pietsch@registerguard.com, or follow him on Twitter @ChrisPietsch and Instagram @chrispietsch.