Sam Elliott was born in Sacramento, California, to a physical training instructor mother and a father who worked for the Department of the Interior. He moved from California to Oregon with his family during his teenage years, where he graduated from David Douglas High School in Portland. He attended Clark College in Vancouver, Washington, where he completed a two-year program and was cast as one of the leads in Guys and Dolls. The local newspaper suggested that Elliott should be a professional actor. Soon after, Elliott declared he was going to Hollywood to become a star. Elliott is a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at Cal State LA. He worked in construction while studying acting in Los Angeles and served in the California Army National Guard. Elliott also lived for a short time in Princeton, West Virginia.
Elliott married actress Katharine Ross in 1984. Although Ross starred in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, in which Elliott had a very small role, the two did not meet and begin dating until 1978 when they both starred with Roger Daltrey in The Legacy. He and Katharine Ross have a daughter, Cleo Cole Elliott, born in 1984, who is now a musician in Malibu.
Elliott began his career as a character actor; his appearance, voice, and bearing were ideally suited to Westerns. One of his first film roles was as 'Card Player #2' in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).
In 1970-71, Sam Elliott starred as Doug Robert in the hit TV series Mission: Impossible, and played the lead character Sam Damon in Once an Eagle, an NBC miniseries during the 1976–77 season. He also played Tom Keating in the mini-series Aspen in 1977. He also had the starring role as Rick Carlson in the summer hit sleeper Lifeguard (1976). In 1979, he played the oldest brother in the made-for-TV miniseries The Sacketts, also starring Tom Selleck, Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, Glenn Ford, Ruth Roman, Mercedes McCambridge, Jack Elam, and Gilbert Roland. He later played a wife killer in the miniseries Murder in Texas (1981) and A Death in California (1985). Elliott's breakthrough came with his supporting role in Mask (1985) when he co-starred with Cher. He has made guest appearances on shows such as Felony Squad, Gunsmoke, Lancer, and Hawaii Five-O and has been featured in many TV movies, including Prancer (1989) and Buffalo Girls (1995) in which he played Wild Bill Hickok. He has also starred in Road House (1989) with Patrick Swayze and played Virgil Earp in Tombstone (1993), which starred Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer. In 1998, Elliot was named the grand marshal of the Calgary Stampede parade and rode in the procession before 300,000 spectators.
Elliott co-starred in We Were Soldiers, which is based on the book We Were Soldiers Once… And Young, portraying Sgt. Maj. Basil L. Plumley. He portrayed General John Buford in the 1993 film Gettysburg. He also played General Thunderbolt Ross in the 2003 film Hulk.
Elliott played "The Stranger", a character narrating the story of The Big Lebowski (1998). In 2005 he appeared in Thank You For Smoking where he played a former Marlboro Man advertisement cowboy who has developed lung-cancer. Elliot joined Nicolas Cage in 2007 in the popular Ghost Rider, and stood out in another film that same year, in The Golden Compass as a key character, Lee Scoresby. In 2009, Elliott had a small role in Up In The Air in which he portrayed the Chief Pilot of American Airlines. He has appeared twice on Parks and Recreation as Ron Dunn, the Eagleton equivalent of Ron Swanson. He has a supporting role in the film The Company You Keep and plays a college football coach in 2014's Draft Day.
Elliott has performed voice-over narration for various commercials. He has lent his voice to campaigns for Dodge, IBM, Kinney Drugs, Union Pacific, and, most notably, the American Beef Council, succeeding Robert Mitchum in the latter. Since late 2007, Elliott has done voice-overs for Coors beer, bringing his deep, rich voice and "western" appeal to the brand brewed in Colorado. In 2010, Dodge hired Elliott to do the voice-over for their Ram Heavy Duty truck commercial. He is also the new voice for Smokey Bear ("Only YOU can prevent wildfires"), and shares the mascot's birth date (August 9. 1944). Eliott lent his voice to "Buster" (a.k.a. Chupadogra) in Marmaduke (2010). He also narrated the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers team introductions to Super Bowl XLV -- played at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, at the conclusion of the 2010 NFL season -- for Fox Sports.