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Sam Elliott: Blythe Danner Had Never Kissed a Mustache

Sam Elliott, director Brett Haley, and AARP’s Meg Grant had a fun Q&A after a screening of

Sam Elliott got a standing ovation from a full house when he took the stage following the screening of his new film, I’ll See You in My Dreams, at the Movies for Grownups Film Festival in Miami.

“It’s very gratifying to play a role like this,” the star, whose distinctive rumbling voice has made him one of the busiest commercial voiceover artists in America, told the moderator, AARP’s Meg Grant.

“Otherwise it’s mostly selling trucks and beer.”

In a year that has been very good for grownup love stories ( 5 Flights Up with Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman opened last week), Elliott, 70, and Blythe Danner, 72, play a 70-something couple who find each other late in life. His character is all for immediate romance; hers is a bit more reluctant at first.

Leaning back in his chair in the Miami Beach Convention Center’s celebrity “green room” before the post-screening Q&A, Elliott said his on-set relationship with Danner somewhat paralleled the script’s trajectory for the two main characters.

“Blythe and I had never crossed paths before this,” said Elliott. “I’d just been a fan, like a lot of other people, from afar.

“At first I sensed a sort or nervousness from her. Of course we jumped right into it; we did one of the kissing scenes that first day. Blythe was whispering to me, ‘I’ve never kissed a man with a mustache before.’

“I said, ‘Well, you’re about to!’ ”

I’ll See You in My Dreams was co-written and directed by Brett Haley. Haley is just 31, but he has a remarkable ear for the cadences of grownup conversation and for the special kinds of insecurities that can accompany late-life love. Is it possible that somewhere in his creative mind there’s an older person trying to get out?

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“I’m a storyteller — I think I have a lot of people in me trying to get out,” he told the crowd. “I’m trying to learn about the world and about people, and I think directing a film about people that you previously didn’t understand is a good way to do that.”

Sam Elliott tells a story from the stage.

Besides Danner, the film features an all-star cast of famous women, including Oscar nominee June Squibb ( Nebraska), six-time Golden Globe nominee Rhea Perlman ( Cheers) and Emmy winner Mary Kay Place ( Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman). It’s an unusual environment for Elliott, who’s known mostly for man’s-man roles (see The Big Lebowski or FX TV’s Justified).

“It was a change, and I liked it,” he said. “Mary Kay referred to me as ‘the Male Ingenue.’

“I’ve enjoyed all that masculine stuff I’ve done in the past, whether it’s military or westerns or bikers or whatever. But the opportunity to play a real gentleman around a really incredible woman was a real pleasure, particularly when it’s this kind of intelligent dialogue. It just seemed so real.”

He leaned forward. The guy in I’ll See You in My Dreams, he confessed, is a lot closer to the real Sam Elliott than the tough guys that made him famous.

“I think those other parts are total fantasies on some level. I mean a bouncer in a bar? That’s not my game. Nor is a general in the military. There’s some of my father in those roles, although I never got to know my father well; he died when I was 19.”

In the early years of AARP’s  Movies for Grownups Awards, given each February in Los Angeles, true contenders for the “Best Grownup Love Story” category were hard to come by. This year the competition already is fierce — and both Elliott and Haley could not be happier about that.

“Late-life romance is real,” said Haley. “It happens every day. People don’t close themselves in their houses and wait to die. People are living their lives, and they have a desire to love and be loved.”

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Added Elliott, who has been married more than 30 years to actress Katharine Ross ( The Graduate): “I just look at this picture as every man’s tale. It’s where all of us are headed. My mom lived to be a week less than 96. She had a full life. She had relationships, she danced, she had a career as a schoolteacher.

“It’s a shame that this hasn’t really been addressed before in the movies. But I’m happy to be a part of something that is addressing it in a real honest fashion.”

Photos: Bill Newcott

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