When Sam Elliott was approached to star in the TNT original movie Avenger, he quickly signed on, with one important piece of input: Instead of making Cal Dexter, his Vietnam War vet character, larger than life (so much so that he's practically a cartoon), why not aim for believability? "This is nothing against the script, which was great," Elliott says. "But in the first version that I read, my character was one of these Rambo types. In everything that he did, it was almost superhero proportions."
Elliott, meanwhile, is partial to action pictures of an earlier era, before the genre evolved into big, bloated explosion fests. "We came to an understanding real quick that, if I was going to play this part, I was going to play it as a 60-year-old and not acting like I'm 25."
The result: Avenger, which airs next at 11 p.m. ET Wednesday, April 12, is one lean, mean, fighting-machine of a movie. Like Ronin and The Bourne Identity, it's a bit of a throwback to a sparser, grittier style of storytelling, centered around a protagonist who stands firmly on morally ambiguous ground.
Avenger is based on the 2003 novel by Frederick Forsyth. In it, Dexter, a vigilante-for-hire, sets out to catch a Serbian war criminal now based in South Africa. Complicating the mission: the villain, who murdered a millionaire's aid-worker son, is working for and protected by people very high up in the CIA. But Dexter, who himself lost someone he loved, is undeterred.
"There are a couple of reasons I connected with Dexter," Elliott says. "One is that he and I are contemporaries. Vietnam was his war and Vietnam was my war, although I was in the National Guard and didn't go overseas. Another is that Dexter had a wife and daughter and I've got a wife and daughter. The fact that he lost his daughter in the fashion that he did, snatched away and raped and murdered and dumped, that's never happened to me, but I can totally identify. Because love lost, that's a big driving force for any human."
Dexter is a conflicted, complicated individual, Elliott says, which made him an irresistible character to play. "I'm fascinated that this guy steps outside the law in the pursuit of justice," Elliott says. "I'm not saying that what he does is right. I'm just saying that it's an interesting choice."
Elliott -- whose past films include Lifeguard (1976), Mask (1985), Road House (1989), Conagher (1991), Gettysburg (1993), The Big Lebowski (1998) and We Were Soliders (2002) -- had read Forsyth's Avenger novel shortly before the job offer came his way. "He's an amazing storyteller," Elliott says of Forsyth. "He created a great character." And Elliott is hoping he'll get to play Dexter again. "It's not out of the realm of possibility."
Elliott says he had the time of his life doing the movie. When he acts in an action picture or Western or war movie, he admits, he's actually reliving games he played during his boyhood. "It's always a kick," he says. "I feel like I'm the luckiest guy in the world that I get to do what I do for a living."
Elliott was 9 when he decided this was the life for him. "In a nutshell, I think I went to too many movies as a kid. There was a theater close to where I lived and, growing up, I must have gone to every Saturday matinee. There was something magical about what actors did. I thought, 'Man, I want to do that too. I want to make other people feel what these guys are making me feel.'"
Five decades later, he's still doing it. Another recent standout role was his scene-stealing turn as a cancer-stricken Marlboro Man in Thank You for Smoking. If Elliott has any regrets, it's that his father "went to the grave thinking his kid was an idiot for wanting to be an actor. I often wished I had my career going along and that he'd had the chance to see some of it before he passed away." Elliott likes to believe that his dad would have found his work entertaining -- and therefore worthy. "I don't like to think there's too big of a heavy message in any of the stuff I do," he says. "I just like to entertain. But if I can accomplish that, I feel like I've done an awful lot."