Skip to main content

What Happens When The Heroin Epidemic Hits Small Town America?

West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the country. New Yorker writer Margaret Talbot interviewed addicts, their families and health professionals to understand why.


Other segments from the episode on June 29, 2017

Fresh Air with Terry Gross June 29, 2017: Interview with Margaret Talbot; Interview with Sam Elliott.


DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. The state of West Virginia's indigent burial fund, which helps with funerals for those who can't afford one, has run out of money for six straight years. One reason, writer Margaret Talbot says, is that the state has the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the country. For a recent piece in The New Yorker, Talbot spent time in the eastern panhandle of the state, where opioid addiction is widespread and overdose is so commonplace it seems everyone, including kids, knows what one looks like. Talbot spoke with addicts and their loved ones, emergency responders and professionals and volunteers trying to do something about the problem.

Margaret Talbot has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2003, and she's the author of a book about her father, the actor Lyle Talbot, called "The Entertainer." Her recent piece about opioids in West Virginia is "The Addicts Next Door."

Margaret Talbot, welcome back to FRESH AIR. In reporting this story, you spent some time with paramedics, EMS teams, that are often called to treat overdoses. And you describe a call that they responded to at a girls Little League practice. Tell us what happened.

MARGARET TALBOT: Yes, it was the first Little League practice for this girls softball team, first of the season, in late March, and they got a call. It was late afternoon, about 5 o'clock. This paramedic who I had been following around - gotten to know, a guy named Michael Barrett, arrived there with his colleague and found a chaotic scene.

There were a bunch of middle school-age girls sitting on the ground comforting each other and crying, there were two little kids running around crying and screaming, and there were a lot of adults trying to help them and escort them away from the scene because two parents who had come to their daughter's practice, a man and a woman, had both overdosed simultaneously and were lying on the field about 6 feet apart and in obvious need of resuscitation.

Their two little - younger children who had come with them were trying to get them to wake up. So Michael and his colleague were able to revive the parents using Narcan, which is the antidote to opioid overdoses - reverses them. But as is increasingly the case, it took several doses to revive them because they had probably had heroin that was cut with something stronger, possibly fentanyl. And so this was the scene that was witnessed by many people in this community who were at this softball practice on an afternoon in March.

DAVIES: You know, what's striking in some ways here are what the EMS team heard from some of the other parents. How did they regard this couple who had, you know, overdosed in their presence?

TALBOT: Yeah. Well, it was very mixed. And it sounds like it was pretty challenging because some parents were very angry - angry that their kids were there to witness this, angry that this happened in this setting - and were saying things, like - apparently, a few people were saying things like, you know, don't - you know, don't use the Narcan. Let them lie. And, you know, others were trying to help the kids who were there.

Later on, when an article appeared in the local paper, many people weighed in on the comments page with, some of them, very harsh commentary, some much more empathetic, really kind of debating this in a public forum.

DAVIES: And the mother who had overdosed responded to some of the comments. What did she say?

TALBOT: She did. She said, you know, she regretted this. She felt shame about it. She had struggled to find treatment for her addiction in the area - hadn't been able to. She tried her best with her children and was trying to get treatment now so that she could get her children back. Her children had been put into the care of a relative.

DAVIES: Tell us about this area and why it seems to have so much opioid abuse.

TALBOT: Well, West Virginia has the highest drug overdose rate in the country. And different parts of the state have been affected more than others - Huntington, W.V., in the western part of the state; some of the coal-mining areas, smaller towns there; but also this area, which is actually the eastern panhandle. It's not very far from Washington, D.C., or from Baltimore. And that's played a role because Baltimore has long been a heroin market, and it's relatively easy to obtain it there. So people call one of the highways the Heroin Highway that connects Baltimore to this area of the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. Martinsburg is the town that I sort of focused on. So that's one reason.

I think also, just in the longer term, although it's an area that has not been as hard hit economically as, say, some of the coal-mining regions, it did have a period where it was more economically thriving. It had a - it was a mill town at one point, and all of those mills are closed now. So some of the kind of employment that gave people, not only work but, I think, a larger sense of meaning has disappeared. And that is part of the story.

DAVIES: So this is a national problem, this explosion of opioid abuse and overdose. So let's just review how we got here. I mean, this goes back to the mid-'90s, right?

TALBOT: Yes, that's right. Basically, in the early '90s, there was a kind of backlash against the way chronic pain was being treated. And there was a feeling among doctors and among patient advocates that although pain for, for example, terminal cancer was being managed fairly well and fairly empathetically, that people who had chronic pain conditions from, you know, back pain to neurological conditions to whatever it might be, were not really getting the relief and the care that they needed. And so there was a rethinking that went on about prescribing opioids and a feeling that really didn't have much data behind it that these were not addictive - that they didn't have the - for people who were really in pain, they didn't carry this risk of addiction.

And at the same time the pharmaceutical companies were promoting opioid pills quite aggressively. In 1996, Purdue Pharmaceuticals came up with a reformulation of oxycodone, which is one of the, you know, key opioids. And it was a long release - a slow-release form called OxyContin, and it was supposed to be, you know, something that would last for 12 to 24 hours. It was not supposed to lend itself to abuse, but it became a pill that was because people very quickly figured out that you could snort it or dissolve it - reduce it to a powder and dissolve it in water and inject it.

DAVIES: Right. They would break the little capsules, pour out the powder and then get much larger doses. So it wasn't the time release.

TALBOT: Exactly.

DAVIES: It was a rush - right? - and a high.

TALBOT: Exactly, exactly - and a very effective one.

DAVIES: Right. Eventually the CDC issued new guidelines, you know, saying we shouldn't be treating chronic pain so frequently with opioids. So it got harder to get, but then something else happened, right? The cartels were responded.



TALBOT: Yes. I mean, it's really one of these striking stories of unintended consequences because, yes, so after a while, people started realizing, you know, that there was this potential for abuse, that it was happening, that pill mills were popping up around the country and that these pills were, in fact, causing addiction and - or leading to addiction. And so yes - so then, there was kind of a crackdown and a rethinking, this - as you say, CDC issued new prescribing guidelines. These drug registries, monitoring programs were instituted in almost every state, where physicians and also pharmacies could look to see if people seemed to be doctor shopping or that kind of thing and for pills. And Purdue came up with a new, harder-to-crack, harder-to-abuse form of OxyContin.

So all of those things happened by about 2010. And opioid pill abuse did decrease. But yes, heroin came in to replace it. And that was kind of a response of the drug cartels that became aware that there was this niche - there was this, you know, gap in the market that they could respond to. And they did so, you know, quite effectively.

DAVIES: Right. So plenty of heroin came in, cheaper heroin. How much easier is it for an addict now who may have started with abusing OxyContin? How much easier is it for them and cheaper to get heroin than to get the pills?

TALBOT: Yeah, I mean, I have heard, for example - prices vary a little bit around the country. But whereas the street value of an 80-milligram pill of OxyContin would be maybe - you would pay maybe $80 for it, that for a baggie of heroin that would be kind of the equivalent of that, it would be $10 to $15. So you know, it's quite a bit cheaper and now just quite a bit more available, easier to get a hold of now that there are fewer of these pills kind of washing around in communities.

DAVIES: So that explains why we have so many more heroin addicts now. Why are there so many more overdoses? Is it more dangerous now? Is it a different kind of drug?

TALBOT: Yeah. I mean, I think probably the key reason that we're having overdose deaths right now has to do with fentanyl and carfentanil, which are synthetic opioids that now many of the drug traffickers are using to kind of extend heroin and to be able to pack greater potency into smaller packages, which makes it easier to traffic and more profitable.

And fentanyl is about 50 times - 50 to a hundred times more powerful than heroin. Carfentanil is several thousand, they say, times more powerful than that. Carfentanil is actually used as a large animal and elephant tranquilizer. And these are very, very deadly drugs, so I think that's a lot of it.

DAVIES: There's an awful lot of heroin being dealt in this region. Were the drug traffickers a presence? Did people fear them? Was there violence, you know, related to their activity?

TALBOT: No. And I think that's one of the reasons it took people a while to pay attention to this crisis because it doesn't involve the kind of turf war violence that, you know, we've seen in some earlier instances of drug trafficking and drug epidemics. So people are - it's - there's this kind of quiet aspect to it which is strange and characteristic of this particular crisis, so people are - some people are driving into Baltimore or - and arranging to get the drugs, bringing them back and then just distributing them in town, you know, low-level distributors, often just people who in some cases are users themselves. So it's not this kind of splashy public profile violent kind of setting for a, you know, drug war kind of set of associations.

DAVIES: Unfortunately, a functioning business, in other words.

TALBOT: Exactly, exactly.

DAVIES: Margaret Talbot is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her article, "The Addicts Next Door," appeared in a recent issue of the magazine. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Margaret Talbot. She's a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her article, The Addicts Next Door," about the effects of opioid addiction and overdoses in West Virginia appeared in the magazine earlier this month. There is this very effective drug Narcan which can revive overdose patients if they are reached in time. It was interesting that they begin with small doses. Why is that?

TALBOT: Well, because actually sometimes when people are brought around, they aren't initially very happy about it. And they're sometimes angry at being pulled out of their high. And they're sometimes very sick because they go into sort of instant withdrawal and can start, you know, throwing up and just generally being quite sick and feeling quite miserable. So they try and do it gradually so that they're sort of bringing people around without making them either sick or angry or both.

DAVIES: The paramedic you spent time with, Michael Barrett, he had some pretty remarkable stories about addiction and overdoses and a lot of cases where it seemed more than one member of the family would be addicted and overdosing. Can you share some of those with us?

TALBOT: Yeah. I mean, he had one story about three people living in one house. He was first called for the father, who had overdosed. The mother and teenage daughter had called on behalf of the father, took the father to the hospital. Came back later in the day, the mother had overdosed and took her to the hospital, came back, had revived her with Narcan. And the third call he got to the house was for the teenage daughter. And this was all in one day.

And, you know, I picked a day at random to follow him around, you know, just a day that was convenient in March and just, you know, a weekday, kind of average day and thought, you know, maybe I'll see one overdose. He ended up having four overdose calls that day. I was there for three of them. You know, one of them was a guy who was driving and had overdosed. The car was still running. He was on a hill. Fortunately, his foot was on a break - it was on the brake. There was a woman behind him who had a little kid in the car, and she, you know, had called 911. There were a lot of people around. This was the afternoon.

And that evening, there was a woman who overdosed in a 7-Eleven parking lot with a small child strapped into the car seat in the backseat. And, you know, some good Samaritans had called 911. And the first call of that day was a 22-year-old girl who could not be revived, unfortunately. And it was too late for the Narcan. And she died.

DAVIES: You know, I was struck that - you spoke to the county EMS director. And if I have this right, he thought that addicts actually had gotten used to the idea that there was Narcan to revive them if they overdosed and an EMS system that would respond and that it in some ways - it sort of encouraged risky behavior. They had sort of expected this as part of the deal.

TALBOT: Yeah. I mean, I think some people do really worry about that because some EMS people do have these cases where they will go back to the same person or the same house multiple times in one week. And so it's very - it is very frustrating for them. And I think while they very much, you know, believe in saving lives, and they believe that Narcan should be available, they also worry, once again, a little bit about unintended consequences.

The guy I spoke to who was the head of the EMS also really felt that people were purposefully doing this in public more, possibly because they knew there would be someone to save them. And, you know, he felt that was a kind of survival instinct that was understandable from a human point of view, even though it's also very strange to think about really for many of us.

DAVIES: Wow. It's almost like a - it's almost a safety method to use in public, rather than in private because there's a risk you're going to OD.

TALBOT: Exactly.

DAVIES: If people do want treatment, how easy is it to get it?

TALBOT: Not very easy. And that's, you know, that's a real issue. There isn't enough. People also, of course, face the problem of paying for treatment and will face it even more if they end up losing their Medicaid coverage because most of the people I spoke to there who had gotten any kind of treatment had gotten it through Medicaid or Medicaid expansion under the ACA. And so people were very worried, even though this was a, you know, West Virginia's a state that voted for Trump.

And many people I spoke to were Trump supporters, but they were also very, very worried about what was going to happen to their health coverage. So paying for it is a huge issue. But also, yeah, just availability, there aren't enough treatment centers. There aren't enough doctors who specialize in addiction medicine. There aren't enough doctors offering medication-assisted treatment like methadone and Suboxone and Vivitrol. So yeah, it's a problem.

DAVIES: You met three women who've formed a little project to try and deal with this problem of people needing treatment and having to wait - it not being available - the Hope Dealer Project. Tell us about these folks and what they do.

TALBOT: Yeah, they're three really amazing women who live in this Martinsburg community and who all had some kind of experience of addiction with - not themselves, but loved ones and their families or close friends. And they realized that there were people who wanted to get into detox, who wanted to get into treatment, who had no way to get there because the closest place they could go was several hours away - a several-hour drive.

So they started volunteering to drive people, you know, strangers, who were often sick and in withdrawal, to these facilities and just doing it on their own time and without training, really, but they were learning on the job. And they had had the experience of living and working with people who are addicted in their own families. So they are doing that. And they're hoping, you know, to sort of expand this project. And yeah, they've taken on this kind of remarkable thing themselves.

DAVIES: What did they tell you about the experience? What's it like driving a stranger for hours who's confronting this wrenching decision?

TALBOT: I think it's really one of those difficult, raw, existential kinds of experiences. I mean, they, you know, oftentimes, people are seeing hospitals along the way and they're saying - they're kind of begging to stop and just be checked into this hospital. But they can't be because they have a bed waiting for them at a particular facility. And, you know, the hospital's not going to be able to help them. And they're often sick and throwing up and feeling generally miserable.

And - but, you know, very - I mean, there's a lot of trust and risk-taking on both sides of the person willing to put themselves in the hands of the stranger to drive them and of the person, of course, of the women from the Hope Dealer Project who are doing it. And they say that it's very hard when they get to the point that they have to leave the person at the hospital because they formed this kind of war bond or trauma bond in a way, you know, of being together in the car all these hours. And then they have to see them go through the doors and the doors shut behind them and just hope that it'll work out for them.

DAVIES: One of the things you mentioned was someone was talking about when someone overdoses, the funeral is different - about who gets invited and kind of just how it's handled.

TALBOT: Right, right, yeah. I mean, there was a woman I talked to who had actually had 13 friends who had overdosed and died. And she was actually a photographer in the town - a wedding photographer - and was, herself, not in addiction, but had had all these friends, high school friends, friends from her early 20s. And yeah, she was describing going to one funeral. You know, she started going to so many funerals. It was reminding me a little bit of the AIDS crisis, when people would talk about how often they would be going to funerals during those years for friends or young people.

And yeah, I mean, because I think the parents in this case didn't really want the friends around because they didn't know who among the friends might have been the person who first sold them the heroin or first used heroin with them. And so they felt very unwanted at this funeral. And she - that was very sad for her, but she also understood why a parent might feel that way.

DAVIES: Margaret Talbot is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her article on West Virginia is "The Addicts Next Door." We'll hear more from her after a break. And we'll meet actor Sam Elliott, who stars in the new film "The Hero." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with New Yorker staff writer Margaret Talbot. She spent time investigating the opioid crisis in West Virginia, which has the highest overdose death rate in the country. Her article, "The Addicts Next Door," appeared in the magazine earlier this month.

You also write about a guy named John Aldis, who was, I guess, a retired physician - right? - who wanted to make Narcan - this drug that can revive overdosed addicts - more widely available. He wanted to hand it out - train people and hand it out to everybody, not just, you know, medical professionals. What's his experience been like?

TALBOT: Yeah. So he had been a military and State Department doctor. He had retired from the State Department, moved back to this area where he was from and then started realizing how bad the epidemic was. And so he became the first doctor in the state of West Virginia to offer classes in how to use Narcan for just - yeah - ordinary people, not EMT or medical professionals but people who might come upon somebody, you know, overdosed in the aisle at Walmart or who had people in their family who they worried about all the time.

He offers classes in the community. And there were a lot of women, a lot of mothers there. And there are people who have the idea of having Narcan boxes on the walls of, you know, the gym or community, like you have a defibrillator because the anticipation is that this is going to be happening more and more in many places.

DAVIES: The overdose deaths are getting a lot of attention because it's a terrible toll, you know, a leading cause of death now. But there's also this underlying tragedy of addicts who survive and whose lives are ruined. I mean is there a sense that it's fundamentally changed the communities they live in?

TALBOT: Yeah, I think it has because it affects a lot of people in their 20s, 30s, 40s. So it's people who are of parenting age, who have young children. So there's really a lot of collateral damage for children - been a real toll on the foster care system and also babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome - so in withdrawal and requiring morphine.

You know, somebody I talked to who had some experience working on the AIDS epidemic in Africa was saying that there's this way in which it's the sort of hollowing out of the middle. So there's, you know, children and a lot of grandparents raising their grandchildren because their own children are in addiction or have died. So yeah, I mean I think people, you know, also miss out - if they're in addiction in their 20s and 30s, they miss out on a lot of kind of the experiences that you have of building a life.

And that's why I think some kind of therapy and psychosocial supports are really important because otherwise I think you come out of it feeling like, what have I lost, and where do I begin and feeling a lot of shame.

DAVIES: This is such a tough subject. I'm sure it was difficult for you at times talking to people about this and then particularly, you know, parents who were struggling with addiction and who have kids. And I wonder if you felt yourself judging them or struggling not to or just how you process that.

TALBOT: You know, it's always hard to see kids who are caught up in something like this and have no recourse or very little recourse, nothing to say about it. So that's painful to see. I really felt like this addiction is something that nobody chose. Nobody wanted it. It's a pretty miserable life, you know? I think people think about it as something that produces euphoria or something. I think, mainly it's numbing, and so I think people are often escaping mental and emotional distress that's pretty bad for them to have gotten addicted in the first place. So mainly I think I actually had a lot of compassion for the people I talked to. You know, I did talk to people who were trying, you know, so - and struggling, so I felt for them in that effort.

DAVIES: You know, those who need treatment in West Virginia are more likely to get it even though there's a shortage. They're more likely to get it if they are on Medicaid. And West Virginia is one of the states that took the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare. You know, so many more people are covered. And you know, every county in the state voted for Donald Trump who wants to repeal and replace Obamacare, and now there's this bill in the Senate that would certainly make big changes. I'm wondering how that whole debate is playing in West Virginia.

TALBOT: You know, I have not been back there since the new Senate bill came up. But you know, I have talked to Dr. Aldis and others including a woman in the piece who is in a treatment program using Suboxone or buprenorphine and actually doing quite well but who was able to pay for it through Medicaid. So there are a lot of people who are just personally very worried about their future ability to get any treatment for themselves or for their family members. So I don't know, you know, to what extent people are thinking about this in a larger political sense. They're certainly thinking about it in an immediate personal sense.

DAVIES: Well, Margaret Talbot, thanks so much for speaking with us.

TALBOT: Thank you.

DAVIES: Margaret Talbot is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her article about the opioid crisis in West Virginia is "The Addicts Next Door." Coming up, we meet actor Sam Elliott. He stars in the new film "The Hero." This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. Sam Elliott has been acting in movies and television for nearly 50 years. You may have seen him in any number of Westerns such as "Tombstone" or playing a bouncer in "Road House" or in some memorable appearances like in the Coen brothers' film "The Big Lebowski." If you don't know Elliott's name, you might recognize his distinctive voice featured in a lot of commercials.


SAM ELLIOTT: (As Lee Hayden) Lone Star barbecue sauce - the perfect partner for your chicken. Lone Star barbecue sauce - the perfect partner for your chicken - got it?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Can you do one more?

ELLIOTT: (As Lee Hayden) Do you want something different?

DAVIES: Elliott's done plenty of voiceover work, but that's a clip from his new film, "The Hero," in which he plays an aging actor whose career is stalled. Elliott's career, by contrast, is surging. He got critical attention for a small role with Lily Tomlin in the film "Grandma," then played the romantic partner of Blythe Danner in "I'll See You In My Dreams." That film's director, Brett Haley, wrote "The Hero" with Elliott in mind.

In "The Hero," Elliott plays Lee Hayden, an actor in his 70s who sacrificed his family for his career and recently got a cancer diagnosis. In this scene, he runs into a younger woman played by Laura Prepon at a taco stand. He'd met her recently at his pot dealer's house when she'd observed he seemed sad. She speaks first about the food.


LAURA PREPON: (As Charlotte Dylan) Best tacos in LA, right?

ELLIOTT: (As Lee Hayden) Yeah. Do you live around here?

PREPON: (As Charlotte Dylan) No - stalking you.


ELLIOTT: (As Lee Hayden) Yeah. Charlotte, right?

PREPON: (As Charlotte Dylan) You've got a good memory for an old pothead.

ELLIOTT: (As Lee Hayden) A sad, old pothead. Why'd you say that anyway?

PREPON: (As Charlotte Dylan) Because you're old, and you smoke a lot of weed.

ELLIOTT: (As Lee Hayden) I mean the part about me being sad.

PREPON: (As Charlotte Dylan) I don't know. Are you? Nothing wrong with that.

DAVIES: Well, Sam Elliott, welcome to FRESH AIR.

ELLIOTT: Thank you very much.

DAVIES: You know, the director, Brett Haley - you know, of course he wrote this part for you. And I'm imagining that you get this script, and you see that you're playing an aging actor who's had, you know, one hit role in a cowboy movie but whose career is essentially stalled, who spends a lot of time smoking weed with his dealer. I was wondering; what's - what was your reaction when you get this news, aha, this is what Brett Haley wants me to be?

ELLIOTT: I was totally flattered that he and Marc would take the time to write an entire screenplay for me. I've had a few parts written for me over the years, but I've never had a screenplay written for me. You know, I understand Lee Hayden. It was close to me in where I've been and gone with my career. He's in a much darker world than I dwell in. I'm divorced in the film from my wife, played by my real wife, who I've been married to for 33 years. And my daughter, Cleo, is the love of my life, and I'm on the outs with my daughter in the film. I don't have cancer, and I don't smoke weed all day, so...

DAVIES: Which the character does.

ELLIOTT: ...Apart from that - which the character does. Apart from that, I get this guy, and it was very close.

DAVIES: You know, there's one really compelling and in some ways painful scene in the film where your character through a kind of happenstance has suddenly got a lot of interest in giving him parts. And he's invited to go and audition for a thing - a piece in a big movie. And he practices it with his buddy and brings him to tears. He nails this. This is an accomplished...


DAVIES: ...Actor you're playing. When he goes to the audition, he is on emotional tenterhooks because of what's going on in his life. I don't know. Have you had experiences or seen experiences like that in auditions? How did you get that scene?

ELLIOTT: No, I haven't.


ELLIOTT: No. The one thing that I knew that I had to do in the scene - in the rehearsal scene is that you had to see that Lee was still a good actor, that he could in fact pull it off. So we started it. We did it a couple of times. And I remember Brett just telling me just to keep going where I was going. And we did it a few more times. And people were sensing that something was going on. And by the time we finished, there were people pretty in close and in tight around us. And Nick Offerman just looked up at me, and he had tears in his eyes and said whatever he said.

DAVIES: He said, you got this, yeah.

ELLIOTT: F-yeah, man, is what he said.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

ELLIOTT: You got it, you know? And that was unexpected, but it was important that you see that Lee could do it.

DAVIES: You've had a bunch of great TV roles over the years. And one that's a favorite of mine relatively recently is the FX series "Justified." And if the audience...


DAVIES: ...Anybody in the audience hasn't seen it, it's worth it. It's about a U.S. marshal fighting crime in Kentucky. And I thought we'd play a scene. You in season six of this series play this criminal and businessman who's from Kentucky and has been away and has returned to buy up land to grow pot when it is legalized, that he expects. And this is a scene where you're meeting with Boyd Crowder, a local criminal who's been trying to steal from you. And he and his partner Ava have been casing this place you own, the Pizza Portal. So you're talking to Boyd Crowder, who was played by Walton Goggins. So you're just paying him...


DAVIES: ...A visit to set him straight. Let's listen.


ELLIOTT: (As Avery Markham) My name's Avery Markham. I guess I can't blame you for not remembering. Last time I saw you, you were no bigger than a minute - 9, 10 years old, peacocking around your daddy like you thought you was already a full-grown bad man.

WALTON GOGGINS: (As Boyd Crowder) I recognize you now, Mr. Markham. That being said, I still don't recall being bounced on your knee. Nevertheless, it seems that I owe you an apology.

ELLIOTT: (Avery Markham) Like I said, I can't blame you for not remembering.

GOGGINS: (As Boyd Crowder) No, Sir, the apology that I owe is for my craven attempt to pilfer that which rightfully belongs to you. As defense, I offer only my ignorance.

ELLIOTT: (As Avery Markham) Meaning you thought you were stealing from Calhoun.

GOGGINS: (As Boyd Crowder) Yes, Sir, I did.

ELLIOTT: (As Avery Markham) And now you know the prize in question belongs to me.

GOGGINS: (As Boyd Crowder) That I do. And any plan that I had for my next attempt should be considered abandoned as foolhardy, not to say unworthy.

ELLIOTT: (As Avery Markham) I hope you understand when I say I don't want to see either of you at the Portal again. Next time you want a slice, order in - have it here in 30 minutes, or it's free. Now, if I see you in my place of business again, I'll kill you.

DAVIES: And that's Sam Elliott in the series "Justified" scaring the living daylights out of us.


DAVIES: You know, and...

ELLIOTT: Walton Goggins, man - boy, what an actor.


ELLIOTT: Everybody in that cast was just superlative, you know, and just so much fun to be with.

DAVIES: You know, you have played a lot of tough guys over the years - I mean cowboys, you know, the bouncer in "Road House." And then when...


DAVIES: Coming up, did you know tough guys that you kind of, I don't know, adopted the persona of?

ELLIOTT: Yeah, but not - I knew men's men, is what I knew. My dad worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service, and he worked for the Department of Interior, you know, like the federal government. And consequently, I was outdoors a lot in my lifetime. And I was with my dad and my - and his peers, who were all men's men and outdoorsmen. All had incredible work ethics and were all good men. And they were really the ones I think that I learned what kind of a man I wanted to be when I grew up.

Dad died when he was 54, and I was 18. But I spent so much time with them when I was younger that plenty of it rubbed off. You know, I didn't get to know him near as well as I would love to have. But I have - I got enough of him that, you know, my sister tells me all the time - my sister Glenda - she tells me all the time, you're just like daddy (laughter).

DAVIES: You grew up in Sacramento - right? - your parents...

ELLIOTT: I did indeed.

DAVIES: ...Got the acting bug very early, right?

ELLIOTT: I went to a local theater called the Sequoia Theater. And I just was captivated by going into a dark theater and watching those lights jump around up on the screen. And I just knew early on that as preposterous as it might seem at that point in time to any number of people, that it seemed a possibility to me. And I pretty much had tunnel vision most of my life in that pursuit.

DAVIES: Sam Elliott stars in the new film "The Hero." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with actor Sam Elliott. You may remember him from many roles, including "The Big Lebowski" and "Tombstone." He stars in a new film by Brett Haley, "The Hero." You got a leading role early in your career. The film was "Lifeguard" - 1976 I think - where you play a career lifeguard at a beach. And I thought we'd just hear a little clip of this. This is you explaining the job of lifeguarding to a new guy. And there's some ambient noise. We hear the beach and some music in there. But you'll get a feel for Sam Elliott explaining lifeguarding. Let's listen.


ELLIOTT: (As Rick) The important thing is, man, to spot trouble before it happens. Watch the people when they go in the water. See what kind of swimmers they are. See how they treat the ocean, you know? Are they confident? Are they scared? And keep a special eye on the little kids. Man, they can get knocked down in a second.

DAVIES: And that's our guest Sam Elliott in 1976 in the lead role...

ELLIOTT: Sounding not anything like Sam Elliott today.

DAVIES: (Laughter) Well, that's the furthest - that's what I wanted to talk about because I mean I think there are interesting things about the movie, but the voice - it's not that deep baritone that we hear now.

ELLIOTT: No, no, no. It came with age. It just kept going down the older I got - can't imagine it's going to go much further.

DAVIES: Yeah. Well, you know, one of the things that I've read about you is that you speak your mind. And when this film "Lifeguard" was being marketed, it was marketed as sort of a teen make out film. But you know, there was actually a real story there. And your character was a guy kind of confronting whether he's going to stay with lifeguarding in middle age.


DAVIES: And when you went on the press tour, you kind of mocked the studio's approach to promoting it.

ELLIOTT: Oh, I did. I got myself in some hot water there. And I've always been pretty honest. I think there's, like, three qualities that kind of sum me up, particularly in those days - my glib days - glibber days - honest, opinionated and not very smart at the same time. And that's a terrible combination for one to have.

You know, I know a lot of lifeguards. Both my parents were lifeguards at a lake in El Paso, Texas. I was a lifeguard in a swimming pool in Portland, Ore. And I have known and met and befriended a number of oceangoing lifeguards in California where I live. And that's an admirable endeavor, to say the least. It's a dangerous game. They're public servants. They're civil servants. They're not guys flexing their muscles on the beach, you know? And that's the way they marketed "Lifeguard." The one sheet for that film was an animated piece, and it had me in a pair of Speedos and a big busted girl on either arm. And it said, every girl's summer dream over the top of it. And I was like, wow.

DAVIES: Well, one role people really remember you in - not a ton of screen time, though - is "The Big Lebowski," the Coen brothers film, which - for those who don't remember, it's about this stoner in Los Angeles known as the Dude played by Jeff Bridges - you know, typical Coen brothers, full of eccentric characters and crazy plot twists. There's a kidnapping. On it goes.

And you - I guess you introduced the story in a voiceover. And then in the middle of the film, you appear in a scene where this central character, the Dude, Jeff Bridges, is seated at a bowling alley bar in a heap of trouble. And you sit down next to him in full cowboy regalia, the hat down to the spurs. You're not really a character in the story. You just sit down outfitted as this cowboy and start talking to him. Let's listen.


ELLIOTT: (As The Stranger) How you doing there, Dude?

JEFF BRIDGES: (As The Dude) Not too good, man.

ELLIOTT: (As The Stranger) One of those days, huh?

BRIDGES: (As The Dude) Yeah.

ELLIOTT: (As The Stranger) Well, a wiser fella than myself once said sometimes you eat the bar, and - much obliged - sometimes the bar, well, he eats you.

BRIDGES: (As The Dude) Is that some kind of Eastern thing?

ELLIOTT: (As The Stranger) Far from it. I like your style, Dude.

BRIDGES: (As The Dude) Well, I dig your style, too, man. You got the whole cowboy thing going.

ELLIOTT: (As The Stranger) Thank you. There's just one thing, Dude.

BRIDGES: (As The Dude) And what's that?

ELLIOTT: (As The Stranger) Do have to use so many cuss words?

BRIDGES: (As The Dude) What the [expletive] are you talking about?

ELLIOTT: (As The Stranger) OK, Dude. Have it your way. Take her easy, Dude.

BRIDGES: (As The Dude) Yeah, thanks, man.

DAVIES: Jeff Bridges and Sam Elliott in "The Big Lebowski." It's still funny. You know, and I don't know...

ELLIOTT: It's so brilliant.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

ELLIOTT: The words are just so brilliant, and Jeff is just brilliant in it.

DAVIES: Well, it's - this is one of these things where I don't know anybody that knows quite what that means, but everybody remembers it. I mean what did you know about the character and why they picked you for this?

ELLIOTT: I was in New Mexico, working on a show called "The Rough Riders" for TNT that John Milius was directing. And I got the script delivered up to me on the set. It was a Coen brothers script. And as you said, they're known for playing these eccentric characters. And at that time in my career, I felt like I was never going to get out of the box that I was in, this Western thing, like I was never going to be perceived as any - like an actor that could do anything but ride a horse or shoot a gun.

And I was really tickled to get the script. And I was so excited to get back to the hotel room and read it. And as I opened up and read, you know - a couple of pages in, and it's talking about this voice-over. And it said literally on the page, the voice-over sounded not unlike Sam Elliott...

DAVIES: (Laughter).

ELLIOTT: And then later on when he appears in the bowling alley, here's this guy dressed like a drugstore cowboy, looking not unlike Sam Elliott.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

ELLIOTT: So I guess they wrote it for me. They certainly wrote it with me in mind. But from then on, I just knew that I should just be thankful for that way that I'm perceived by others in the game as the Western character, you know, because if - had that not happened, I probably wouldn't have had the career that I've had...


ELLIOTT: ...And maybe not one at all.

DAVIES: It got you into the Coen brothers' movie (laughter).


DAVIES: You've mentioned your marriage a couple of times. You're married to Katharine Ross, who of course...

ELLIOTT: Yes, I am.

DAVIES: ...Is an actress people will recognize from "The Graduate" and "Butch Cassidy" and a whole lot of films and appears with you in "The Hero." Not that many Hollywood marriages last 30 years. I don't know. How do you guys...

ELLIOTT: We're in the minority for sure.


ELLIOTT: We - I think really what it boils down to is we love each other, and we work at it. And I think more importantly than anything, it takes wanting to be married. The two things that I wanted in my life were to have a movie career and to be married, to have a family. And it's an embarrassment of riches that I've got both. And unlike Lee Hayden, who couldn't balance those two things and made such a mess of it, Katharine and I managed to make it work. And Cleo's right along the way with us, and...

DAVIES: Your daughter.

ELLIOTT: It's just the best.

DAVIES: Sam Elliott, thanks so much for spending some time with us.

ELLIOTT: I'm honored to be with you. Thank you so much.

DAVIES: Sam Elliott stars in the new film "The Hero." If you'd like to catch up on interviews you've missed, check out our podcast where you'll find our interview with Sarah Kliff about the battle over American health care or our interview about the ill-fated pioneer Donner Party with author Michael Wallis, who spoke to descendants of the group for his new book.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


'Monuments to the Unthinkable' explores how nations can memorialize their atrocities

In How the Word Is Passed, author Clint Smith explored U.S. sites that deal with the legacy of slavery. Now, in The Atlantic, he writes about German memorials to the Holocaust.


Journalist Maria Ressa explains 'How to Stand Up to a Dictator'

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning journalist faced criminal charges in the Philippines after her news site's reporting angered government officials. How to Stand Up to a Dictator is her new memoir.


Maureen Corrigan's favorite books of the year: 10 disparate reads for a hectic 2022

Some years, my best books list falls into a pattern: like a year that's dominated by dystopian fiction or stand-out memoirs. But, as perhaps befits this hectic year, the best books I read in 2022 sprawl all over the place in subject and form. Here are 10 superb titles from 2022:

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue