With his bright, white mustache and earthy, western drawl, Sam Elliott played the omniscient narrator helping out The Dude in “The Big Lebowski.”
He’s also been Card Player #2 in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and he was the big-hearted biker boyfriend of Cher in “Mask,” not to mention his recent roles in NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” and this year’s “Draft Day.”
This weekend, Elliot is celebrating one his favorite, and perhaps lesser-known, acting jobs. For the last seven years, he has been the voice of the Smokey Bear, an American icon. Turns out, he grew up hunting and camping with his father, who worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“‘Only you can prevent wildfires,’ It gives me a real chuckle,” Elliott said in a telephone interview from Oregon. “But really it’s a very important issue.”
Both Smokey and Elliott share their 70th birthday on Aug. 9. On Friday, the U.S. Forest Service will hold a grand bash for the septuagenarian cartoon, complete with a photo booth for camp kids and Instagrams of bear hugs — that’s Smokey’s new thing.
Senior citizen Smokey was “born” in 1944 as a creation of the Ad Council and the National Association of State Forests during World War II, when there was concern about who would fight forest fires while many firefighters were serving in the military.
Once a staple character of comic books and highway billboards, Smokey’s has been modernized with a Facebook page, a Twitter feed and a hashtag, #smokeybearhugs. He is now one of the most recognized figures next to Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse, studies have shown.
The latest ad shows a group of campers in the forest presenting Smokey with a massive birthday cake with a firecracker-like glow of candles. Smokey responds with a horrified look, and the camper starts throwing water on the cake. Then Smokey looks pleased and gives the group a bear hug.
“He’s awfully cute and his message is very simple and very empowering,” said Peggy Conlon, the president and CEO of the Ad Council. “He’s really only stood for one thing- only YOU can prevent forest fires.”
That message has had real results, said Tom Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service.
In the 1930s, before the campaign started, there were about 167,000 forest fires in the United States annually. In the past decade, numbers have been closer to 80,000.
Elliott, who often visits burn patients in hospitals, said he plans to enjoy a low key day speaking about fire prevention for the anniversary. “I know people who have been badly burned,” he said. “It’s a horrific thing.”
In 1978, the home of Elliott’s wife burned to the ground during a wildfire that was set by a neighborhood teen. The youth who set the fire later committed suicide, the actor said.
“Smokey’s message is really a very important one,” Elliot said in his signature baritone. “Putting out your camp fire is really something every American can do and feel good about.”