Chelcie Ross - What a character
Chelcie Ross (B.A. ’64) is one of the most recognizable character actors in movies and on television, but is virtually unrecognizable in his latest film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, now playing on Netflix.
Sporting a scruffy beard and a grizzled look, Ross plays “Trapper,” a recluse who lives in the woods, and ends up sharing a ride on a mysterious stagecoach in the episode titled “The Mortal Remains.” The film was written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo and The Big Lebowski).
“Making the movie was a wild ride,” Ross says from his home in Chicago. “Netflix cancelled our red-carpet premier in Los Angeles out of respect for the shootings in Thousand Oaks and the wildfires.”
Buster Scruggs is Ross’ 65th movie. His acting resumé includes cult classic sports films Hoosiers, Major League, and Rudy; guest starring roles on TV shows including “Mad Men” and “Grey’s Anatomy”; performing in 80 plays; and recording more than 5,000 voiceovers for commercials “for every kind of product you can think of,” he jokes; and two episodes of the animated series “King of the Hill.”
“I feel it’s a gift anytime I’m cast,” Ross says. “My most frequent utterance then is, ‘Thank you, Lord.’ ”
Ross, a sports star in high school, found his acting chops as an undergraduate at Texas State, where he studied English. He joined the ROTC, expecting to pursue a career in the military – like his father – but an assignment in his junior year from speech professor and playwright Ramsey Yelvington ended up changing his life.
“I was taking his humanities class and he said I could get credit if I went to the theatre and helped build a set,” he remembers. “The play director heard my voice and asked me to read something. Then he cast me in the play.
“My ROTC buddies came to see it and I thought they’d give me a razzing, but instead they said, ‘Man, you’re good! I didn’t know you could act!’ ”
He performed in several productions in his senior year, including the lead in King Lear, and stayed in touch with Yelvington while serving a tour of duty in Vietnam. He was in Saigon during the harrowing Tet Offensive and received a Bronze Star. Upon returning home, Yelvington encouraged him to return to the theatre, and helped Ross get a scholarship at the Dallas Theatre Center, where he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in acting in 1970.
Two of his favorite roles were playing hotelier Conrad Hilton in “Mad Men,” and football coach Dan Devine in Rudy. “We actually filmed on the Notre Dame campus,” Ross says. “I’m the only other actor besides Pat O’Brien to do the actual ‘Win one for the Gipper’ speech in the Notre Dame locker room.”
His sports background helped when he filmed Major League, playing sore-armed pitcher and devout Christian Eddie Harris. “I was 47 years old, and hadn’t thrown a baseball in 20 years,” Ross says with a laugh. “But it all came back to me, just like when I played in high school.”
In 2014, Topps released a special baseball cards set commemorating the 25th anniversary of Major League. There are also cards featuring him in roles from Rudy and Hoosiers, and fans often send him the cards for him to autograph.
Ross’ first wife Linda West Getty graduated from Texas State, as did his brother, Glenn. His daughter Natalie earned a liberal arts degree in 1987, and his former sister-in-law Terri Ross LeClerque is a former distinguished alumnus.
In 1993, Ross was honored as one of Texas State’s Distinguished Alumni. Ross says he is grateful that people appreciate his work, and he’s glad to acknowledge the school that helped change his life by giving back. In recent years there has annually been at least two Chelcie Ross acting scholarship recipients and the actor has appeared on campus for Q&A sessions with students.
“It makes me feel good to do it,” he says. “I get letters of appreciation from recipients, and some of those young folks say they wouldn’t be able to continue their education without it.”
Over his long, distinguished career, Chelcie Ross has worked with many great actors. Here are his memories of them, and the films he appeared in with them.
Frances McDormand (Buster Scruggs): I was trying to figure out how to use my new iPhone, and Frances just looked at it and laughed. “I don’t even have a cell phone!” she said.
Gene Hackman: (Hoosiers): I learned more from him than any other actor. He had an awareness that he always knew exactly where he was in a scene. And he taught me how to treat fans. He told me, “They’re our meal ticket, they pay for our food, and don’t forget it.” He was tough on directors, but selfless with other people.
Dennis Hopper (Hoosiers): He wanted to play cards all the time. He always had a poker game going between takes, and often had to be pulled from a game to do his scene.
Clint Eastwood (Trouble with the Curve): He had a natural gift and I enjoyed watching him work. He always knew what he was doing. The director would turn the camera on him and just let him do his thing.
Paul Verhoeven (director, Basic Instinct): He was a little wild. He spoke Dutch with his cameraman, but sometimes didn’t communicate well with the actors. He would ask for dozens of takes and Michael Douglas would get fits. Paul had a Jesus on the cross hologram watch. I’ll never forget that green glowing crucifix.