Robert Duvall's Behavior Hasn't Always Been Saintly

By Jane Sumner

Bobby Duvall may be America's premiere actor, a rugged charmer and seeker of truth, but he's no pussycat. Ask anyone who worked on ``Tender Mercies'' in Waxahachie, Texas, in 1981, and they'll tell you about his battles with director Bruce Beresford.

``We used to just stand back and let 'em go at it,'' a crew member said. One day the embattled Australian was so irked that he walked off the set and flew home to New York. After the dust settled, Duvall carried off a best-actor Oscar for his quiet, subtle turn as a country singer on the way back from the skids.

``The Oscar was nice to get,'' he says. ``It's a prestigious thing.'' But the gold man with a sword and no genitalia (as his old friend Dusty Hoffman pointed out) didn't help get financing for the film that brought his third best-actor nomination.

``Back in those days of the beginnings of `The Apostle,' my agency tried to use that as leverage to get financing or studio backing or whatever in California, and it didn't work,'' he says.

The Oscar winner wagged his film project all over the country. ``In California, we went to all the studios, all the smaller people out there, people in New York, all over. In Texas, we went to some oil people. You get a lot of hot air and a lot of cocktail parties. That's what they want is the cocktail party so they can meet such-and-such. After that, it was all downhill.''

In the end, the actor anted up his own $5 million to fund the film. ``But it worked out best this way because we were like a law unto ourselves. We were doing it - sink or swim - on our terms.''

His accountant who gave the film its green light is happy, he says. And it hasn't hurt the careers of others involved, either. Midwestern actor John Beasley, the retired preacher who gives the Apostle his old church, has acquired a manager and moved to Los Angeles.

To bolster the film, Duvall has appeared on talk fests from Pat Robertson's ``The 700 Club'' to ``The Howard Stern Show.'' ``I'd rather do Howard Stern than some of these hypocritical preachers,'' he says. ``Better any day!'' The actor was on his way out the door to do ``Regis & Kathie Lee'' when he learned of his fifth Oscar nomination. ``I was traveling so much I was shellshocked. I'd forgotten all about it.''

Since he plays a man struggling with his soul while hiding from the law, he's often asked about his own religion. ``I have my own set of rules procedurewise as far as religion. I believe in one God and Jesus Christ, but I do it my way. Yeah!''

The son of a distant admiral dad and strong, outgoing mom grew up in a Protestant home. ``Those hymns and songs (in ``The Apostle'') I've known all my life. `I Love to Tell the Story,' I probably put that in there because I had a real feeling for it.''

Now that ``The Apostle'' is behind him, there are other things he wants to do, like make a film about what he calls ``the actor's dance'' - the tango. He admires British filmmaker Sally Potter's ``The Tango Lesson,'' about life lessons she learned from the Argentine dance and tango master Pablo Veron. ``That guy may be the best tango dancer in the world,'' Duvall says. ``I know him. He's brilliant. She's (Potter) good. She did very well for somebody from England and the whole thing. He was the lead dancer of the Folies Bergere. My girlfriend's from Argentina, and she said it was like dancing with a ghost.''

Since his mute film debut as the ghostly Boo Radley in ``To Kill a Mockingbird'' (1962), Duvall has played more than 100 film and TV roles. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the making of ``Lonesome Dove,'' the CBS-TV miniseries that has become the stuff of legend.

Along with ``Apostle'' posters and CDs that people brought for him to sign at Blockbuster Music last week were copies of ``Lonesome Dove.'' One fan said she came because she loves the way Duvall sits a horse. The trouble is he doesn't sit one as much since a spill a few years ago left him with a broken pelvis. ``I had a bit of a crack-up, the same crash that Christopher Reeve had. I love to ride those jumping horses, but I can't really do it anymore.''

On the ``Lonesome Dove'' set in Texas, the highly focused actor greeted director Simon Wincer with the news that he didn't like Australians, didn't like directors and please stay out of his face - or words to that effect. That war raged all the way up the trail to Ogallala, Neb.. When that dust settled, Duvall had an Emmy nomination. He lost the prize, though Wincer won for his direction. Author Larry McMurtry may have created Texas Ranger Augustus ``Gus'' McCrae, but Duvall inhabited him. The epic raised him to archetype status.

Even if the actor, who doesn't subscribe to ``the Method,'' fails to win an Oscar for troubled, resilient Sonny in ``The Apostle,'' he already owns a bigger prize - a place in the nation's heart for garrulous, chivalrous Gus in ``Lonesome Dove.''

The Dallas Morning News, March 9, 1998