NEW YORK -- Robert Duvall, son of a U.S. Navy officer, grew up as a redneck in a family that openly supported segregation of the races in the U.S.
In both San Diego, where he was born, and Annapolis, Maryland, where he grew up near the naval base, Duvall entered a rigidly white world of the 1930s and '40s.
Now, as a man in his mid sixties and one of the most respected American actors of his generation, Duvall finds himself wrestling with those demons in a new film called A Family Thing, which has just opened in theatres.
Duvall stars as a good ole boy from Arkansas. As a racist, he is shocked when he suddenly learns his family's secret: His real mother was his family's black maid - she died giving birth to him - and he has a half brother in Chicago who hates him because of that tragedy. Enter James Earl Jones. The movie chronicles their stormy relationship and delves deeply into the question of personal identity. In the case of Duvall's character, `What's self-loathing got to do with it'.
Duvall has a big stake in A Family Thing. It was born from his idea. He produced the project. He hired Arkansas writers Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson to craft the screenplay, and Richard Pearce (The Long Walk Home) to direct it.
And he bristles at suggestions from some people attached to the film that its true theme is family, not race relations.
"It's about family, sure, but it's about race too, without trying to be `messagey' or preachy," Duvall says.
Well known for his stubborn streak and outspoken nature, Duvall also has strong ideas about racism that do not nestle comfortably into politically correct agendas.
"People may disagree with this, but I think it's a natural thing. It happens. In many countries it happens. And it has to be dealt with. Everything is in degrees, but there are a lot of guys like him (his character in A Family Thing) around.
"My family were separatists, they weren't integrationists," Duvall continues, careful not to use the word racist when he is referring to his own family thing. "Yet they're not bad people. They're limited.
"I was a product of that too," he muses quietly. "It's better now," he says about race relations in America, stopping himself for a long pause before qualifying: "Sometimes better, sometimes worse. I don't know what the answer is. Maybe in 300 years everybody will be cream colored."
Meanwhile, he has helped to make a film that he hopes will be salve in the wounds of racial hatred. As Duvall had to do in his own life, his character in A Family Thing has to learn simple truths about human nature and racial equality.
As a producer, Duvall faces some hard facts about such movies as the low-budget, intensely personal A Family Thing. Despite positive critical reviews, despite the high-profile cast, A Family Thing will struggle at the boxoffice.
Which is why there are not more movies like it, Duvall laments. "The bottom line is how much money it makes. Having a message or being therapeutic is secondary to making the dollar, don't you think?" he says bitterly about Hollywood and its obsession with violent action pictures.
"People criticize Dole (U.S. presidental hopeful Bob Dole, who is campaigning against media violence), but I think he is right," Duvall says. "There is too much gratuitous violence in movies. It's all for the money. It sells tickets."
Better you should spend your money on A Family Thing, he figures. It's important. It's personal.