Tuesday, July 2, 1996

Robert Duvall can do it all

He plays a country doctor who appreciates the weird gifts of an alien-inspired Phenomenon

By JIM SLOTEK -- Toronto Sun

 CHICAGO -- You appreciate the good things people say about you for about a minute. Bad is forever.
 
 "Man, I just got cut to pieces by reviewers when I was young," says Robert Duvall. "I had to get off a bus once, I had such a bad review in the New York Times."
 
 The review was of Shaw's play Major Barbara. Duvall was in his 20s. "It said `Shaw had invented some impossible young men in his plays, but never one so revolting as the romantic interest in this one. And the character is made even less palatable by Robert Duvall, whose spine tends toward a figure S, whose diction is flannel-coated and whose simpering expressions are moronic.'
 
 "Years later this same woman gave me a glowing review for The Godfather. I guess I'm a late bloomer."
 
 Indeed, with hundreds of roles behind him since then - from Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird, to Tom Hagen in The Godfather, to Augustus McRae in Lonesome Dove, the 65-year-old Duvall has never been more in demand. And as an A-list supporting actor, he's fairly review-proof - whether he appears in Something To Talk About or bombs like The Scarlet Letter.
 
 Duvall's record of scene-stealing continues with his role as the mischievous, avuncular town doctor in the metaphysical tear-jerker Phenomenon (a real scamp, his character "moons" patients from his office window).
 
 The film stars John Travolta as a garage mechanic who is struck by an alien light and becomes a supergenius with weird powers. While everyone else is torn between fear and a desire to exploit him, only Duvall's doc appreciates Travolta's divine gift.
 
 "I'd met Travolta a few times, and he asked for me specifically, so I was flattered," Duvall says. "I liked the part, the movie has a nice message. It's positive."
 
 And it was quick, on the heels of his work on a pay-TV film about the capture in Argentina of war criminal Adolph Eichmann by Israeli commandos. "It's interesting to play a guy like Eichmann. You can't play him bad from his point of view, because he isn't bad from his point of view. You have to try to find vulnerability - like his love for his son ... (laughs) which is about the only thing I could find."
 
 Duvall admits: "I've been working a lot lately. What can I say, I enjoy working." But the money has to be there, hence his refusal to appear as mob lawyer Hagen again in Godfather III. "They wouldn't offer me what I wanted, and that's all anybody did it for was the money. Why would Coppola wait 15 years to do it, if he didn't need money?"
 
 So what about The Scarlet Letter, the Demi Moore laugher that had English teachers throughout North America howling in outrage? "Well, I didn't think it was as bad as everyone said. But he's kind of an arrogant guy, (director) Roland Joffe. He did one good movie in The Killing Fields and that was it. I enjoyed the job though - Vancouver and Nova Scotia, it was terrific. But boy did they rip that thing - whew."
 
 Duvall lives on a Virginia horse farm, where "I have a dance floor in my barn. I keep fit doing the tango." Although these days he's short a dance partner, being involved in a divorce from dance instructor Sharon Brophy.
 
 "It's kind of weird puttering around the place by myself," he says. "I'm a creature of strange habits - like for example I can only fall asleep reading a script.
 
 "The day I retire I won't have any more scripts to read. That'll be the day I croak, I guess."