By Dixie Reid
SAN FRANCISCO -- Robert Duvall's rough-hewn believability in "Lonesome Dove" made a Western icon of the character Gus McCrae. And before that, he was convincing as the Texas-born country singer Mac Sledge in "Tender Mercies," a role that won him an Oscar. As genuinely cowboy as he acts, Duvall himself does not favor pointy-toed boots.
"Nope," he said, poking out feet clad in soft leather dress boots. "And I prefer to ride jumping horses, although I don't do that anymore because I got hurt. My girlfriend bought me a buggy; I drive a surrey now." He laughed, wagging his hands up and down as if holding the reins.
These and other revelations came out of an interview with Duvall, who was in San Francisco the other day to promote his movie, "The Apostle." He is its executive producer, director, writer and star. "The Apostle" opens Friday in Sacramento.
Duvall spent the afternoon talking with one reporter after another in a boutique hotel before heading out for TV appearances. It must've been exhausting, but he was as gracious and relaxed as if hosting folks on his own front porch.
He is 67 years old now, a leading man with character actor looks. He was never conventionally handsome, and now his face is soft and lined. He isn't very tall and doesn't have much hair. But his eyes glisten with laughter and mischief, and he is charming, animated and absolutely engaging.
In "The Apostle," he plays an evangelical preacher from Fort Worth, Texas, named E.F. "Sonny" Dewey, whose long-suffering wife (Farrah Fawcett) has tired of his womanizing and manages to wrest away control of Sonny's church. Meanwhile, she's carrying on with the church's youth minister. So Sonny, drunk and jealous, one day confronts the pair at his childrens' Little League game and whacks the youth minister in the head with a baseball bat.
Realizing he's finally gone too far, Sonny flees Fort Worth for Louisiana's bayou country, where he renames himself the Apostle E.F. and establishes a ministry in a predominantly African American community. He preaches fire and brimstone in his One-Way Road to Heaven Holiness Temple, and waits for the past to catch up with him. "The Apostle" is a story of redemption. Sonny is a better person by the story's end.
Duvall wrote the script 13 years ago, based on something he'd seen a dozen years earlier.
"I was doing an Off-Broadway play, and I was playing a guy from Hughes, Ark., so I wanted to see if there was really a Hughes," Duvall said. "There wasn't much to do there, so I went to this little church. It kind of stuck in my mind."
He never forgot the female minister preaching in cadence about butter beans and God, and a parishioner playing guitar and singing hymns.
"They had a joyful air of worshipping," Duvall said. "I thought I would really like to play one of these types sometime, because I've never really seen that before."
Duvall wanted to tell a different story of evangelicals than Hollywood had done in such films as "Elmer Gantry" or "A Face in the Crowd" -- both of which dealt with hypocrisy and corruption. He leaned on his elbows, squinting his blue eyes in that Robert Duvall way and said, "The little I had seen was like a cycle of re-educating the public to the same thing: the guy being a shyster. It was all caricatures. That didn't interest me a bit.
"I wanted a guy who is, for better or for worse, a complete human being, who always believes he's called to do something good. So he's not a bad guy. He's a good guy, with failings, like anyone," Duvall said.
Even though friends such as screenwriter Horton Foote ("Tender Mercies" and "To Kill a Mockingbird," which was Duvall's first film) gave the script their blessing, Duvall found no one willing to pony up $5 million to make the movie. He finally financed it himself.
Most of the filming was done in Lafayette, La., with an eclectic cast of actors and non-actors. Duvall cast real fundamentalist preachers and churchgoers to play themselves. Country singer June Carter Cash, who's married to Duvall's friend Johnny Cash, plays his mother, complete with liver spots.
Duvall laughed. "She's maybe a year older than me."
Billy Bob Thornton, of "Sling Blade" fame, has a small role as The Troublemaker. Sonny's friend, Joe, is played by Billy Joe Shaver, a Texas-born singer-songwrit who's performed at the Palms Playhouse in Davis.
"Billy Joe!" Duvall shouted. "Nobody knows him. I don't know what made me think of him. I had met Billy Joe once, and we sent him a script and he sent a tape back. It was so real, I couldn't believe it. After the second day (of shooting), he said, 'Hell, I've got this licked.' When June Carter Cash dies, he's sitting there, and he's got that sadness in him. He's wonderful."
Rick Dial, in real life an Arkansas furniture dealer, plays the owner of Boutte Bayou's radio station. He allows Sonny to preach live on the air, in exchange for Sonny's working at his automotive garage.
Duvall leaned back in his chair and howled. "We had to work around Rick's schedule, because he was going back and forth to sell furniture when we were filming. He was so good. I said, 'Rick, gosh, when they take me away at the end, your skin turns another color of grief. How do you do it?' Rick says, 'Hell.' I tried to boil it down to where everybody was just themselves."
Duvall wanted the movie to feel real, like a documentary with a soul. So he scheduled very little rehearsal time.
"I told (the cast), 'We don't have to get anywhere. Let's treat this like a line rehearsal. Nothing's precious. Make it off-handed.' We tried to reach for a common denominator of really good, pure behavior.
"The one-legged bayou man," Duvall said, "he doesn't know anything about movies. He's just a preacher out of Dallas, and I made him an actor. He has such an innate sweetness, such a goodness about him. And the blind preacher in the beginning of the movie, he fasted for 24 hours before he came and preached the opening credits. Yeah. I found him way down in the country somewhere in Louisiana."
Duvall got a performance he didn't expect from actor Walter Goggins, who plays the auto mechanic who befriends the Apostle E.F.
"He'd gotten saved in a church in Georgia when he was a kid," Duvall said, "and the preacher went bad or the church broke apart and he got disillusioned with religion. And at the end of the movie, when he (Sam) got saved, it was like (Goggins) got re-saved on film." Duvall shook his head. "He was so emotional from the ground up. He was great."
And Duvall's portrayal is as good as anything he's done. Fans can add it to a long list of memorable performances: Boo Radley in "To Kill a Mockingbird"; Frank Burns in Robert Altman's original "M*A*S*H"; a Mafia lawyer in "The Godfather" (for which he received an Oscar nomination) and "The Godfather, Part II"; and the crazed colonel in "Apocalypse Now" who loved "the smell of napalm in the morning." That role also earned him an Academy Award nomination.
Duvall was also nominated for an Oscar for "The Great Santini," in which he played a macho Marine fighter pilot, and he received an Emmy nomination for "Lonesome Dove," the Western epic based on Larry McMurtry's novel. Both Duvall and "The Apostle" got rave reviews when the movie premiered at last summer's Toronto Film Festival, and now there's talk of Academy Award nominations.
"Oh, it would be great if any of that happens," he said, "but after 'Lonesome Dove' got nothing, who knows." He shrugged.
Duvall was born in San Diego in 1931, into a military family that finally settled in Annapolis, Md., when he was 10. He went to college in Illinois and, after two years in the Army, enrolled in the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City. He shared an apartment with two other unknown actors, Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman. Duvall now lives on a 200-acre Virginia farm, a place he says is as pretty as any he's seen.
In 1992, he created Butcher Run Films so that he could become more involved in movie development and production. The company's first co-production was 1996's "A Family Thing," written by Billy Bob Thornton and starring Duvall and James Earl Jones as long-lost half-brothers. Now, Duvall is looking for someone to direct a movie about country singer Merle Haggard.
"He's a character," Duvall said. "He's like a little hillbilly leprechaun. One time they gave me one of those things to fill out for George magazine and where it said, 'If you were president, who would be your poet?' I wrote down, 'Merle Haggard.' "
Duvall also is working with John Travolta (they made "Phenomenon" together in Auburn in 1996) on a movie based on Jonathan Harr's nonfiction book, "A Civil Action." He has a writer working on a script about an over-the-hill Scottish soccer coach, whom he will play. And he's written a script about the tango, which he will dance.
"I love to dance tango," he said. "I know San Francisco is a big tango city."
Asked if any divine revelations came to him after making "The Apostle," Duvall closed his eyes and didn't speak for a few seconds.
"I'm not sure I can put it into words. Yeah, I think so," he said. "I want people to see it and maybe it'll bless some people and touch 'em. We all have our individual journeys from the cradle to the grave, and maybe one of my best contributions will be this film.
"I think an underlying theme to the
movie is that we do worry about
what's next when this life is
over," he said. "Either through
curiosity or love or fear, we face
that. Sonny was somewhat
preoccupied with that, and maybe I
am too. Maybe it'll be a gentler
journey now. I don't know."
The Sacramento Bee, February 1, 1998