Different type of mission for Robert Duvall

        Robert Duvall resides on a farm in Northern Virginia between Warrenton and The Plains. But New York City was his base of operations for marathon promotional duty earlier in the week on behalf of his new movie, "The Apostle," which begins an exclusive Washington-area engagement Jan. 30 at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle in Washington.

        A conspicuously personal production, "The Apostle" was written and directed by Mr. Duvall. He also plays the troubled, salvation-seeking protagonist, a fugitive evangelist named Euliss "Sonny" Dewey or, while on the run from disgrace and murder charges in Texas, "The Apostle E.F."

        This handle reaffirms his calling while providing temporary concealment in a small Louisiana community where Dewey pursues grass-roots redemption by organizing a new congregation with the blessing of a retired black minister, admirably embodied by John Beasley.

        The film opened exclusively in Los Angeles before the end of 1997 to qualify for Academy Awards consideration. That strategy led to a strong showing by Mr. Duvall within the critics' associations. He was named best actor of 1997 by the Los Angeles Film Critics and then the National Society of Film Critics, whose membership had access to advance videotape copies of "The Apostle."

        He received an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor in "The Godfather" in 1972 and for his role in "Apocalypse Now" in 1979, plus a 1980 bid as best actor in "The Great Santini," all anticipating his Academy Award-winning performance in "Tender Mercies" in 1983.

        Though overlooked in the recent Golden Globes competition, Mr. Duvall presumably remains an Oscar contender. An Oscar-winning regional sleeper of 1996, "Sling Blade," ought to encourage Mr. Duvall. He played a small role in that film for writer-director-actor Billy Bob Thornton, an Arkansas native who began putting his home region on the cinematic map a few years ago in "One False Move."

        Mr. Duvall and Mr. Thornton also were associated on "The Family Thing," another 1996 release, co-written by the latter and co-produced by the former, who played a leading role. Mr. Thornton has a minor role in "The Apostle," as a surly racist who gets humbled by Mr. Duvall's character.

        Lest we forget, Mr. Thornton is on friendly terms with President Clinton. So it wasn't too surprising when "The Apostle" had a special White House showing last weekend. "A very nice affair," Mr. Duvall testifies during a telephone conversation. He confirms that the president was in attendance and implies that he might have been a useful consultant for "The Apostle" if unencumbered by burdens of state.

        "Mr. Clinton knows a lot about churches in Arkansas," the actor explains, "and we chatted about that a little at this gathering. The whole idea grew out of a trip I made to Arkansas back in 1983 or 1984. The theatricality of certain Pentecostal ministers was what first captured my interest."

        Shot for the most part in Lafayette, La., "The Apostle" was budgeted at $3.5 million and came in at $5 million. "They fooled me," Mr. Duvall comments.

        "I fell for the myth that Louisiana was a right-to-work state. It didn't seem to be where our movie was concerned. It's all right now. We got the investment back when October Films [an independent distribution company acquired by Universal recently as its art-film auxiliary] bought the movie, but I had some anxious days. The most difficult aspect of this kind of filmmaking is getting it off the ground. You can't afford too many expensive shocks."

        Mr. Duvall's directing aspirations have played second fiddle to an enviably distinctive and sustained career as a character actor. Now 67, he made a memorable film debut 35 years ago as the ominously protective Boo Radley in "To Kill a Mockingbird." Scarcely a year has passed in which his presence has failed to count.

        American movies of the past four decades have been considerably enhanced by Duvall impersonations, from such well-remembered titles as "True Grit," "M*A*S*H," the "Godfather" epics, "Apocalypse Now" and "The Natural" to such relatively obscure or underrated ones as "True Confessions," "The Paper," "Wrestling Ernest Hemingway" and "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution." (He was an adroit Dr. Watson to Nicol Williamson's Sherlock Holmes.)

        Mr. Duvall has principal roles in two 1998 major releases: the courtroom melodrama "Civil Action," which stars John Travolta, and the science-fiction spectacle "Deep Impact," which pits several co-stars against an Earth-bound meteor. It will be racing "Armageddon" to the screen with more or less the same pretext.

         "It should be quite a showdown," Mr. Duvall speculates. "I guess both movies have teams of astronauts going after those big rocks. I think we get in our licks first."

        Mr. Duvall edged toward film direction 20 years ago with a documentary feature about a rodeo family, "We're Not the Jet Set." In 1983, his Oscar-winning year, he also directed a semidocumentary fictional feature, "Angelo, My Love," set among an unsavory Gypsy clan in New York City.

        "The Apostle" is a tour-de-force acting showcase for Mr. Duvall in many respects, especially when the tarnished preacher is in front of a microphone or a receptive congregation. Nevertheless, it also demands more directing skill from the star. Mr. Duvall's cast includes such fellow pros as Miranda Richardson, Mr. Thornton, Mr. Beasley and Farrah Fawcett (in a small role as Dewey's estranged wife) intermingled with nonpros recruited in Louisiana and such semipros as Mr. Thornton's hometown pal Rick Dial, a cheerful presence in both "Sling Blade" and "The Apostle."

        Mr. Duvall acknowledges, "I'd like to move a little more systematically toward direction. I guess I couldn't move much slower. But it's also hard to resist good roles -- and time-consuming to do one after the other if things are going well and you're still in demand. Actors are always afraid that next job might not turn up. To make something like 'The Apostle' practical, I kind of have to work for token pay, so you need to be cautious and thrifty to make that possible."

        Mr. Duvall was disappointed by the tepid response to "The Family Thing," an interracial domestic comedy-tear-jerker. He thought it would have more appeal for a family public. It didn't perform nearly as well as the British import "Secrets & Lies," which also hinged on a revelation about interracial kinship.

        "People tell you they can't find anything wholesome or inspiring at the movies," Mr. Duvall observes, "but when the crunch comes, they go for violence far more often. We took a big bath on it. Not many people wanted to see it."

        Born in San Diego, Mr. Duvall is the son of a career naval officer, the late William Howard Duvall, who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and served in both the Atlantic and Pacific in World War II. The family lived in Annapolis from the late 1930s through the war years.

        Mr. Duvall didn't catch the acting bug until he was in college, majoring in history and government at "tiny" Principia College in Elash, Ill. He switched his major to drama, served two years in the Army after graduation and then made a concerted bid for an acting career in New York. He studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse and roomed for a time with two other auspicious beginners, Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman. A first marriage during the formative years of his career produced two daughters but ended in divorce. Mr. Duvall remarried in 1992.

        One of the curious aspects of "Apostle" Dewey is that he endeavors to atone for his gravest sins, especially an assault that proves fatal, without directly confronting the Satan that lurks inside him. He performs a self-baptism and then works diligently to create a new ministry and devote himself to benevolent and pious deeds. Still, there's always an ominous swagger and self-righteous threat shadowing his need for redemption.

        Mr. Duvall feels more protective about the character than spectators may. "I don't think he's half as evil as King David," the actor argues, reaching back into biblical antiquity for a flattering comparison. "There's someone who deliberately arranges a death in order to satisfy his lust. My guy acts on impulse when he's brutal, but he would never do anything like that. His repentance is absolutely genuine. People tend to patronize someone at his social level. He doesn't get as much credit as the big guys, because he stumbles and falls in this anonymous, hick-town way, then tries to make amends in the same humble terms. The guy's a good guy. He errs, and he'll have to pay a heavy price, but he's not a bad guy at all."

By Gary Arnold
The Washington Times, January 30, 1998