Robert Duvall has served a long yeomanry in a myriad of stage, screen, and television character roles, from the retarded neighbor who frightens but eventually saves the children in the film To Kill a Mockingbird (1963) to the mob's counselor in the Paramount blockbuster The Godfather (1972), a role for which he won the New York Film Critics Award for best supporting actor as well as an Oscar nomination. Herbert Ross, who directed The Seven-Per-cent Solution, the 1976 Universal picture in which Duvall plays Dr. Watson to Nicol Williamson's Sherlock Holmes, has said: "Robert Duvall is the premier American actor. He has the power to alter himself in order to become the character he is playing. The only challenge for this nomination is George C. Scott. Only Duvall and Scott have the range and variety of Laurence Olivier." Duvall, who had been absent from the New York stage since 1966, when he played the chief heavy in Wait Until Dark, returned to Broadway as the star of David Mamet's American Buffalo in 1977.
The second of three sons of Rear Admiral and Mrs. William Howard Duvall, Robert Duvall was born in 1931 in San Diego,California, where his father, a native of Virginia, was then stationed. Duvall's older brother is William 2d, who teaches music at the University of Wisconsin. His younger brother is John, a lawyer. All three Duvall sons have sung professionally.
Duvall grew up in the various places in the United States, North, South, East, and West, where his father was assigned by the Navy, and he spent several summers on the ranch of an uncle in Montana. An acute observer and a natural mimic (often to the embarrassment of his parents), he amassed from early childhood the regional accents, personal quirks, and cultural mannerisms that fill the mental storehouse on which he draws when developing his stage and film characterizations. As he puts it, "I've always been kind of aware of people, since I was a little kid." He acquired, especially, a "taste for . . . certain rural characters who are different from the way Hollywood shows them."
As a schoolboy, Duvall was more interested in athletics than in scholarship. but "actually," as he recalls, he "was never all that good an athlete." In an interview with Norma McLain Stoop fo After Dark (September 1973) he described himself as "kind of floundering around" until his parents "flurried" him into becoming an actor. "I wasn't pushed into it, but suggested into it. They figured I did skits around the house; they figured I had a calling, or whatever, in that line." Actually, it was only after a professor at Principia College, in Elsah, Illinois, urged them to do so that the parents persuaded Duvall to change his major from social studies to dramatics.
After graduating from Principia and doing Army service, Duvall went to New York City in 1955, where he studied under Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse for two years. He recalled his early acting days in New York in an interview with Bart Mills of the Guardian (June 21, 1976): "My roommate was Bobby Morse, and we were starving. Then one day he got the lead in The Matchmaker. It happened just like that for him . . . I used to bum around with Gene Hackman in those days. I remember Gene used to say, 'There's a guy coming to New York you'll really like . . . His name's Dusty Hoffman.' We had a lot of good times then. Now everybody's gotten married and gone off somewhere."
Duvall told Mills, "I used to work the midnight shift at the Post Office. I'd sleep a few hours and then go act. I had the job for six months. I had money in my pocket but I quit. I didn't want to still be at the Post Office five years later." The first break in Duvall's career came one night in 1957 at the Gateway Playhouse in Bellport, Long Island, where Ulu Grosbard, the director of the current Broadway production of American Buffalo, was also working. Under Grosbard's direction, Duvall played the lead, Eddie Carbone, the Brooklyn longshoreman seething with suppressed love for his niece, in a one-night-only studio production of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge. Miller was in the audience.
"That play was a catalyst for my career," Duvall recalled in his Guardian interview with Bart Mills. "Because of that one night I met some people and things began to happen. In two months I got a spectacular lead in the Naked City [television] series, playing a gunman on a roof. Back then they did these shows live. Sixty minutes, live. I started cooking, right before the cameras. After that I did three or four more Naked City leads. They were usually heavies, emotional parts. It was great training. And as a direct result of them I got the Boo Ridley part in Mockingbird.
To Kill a Mockingbird (Universal, 1963) was the film version of Harper Lee's best-selling novel about life in a Southern town in the 1930's as seen through the eyes of children of a lawyer who accepts the unpopular task of defending a black man accused of raping a white woman. In a cast headed by Gregory Peck as the lawyer, Duvall was properly scary in the role of the mysterious recluse who lives next door. Duvall was again in a cast headed by Peck when he played the catatonic in Captain Newman, M.D. (Universal, 1964), a seriocomic film about an Army psychiatrist. The television shows besides Naked City (on the ABC network) in which Duvall had dramatic roles in the late 1950's and during the 1960's included The Defenders (CBS), Armstrong Circle Theatre (CBS), Kraft Suspense Theatre (NBC), Bob Hope Chrysler Theatre (NBC), and The FBI (ABC).
Meanwhile Duvall had been accumulating a mixed bag of credits Off Broadway. As kinder critics were quick to point out, he handled as well as could be expected the the notoriously difficult role of the simpering son, Praed, in a flaccid production of George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession at the Gate Theatre in the summer of 1958. Three years later he played the white college student in an interracial triangle in Call Me By My Rightful Name at the One Sheridan Square Theatre with, as critics noted, "sureness," "skill," and "expertness." When he played the dim-witted rustic with the Arkansas accent who arrives near the finale to comfort the urbanized country girl of The Days and Nights of Beebee Fenstermaker at the Sheridan Square Playhouse in the fall of 1962, reviewers observed that he was "very funny" in the play's "juiciest part."
Duvall essayed his favorite role, Eddie Carbone, Off Broadway beginning on January 28, 1965, when A View from the Bridge opened at the Sheridan Square Playhouse. "A View from the Bridge is the greatest play," he later assevered, as quoted by Norma McLain Stoop in her After Dark article. "People tend to overlook it. It's my Othello - as great a part, to me, as Othello. And what a cast we had! Ulu Grosbard directed, Dusty Hoffman was assistant director, and Jon Voight [as Rodolpho, the cause of Carbone's jealousy], Susan Anspach [as Catherine, the incestuously beloved niece], Richie Castellano were in it. . ." Duvall was replaced in the role of Carbone by Richard Castellano in June 1965. He resumed the part on September 14, 1965 and again turned it over to Castellano on October 19, 1965.
"Robert Duvall realizes the role of Eddie, the longshoreman whose protective love of his niece turns incestuous, more completely, I think, than any actor who's ever played it," Norman Nadel wrote in the New York World-Telegram and Sun (January 29,1965). In the New York Post of the same date Richard Watts wrote, "In the crucial role of the embittered Eddie, Robert Duvall is especially fine in suggesting the attempted sense of fun in a man totally without it."
At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway, Duvall was, as Emory Lewis noted in Cue (February 12, 1966), "superb" as Harry Roat Jr., the chief villain in Wait Until Dark, a thriller about a blind woman (Lee Remick) menaced by a gang of criminals trying to recover a heroin-stuffed doll which they believe is hidden in her Greenwich Village apartment. Norman Nadel of the New York World-Telegram and Sun (February 5, 1966) described Duvall in the role of Roat as a "lodestone of fear... the ultimate adversary."
In Hollywood, Duvall made the most of the mediocre role of a meek bank employee subservient to a Texas town despot (E.G. Marshall) in Sam Spiegel's big-budget flot The Chase (Columbia, 1966) and a grounded astronaut in the cliche-ridden spaceflight drama Countdown (Warner-Seven Arts, 1968). He was more fortunate in his casting as Nestor, the New York cop who likes to bust homosexuals in the Frank Sinatra vehicle The Detective (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1968); as Weissberg in Bullitt (Warner-Seven Arts, 1968), starring Steve McQueen as a tough policeman hunting down the killer of a Senate crime-hearing witness; as the outlaw chief who rides into John Wayne's ambush in True Grit (Paramount, 1969); and as the old-line Communist in The Revolutionary (United Artists, 1970), the story of the radicalization of a new-style militant (Jon Voight).
As Louise Sweeney noted in the Christian Science Monitor (August 29, 1969), Duvall was "complex and effective" in the costarring role of the cocky, "macho" Nebraska motorcycle policeman who turns out to be vulnerable in Francis Ford Coppola's The Rain People (Warner-Seven Arts, 1969). In M*A*S*H (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1970), the outrageous comedy about combat surgeons in Korea, Duvall was cast as the prudish Major Buras who finally climbs into bed with Army nurse Hot Lips Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) with the words, "God's will be done." Reviewing M*A*S*H in Newsweek (February 2,1970), Joseph Morgenstern called the Duvall-Kellerman seduction scene "brilliant... as funny a bit of business as anything in the movie."
After playing a role as a heavy brought to justice by a frontier marshal (Burt Lancaster) in Lawman (United Artists, 1971), Duvall was cast in the title role of THX 1138 (Warner, 1971), the futuristic story - produced by Francis Ford Coppola and written and directed by George Lucas - of a defector from a robotized, 1984-type society, wanted for the crimes of love, sex, and "drug evasion." Roger Greenspun, reviewing THX 1138 in the New York Times (March 12, 1971), credited Duvall and Maggie McOmie, who played the character LUH 3417, with "lovely performances" suggesting "human identification without highly individualized characterization." The following year Duvall's skillful performance as the heavy went to waste in the Clint Eastwood western Joe Kidd (Universal, 1972)
One of the most personally satisfying interpretation essayed by Duvall has been that of Jackson Fentry, the inarticulate Southern dirt farmer in Tomorrow, based on William Faulkner's short story. The role of Fentry - who takes in a pregnant woman, nurses her through childbirth until her death and then takes care of her child as his own only to have the child taken from him - created by Duvall on the stage, at the Herbert Berghof Workshop in 1968, was recreated by him for the screen four years later in a 1972 Filmgroup production filmed in black and white on location in Mississippi. Judith Crist spoke for most critics when she wrote of the film version of Tomorrow in the magazine New York (April 10, 1972): "Robert Duvall and Olga Bellin create those lives with an insight that is devastating. Theirs is a duet beyond compare, an offering of such subtlety that it will glow - and grow - in the retrospect." In The Great North Field, Minnesota Raid (Universal, 1972), Duvall, co-starring with Cliff Robertson (as Cole Younger), played Jesse James in a realistic, fanatic way, as a man who considers bank robbing an act of virtue committed against an immoral, oppressive system.
In his sprawling novel about Mafia "family" life and internecine violent death, The Godfather (1969), Mario Puzo tried to make the paradoxical point that as organized criminals become successful they tend to become more respectable, breeding college-educated pillars of society. Although the name Mafia was deleted, some of the point remained when Puzo and director Francis Ford Coppola turned the novel into the screenplay for the Gone-With-The--Wind of gangster movies, Paramount's The Godfather, starring Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone and released by Paramount in 1972. In the film Duvall was cast as Tom Hagen, the non-Italian foster son who is the Corleone family lawyer and the close confidant of the Don - "one of The Godfather's least showy, most important roles," as Robert Osborne pointed out in Academy Awards: Oscar Annual (1973)
Osborne went on: "More than any other character in the massive sage, he expresses the film's concept of the Mafia as a corporate business run methodically and matter-of-factly, as if it were dealing in daily matters such as stocks and bonds rather than gangland gunnings and cold-blooded murders. Robert Duvall played Hagen low-key, loyal, an eye always on business, efficiently carrying out his duties with a minimum of waves; it was a powerful performance [that] added immeasurably to the film."
Godfather II (Paramount, 1974), Francis Ford Coppola's sequel to The Godfather, continued the story of the Corleone family, with flashbacks to the earlier family history in which Robert De Niro portrayed Don Vito as a young man. Among the survivors, as Judith Crist noted in New York (December 23, 1974), were Diane Keaton [as Kay Corleone] and Duvall, "continuing their roles in fine style." Duvall's other film credits in the early 1970's included Badge 373 (Paramount, 1973) - columnist Pete Hamill's sequel to The French Connection - in which Duvall played the lead role of Eddie Ryan, a character based on former New York policeman Eddie Egan; and The Outfit (MGM, 1974), in which he played an ex-con out to avenge his brother's death. Regarding the latter B movies, the reviewer for Time (April 29, 1974) wrote: "Duvall, a fine actor, [is] shipwrecked here."
In Breakout (Columbia, 1975), another grade B movie, Duvall was rescued from a Mexican prison by a helicopter pilot, played by Charles Bronson, and Duvall and James Caan played gunmen in the employ of the C.I.A. in Sam Peckinpah's excessively violent The Killer Elite (United Artists, 1976) Of a much higher order was Network (MGM - United Artists, 1976), Paddy Chayefsky's savagely black comedy, directed by Sidney Lumet, about a failing television network that boosts its ratings by capitalizing on the entertainment value of a news anchorman with a nervous breakdown who promises to kill himself on the air. Critics eulogized Duvall for his portrayal of a ruthless network executive in that film. In the World War II thriller The Eagle Has Landed (Columbia, 1977), Duvall was "excellent again" - as Richard Schickel observed in Time (April 11, 1977) - in the role of the Nazi officer masterminding a plan to kidnap Winston Churchill. In "Apocalypse Now," Francis Ford coppola's epic film about the war in Vietnam, Duvall plays a mad, surfing Air Force colonel. In production for more than a year, with a budget that skyrocketed to more than $30,000,000, the film was ready for release by United Artists in June 1977.
When Ulu Grosbard, who had seen David Mamet's American Buffalo Off Off Broadway, decided to stage it on Broadway, Duvall committed himself to four months in the role of Walter ("Teacher") Cole, an ex-con who is one of three men in a cluttered junk shop who plot a robbery that never occurs. Viewed by Duvall as an "East Side Waiting for Godot," the play opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on February 16, 1977 to mixed reviews. Among the positive notices was that given by Martin Gottfried in the New York Post (February 17, 1977). "The character of Teacher energizes the work," Gottfried wrote. "A disorganized organizer... one of the funniest and most striking character ever to walk an American stage... [is] given a dazzling virtuoso performance by Robert Duvall. The first motion picture directed by Duvall, We're Not the Jet Set, a documentary about a Nebraska farm family he met when making The Rain People, was released in June 1977.
A spontaneous, first-take actor who does not subscribe to "the Method," Duvall explained to Norma Stoop in the After Dark interview why he does not always get along with directors: "If I have instincts I feel are right, I don't want anybody to tamper with them.... I think I have a good instinct for truth.... If I play a preacher, I play what's religious in me; if I play a guy with killer instincts, I find those passions in me."
According to Ulu Grosbard, Robert Duvall is in reality the kind of character that he portrays best - "A guy who seems to be tough but who ends up really being very vulnerable." The balding, fast-talking, word-clipping Duvall surprises some interviewers by looking older and more rough-hewn than most of the recent characters he has played(he adapts physically to each role, by using hair pieces, or by not using them, for example, or by gaining or losing weight). Joseph Gelmis described him in Newsday (November 26, 1972): "Close up, Duvall has a rugged, undistinguished face that is pleasant, passably handsome. He squints when he takes your measure, smiles easily, doesn't seem very self-conscious. He doesn't try to look good for the camera when the press photographers take candid shots. He is totally matter of fact, simple in his language and tastes." Duvall's marriage to Barbara Duvall, producer of We're Not the Jet Set, ended in divorce in 1975. The actor's recreations include ornithology, tennis, and spectator sports. Regarding politics, he has said: "There are a lot of mink coat liberals.... I don't think anybody is totally good or totally evil; I try to see all facets."
Current Biography, July 1977, pp.21 ~ 24