Man of Many Faces

"I don't know your name, but you sure were good in 'The Godfather'," said the heavy-set conventioneer when he recognized the familiar screen figure lounging across from him, dressed in tennis whites, in the lobby of Key Biscayne's Sonesta Beach Hotel. "And by the way," the man added in a joking reference to the film's most macabre scene, "I've got a horse I need to get rid of...think you can help?" Robert Duvall, who played the mafia lawyer Tom Hagen in "The Godfather," smiled his thanks as the conventioneer headed for the bar, not bothering to ask the actor's name, still thinking of him as the guy who set a horse up to be bumped off. After fifteen years of steady work and superb performances on stage and screen, the gifted, 41-year old character actor with the quietly handsome features and thinning blond hair remains an unknown figure to the majority of American moviegoers.

Duvall's relative anonymity is an ironic reflection of his integrity as a performer. All his roles - the mentally retarded Boo Radley in "To Kill a Mockingbird," the toadying bank official in "The Chase," the uptight, hypocritically pious Army doctor in "M*A*S*H," the inarticulate but deeply feeling feeling dirt farmer in "Tomorrow," the crazy Jesse James in "The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid" and of course the cool, brainy consigliere in "The Godfather" -- are typical of the work of the great character actor, the kind of performer who doesn't seem to have his own personality, even his own face, but becomes completely the character he is playing. "I try to bring as much truth to my roles as possible," Duvall told Newsweek's Sunde Smith. "Sometimes, when I'm acting, I have the sense that I'm doing what I do in real life. Like telling someone about a death. I go about telling the other characters as though it were happening. You can't totally divorce your acting self from your real self."

Duvall's real self has made him one of the most sought-after actors in the business, and recently no fewer than four Duvall films were playing New York simultaneously. He is currently finishing work in Florida and Nassau on "The Masters," a jewel-thief caper with Donald Sutherland and Jennifer O' Neill, in which he plays the head of an investigative agency. The film has lurched through some disastrous days - two directors have quit and the leading lady dropped out because of illness - but Duvall has filled his time playing tennis, which is his favorite pastime, along with ornithology. He often conducts guessing games by phone with California friends, flawlessly warbling any number of exotic bird calls.

Audition: But his gift for imitating people preceded his gift for imitating birds. Born the middle child of a rear admiral in San Diego, Duvall found out early that he had a natural gift doing mimicry. "I remember as a kid at a family dinner one guy was eating spaghetti, elbows and all, so I dug in just like him, slurping away. My parents almost killed me." But they didn't. Instead, they did the next best thing - they encouraged him to act. He graduated from Principia College in Illinois with a drama degree and, after a hitch in the army headed for New York, where he did bit parts and auditioned at a restaurant for the role of maitre d'. The restaurant cast him as its dishwasher. Television work led Robert Mulligan to cast him in "To Kill a Mockingbird." During the shooting, Duvall met his attractive, dark-haired wife, Barbara, a former oop-oop-a-doo girl on "The Jackie Gleason Show." The Duvalls now live in an old, fifteen room Dutch Colonial house in upper New York State with Barbara's two teen-age daughters from her first marriage.

Duvall's gift for characterization is a blend of instinct and observation. "I knew this laborer from New York, a second generation Sicilian, and used him as my image of Eddie Carbone in 'A View From the Bridge.' I found a couple of guys in an insurance agency here for my current part. You can't be the guy exactly, but I always find someone to pattern my performance after." For his next picture, "Badge 373," in which he will star with Verna Bloom as an Irish cop who avenges his partner's murder, Duvall invited two policemen to his house. "One was Irish," he says, "and one was Italian. But...if you closed your eyes, you couldn't tell which one was which. I look for the contradictions in my characters and use them to develop the role - like the contradiction in Tom Hagen between his book knowledge and his street knowledge. Once, I built a part by combining all my uncles in Virginia."

Duvall is an independent type, known for his frequent scuffles with directors. "The movie industry is a very caste-conscious business," he says. It's a director's medium in a lot of ways, and I don't try to be a hard guy to work with. But I decide what I'm going to do with a character. You live all your life with yourself and you come in with a stranger, he can't tell you what to do." This attitude comes not from arrogance but dedication. "No one in my family is as possessed as I am in this manical way. Like, when I'm on the tennis court, I have to be a the absolute best."

But even the super-serious Duvall has his lighter side -- even his silly side. One of the sillier fads among the movie crowd these days is an adolescent delight in "mooning," the display of the posterior, a crazy impulse which no doubt has some deep-rooted atavistic origin. At a recent party in Key Biscayne, Donald Sutherland opened a closet door and there was a barebacked Duvall, bent over, his hands clasping his ankles. Well, what else can you do when nobody remembers your face?

--- Newsweek, September 18, 1972

Thanks to Jamaica for sending this article.