Wed Mar 26, 1:08 PM ET
By DAVID GERMAIN, AP Movie Writer
LOS ANGELES - Many actors in their 70s gripe that they're lucky to land marginal roles as somebody's grandpa. Not so with Robert Duvall, who says he's getting more acting offers the older he gets.
This year alone, Duvall has been seen as Robert E. Lee in "Gods and Generals," and has plum parts as an eccentric uncle with a shady past in the upcoming "Secondhand Lions" and as a trail boss in Kevin Costner's Western "Open Range."
Then there's the tango-fixated hit man he plays in "Assassination Tango," which Duvall wrote and directed.
"I tell you, I get more parts than ever now," Duvall, 72, said in an interview. "A lot of wonderful parts have come my way, and I appreciate it. Maybe they'll continue. You never know what's around the corner. ...
"Maybe there aren't many guys left for these parts. There are only two or three left," Duvall joked.
"Assassination Tango" is Duvall's writing-directing follow-up to 1997's "The Apostle," a low-budget story he financed himself about a Southern preacher who goes on the lam after an act of jealous violence. Duvall earned a best-actor Academy Award nomination for the role.
Duvall, who won the lead-actor Oscar for 1983's "Tender Mercies," drew on his own passion for tango in his latest story, the tale of a New York City hit man on assignment in Buenos Aires, where he fills some down time while waiting for his quarry by immersing himself in Argentina's dance culture.
Luciana Pedraza, Duvall's real-life girlfriend of seven years, makes her acting debut as a tango dancer with whom the hit man has a dalliance.
Duvall has divided his time over the last five years between big Hollywood spectacles ("Deep Impact," "Gone in 60 Seconds," "The 6th Day") and small, intimate projects including his own stories or the Scottish soccer flick "A Shot at Glory."
He shelled out $3.5 million of his own money to shoot "The Apostle," which became the object of a bidding war at the Toronto International Film Festival. For "Assassination Tango," old friend Francis Ford Coppola, who directed Duvall in "Apocalypse Now" and the first two parts of "The Godfather," signed on as executive producer and lined up financing.
"It was like full circle, because Coppola always had said I should play a tango guy from way back," Duvall said.
Duvall's interest in the dance goes back 15 years, when he caught a performance of the show "Tango Argentino." He got to know dancers involved with the show, then visited Argentina, where he hung out at dance clubs and saw some legendary old-timers doing the tango.
"Those older guys are dying off now. I knew some of them. One guy was a beautiful dancer, very slow, very interesting. Slow and then violent. I loved his dancing. Another one died of a heart attack dancing in front of a bunch of heart specialists. So there's always a story with the tango."
The story behind Pedraza's participation resulted from frustration in casting the role of the hit man's new dance partner. Duvall needed a Hispanic performer who spoke good English, and for authenticity, he was more interested in finding a real tango dancer and turning her into an actress rather than teaching a trained actress to dance.
Pedraza, from Argentina, had come to share Duvall's ardor for tango, which they practice together on the dance floor Duvall had installed in a barn at his Virginia farm. While Duvall started too late to become a master dancer, Pedraza about 40 years younger than he is good enough to turn professional if she wanted, Duvall said.
Eventually, Pedraza offered to play the part. Duvall agreed, and they spent a year putting her through improvisation exercises and other training to prepare her for the cameras.
Over putting his girlfriend in his movie, Duvall said he felt "not hesitation, but hesitant. Nobody questioned me about it. I don't much like nepotism, but I knew I needed this, a dancer, not necessarily an actress. ...
"Because once the non-actors get to a certain level, they'll put the professional actors on notice. They can be just as good, just as pure, no bad habits. So I like to take a chance. Once we got to a certain place with Luciana, I knew I was home free."
Pedraza said her big problem was memorizing dialogue. Seeing Duvall act for years proved a good training ground, she said.
"He's someone who is always learning, even in his own profession," Pedraza said. "In a sense it's like the tango, where you have room to keep learning and incorporating new things and getting better. I don't think he feels he has mastered his profession, and I think that's what keeps him growing as an actor. That's why he keeps working."
The son of a naval officer, Duvall did an Army stint before he started acting in the 1950s. Stage and TV work led to his screen debut as Boo Radley in 1962's "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Duvall starred in George Lucas' early film "THX 1138," originated the role of Frank Burns in "M-A-S-H," played the surf-crazed colonel in "Apocalypse Now" and was an autocratic military pilot in "The Great Santini." The latter two films earned him Oscar nominations.
He has gone back and forth from the big screen to television, where he starred in movie biographies of Josef Stalin and Adolf Eichmann and had the favorite role of his career, in the beloved miniseries "Lonesome Dove."
Duvall said he would love to write and direct another film, but he has run out of ideas. He has a couple of sketchy plots, but the stories are not developed well enough, he said.
Yet Duvall does not lack for opportunities. He has been turning aside offers for a smaller role or two so he can take some time off, but he might go back to work this fall in Andy Garcia's feature-film directing debut, set in Cuba before the rise of Fidel Castro.
Duvall figures more acting offers may be coming nowadays simply because he has gotten better as he ages.
"Yeah, I'm a late, late, late bloomer," Duvall said. "Until they wipe the drool off me, I'm a late bloomer. Let me keep trying."