We talk with the legendary actor about his newest role in Kevin Costner's epic Western Open Range.
by Scott B.
August 14, 2003 - With more than forty years of memorable film roles -- from his feature debut as Boo Radley in 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird to career-defining parts in The Godfather 1 and 2 and Apocalypse Now -- as well as several acclaimed turns as a director (including last year's much-praised Assassination Tango), it's not an overstatement to call actor Robert Duvall a cinematic legend. And now he's adding another memorable part to his resume -- cowboy Boss Spearman in Kevin Costner's Open Range, which marks Duvall's first return to the Western genre since his work in the TV miniseries Lonesome Dove.
Speaking recently in an interview in Los Angeles, Duvall reflected on the appeal of the Western. "The English have Dickens, the Russians have Tolstoy, we have Westerns," he explains. "That's our thing that we own. I'm a nationalistic guy in my own way, patriotic and proud of my country, and that's part of our culture."
A San Diego native who has spent a great deal of time on ranches in Texas and Montana, Duvall also has a personal connection to Open Range's story of free-grazing cattlemen in the old west. "I feel like whatever wisdom I have, I could bring to it," he says, "going back to when I was thirteen, fourteen years old on my uncle's ranch, working the cattle during the summers."
Not surprisingly, Duvall was star/director Costner's first choice to play the role. "Kevin called my agent and said, 'Don't take anything -- please, we're writing something for Bobby, but we can't tell you what it is,'" Duvall recalls with a smile. "After about two weeks, he told us it was a Western and sent it. I read it, and within an hour I knew I wanted to do it. It's a real classic Western and a wonderful part."
Besides the chance to work in a much-beloved genre with a star and director who'd already scored big with another Western, Dances with Wolves, Duvall was also interested in the complexity of the character: "He's a hard man, but he's got other sides to him. As we did it, I found just kind of imperceptibly a lightness coming into it that -- without going for it in an obvious way -- there was some humor. These cowboys had to find the humor to off-set the hardness of their lives."
Still, despite his enthusiasm for the picture and the character, a major challenge developed for Duvall just prior to shooting in the form of a horse-riding accident. "About two months before the shoot, I was riding and got bucked off pretty bad," Duvall remembers. "I was laid up for about six weeks -- I guess if it had happened just a couple of weeks later, I wouldn't have been able to do the movie. I mended pretty well, and I took the insurance test, and we had good horses [on the film]."
In addition to the major role in Open Range and the directorial success of Assassination Tango, Duvall had another success in recent years: The expansion of one of his most legendary parts, Lt. Colonel Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now Redux. Was Duvall pleased with the result? "I liked it because it made my part a little bigger," he responds with a laugh. "I was showing Assassination Tango last year at a film festival in Sicily, and they'd showed Apocalypse Now Redux the year before that in this old Greek-style theater... hundreds of years old with two or three thousand people watching it out under the stars. And they said that when all that napalm went off behind my character, Mount Etna erupted simultaneously!"
For now, after the satisfying but ardurous work on Open Range, the usually busy Duvall is taking some time off with his companion, Luciana Pedraza. "I don't have anything on my mind that I'd like to do, but I'll find something," he concludes. "I'm going to take a little break right now -- Luciana and I travel a lot, and we've got a place in Argentina where we go two or three times a year."