How the west is always fun for a Hollywood legend

By Demetrios Matheou

Sometimes this job has some bizarre surprises. If, when I was a teenager, someone had told me that the man I saw striding through Apocalypse Now in his Stetson, uttering the immortal line “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”, would one day sit with me in a hotel garden in the shadow of Mount Etna, talking enthusiastically about football … well, I would have said they were mad.

But this is the movies. And Robert Duvall, one of the great American actors – up there, if less ostentatiously, with his old friends Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman – is indeed waving his arms about in ecstatic praise for a British footballer.

“Michael Owen,” he drools. “Who is this kid? Who is this kid?!” He also has warm words for Ally McCoist, with whom he co-starred in A Shot At Glory: “He’s sharp as a tack, that man.”

Although this does feel very odd, the reason for the meeting is straightforward enough. Now 73, but lacking none of his weighty, iconic, all-American presence in front of the camera, Duvall has flown to Taormina, in Sicily, to collect a life achievement award from the island’s little film festival.

He also has two new films to talk about: his fourth as a director, Assassination Tango, in which he stars and also dances the tango with his partner, Luciana Pedraza; and Open Range, which is a welcome return for Duvall to his favourite genre – the western.

“The English do Shakespeare, the French do Molière, the Russians do Chekhov and we do westerns,” he declares. While a few years ago the reply would have been “not any more”, the western does seem to be experiencing a revival: Kevin Costner’s entertaining romp is one of the better efforts, and comes complete with muscular gunfights, and the welcome sight of Duvall as a grizzled old trail boss.

Duvall accepted the role as soon as he read the script. “I knew that I understood that kind of guy. It took me back to the days on my uncle’s ranch, in northern Montana, when I was a kid. I was always around these cattle men and cowboys, and that gave me the wisdom and the thirst to do westerns.”

However, he almost didn’t get to make the film. “Six weeks before we started shooting I brought a little horse from Texas, to my farm in Virginia. I thought I was trying him out; actually, he was trying me out – this horse suddenly bucked me so fast. I broke six ribs and had to spend weeks sleeping on my back. I couldn’t even sneeze, because it was so painful.” It’s a sign of the man’s character that, in his 70s, he bounced back in record time to take Costner’s side.

He’s made westerns before: at the start of his career he played a villain opposite John Wayne in True Grit; then 20 years later gave what he feels is his best performance, as the Texas ranger Gus McCrae in the eight- hour TV movie Lonesome Dove. “I could have retired after that movie. He was an interesting, special kind of guy and I knew I’d done a complete job. Although it wasn’t as good as The Godfather, the impact for me was the same. Augustus McRae was my Hamlet.”

Like a lot of people who always seemed older than their years, at retirement age Duvall is looking in very good shape. His face, which might have been carved out of granite, still has the old glint in the eyes (it’s the killer weapon in his performances) and, in dark trousers and a crisp blue shirt, he’s looking lean and healthy. The only thing that gives his age away is a slowness in his walk and the fact that he seems a little deaf.

Unlike a lot of Hollywood stars, Duvall has arrived in Italy without a minder or assistant in sight; just him and Pedraza, a strikingly attractive and self-possessed Argentine, many years younger than he.

At one point he refers to his father as “a military man and a gentleman”, and Duvall, a des- cendent of Robert E Lee who also served briefly in the army in the 1950s, is clearly cut from the same cloth: soft-spoken, cultured, and incredibly civil.

It was after his own army service that Duvall went to New York to study drama. Not uncommonly, his early years were a struggle of constant auditions and menial jobs, living hand to mouth. But it was also a bonding experience with his fellow actors.

“I remember when Hoffman was sleeping on Hackman’s floor. Hackman introduced me to Dennis Hopper and we all rented an apartment: my brother, me, Hopper and two other actors. And we would visit Hackman on the weekends. His wife would cook and then we’d lay down and take a nap.

“They were good days. Now I never see those guys. In England everything is close; in America there are 3,000 miles in between. Hackman lives in Santa Fe, I live in Virginia, Hoffman has about 65 houses he lives in all over the world. But back then we had great times together. They were good guys, talented guys. And when we do see each other we pick up right where we left off.”

Eventually Duvall did start to make an impact, in theatre (notably Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge), then television. After his film debut in 1962, as Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird, he spent the 1960s playing small parts in memorable films such as The Chase and Bullitt. But it was with the new wave of directors who transformed Hollywood in the 1970s – Robert Altman (M*A*S*H), George Lucas (THX 1138) and, in particular, Francis Ford Coppola – that he made his name. As Tom Hagen in The Godfather Part I and II, he was the reserved, “legal” face of the Mafia, ostensibly less violent than those around him but, never-theless, the one who conceived of planting a horse’s head in his enemy’s bed.

Then, in Apocalypse Now, he was allowed off the leash, his Colonel Kilgore striding bare-chested through the carnage, ordering his boys out to surf and leading his helicopters to the sound of The Ride Of The Valkyries.

“I liked them both,” he says of the two parts. “Tom Hagen couldn’t cross the line, whereas Kilgore was out there – all the way, the surfing and everything.” He laughs. “People still ask me to say the napalm speech. When I was doing research for my film The Apostle, even the preachers would talk about it.

“I sensed The Godfather was an important film when we were making it,” he adds. “Francis and I have had our differences, but I have respect for the guy, he’s a great storyteller. And he’s like a sleeping giant; any day he could wake up and make another great film.”

It was Coppola who urged Duvall to see the Broadway show Tango Argentina, which led to the actor’s near-obsession with the dance: he’s had a dance studio built on his farm and it was he who taught tango to Pedraza (whom he met in Buenos Aires seven years ago), not the other way around. “I’ve always liked social dancing. My mother used to run a cotillion and as kids we had to go along.

“We did the cha cha, the mambo, those dances. I love the tango. In Argentina the people think of it as sensual, passionate. Tango is sweetness to them.”

This most atypically open-minded of Americans is a big fan of Ken Loach and has attempted, in the films he has directed himself, a similar combination of fiction and near-documentary realism. And if Assassination Tango’s premise – a hitman goes to Buenos Aires for a job and falls in love with a tango dancer – seems unlikely, Duvall suggests otherwise.

“The best mambo dancer I ever saw was a wise guy from Brooklyn,” he says. “A lot of them are good club dancers. They’re not recluses, they’re outgoing, these guys have beauty parlours and hair salons. But I don’t know how it is in London.”

He treats me to the famed Duvall guffaw. “Did the Kray twins have a beauty parlour?”

21 March 2004