Television and Radio
August 07, 2004

Dancing to his own tune

Ed Potton meets Hollywood’s “late bloomer”, Robert Duvall

You somehow don’t expect Hollywood legends to have an in-depth knowledge of Cornish beaches and British footballers. But 73-year-old Robert Duvall holds court on both of these topics — and more — in the same iconic tones that infused his steely roles in The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. Would Al Pacino have waxed lyrical over Michael Owen’s precocious goal in the 1998 World Cup (“What a talented guy!”)? Can you see Robert De Niro enjoying boozy nights out in Glasgow with the former Rangers star Ally McCoist, with whom Duvall starred in Shot at Glory (2000)? Might Jack Nicholson fondly recall horse rides in Newquay (where Duvall shot The Eagle Has Landed during a break from filming Apocalypse Now in the Philippines)? Clearly, Duvall isn’t your common-or-garden Hollywood legend.

Such effusive Anglophilia could, of course, be part of the down-home politeness that permeates his conversation. But when he expresses regret that his rootless childhood as the son of a military man didn’t include sojourns in Europe, you sense that his interest in the wider world is sincere. And, if Duvall is a fan of Britain, he’s utterly smitten by Argentina, the native country of his 31-year-old girlfriend Luciana Pedraza and the setting for Assassination Tango, his fourth outing as a director.

The film, which is released on DVD this week, tells the tale of John Anderson — a New York hitman, played by Duvall — who accepts a job in Buenos Aires, where he falls for the tango and a woman who dances it. It’s not his best work: the mob sequences are hackneyed and the plot as flimsy as a paper cup. But it gave Duvall the opportunity to portray on film two more of his exotic interests: Argentina’s capital and its national dance. “Buenos Aires is my favourite city in the world,” he gushes. “The people are friendly and there’s a sense of civility.” The latter is important, you suspect, for an actor whose roles, be they mobsters, cowboys or soldiers enjoying their morning sniff of napalm, all have a courteous core. Duvall has been a tango fan since he attended a performance 15 years ago with June Carter Cash, the late wife of Johnny, and he is now an accomplished practitioner. He cast Pedraza, who had never acted before, in the role of the Argentinian woman who introduces Anderson to its intricate steps. That would smack of nepotism were it not for her unaffected performance, one of the film’s highlights. “I like to turn it around and let it come from people who are non-actors,” he explains.

The film seems real in other ways, too, notably Anderson’s regret at his lack of children. Duvall, too, has yet to become a father. He is reluctant to draw parallels, though: “Could be . . . I’m sure a lot of things come of you that you put into your work, consciously or unconsciously.”

Assassination Tango was produced by Francis Ford Coppola, whose Godfather films nudged Duvall to fame. While he is not close to the director, he feels a sense of comradeship with the rest of the cast and reserves particularly warm words for the late Marlon Brando.

“He sent me a marvellous letter after he saw The Apostle (the 1997 tale of a Texan preacher that Duvall directed and starred in). I framed it and put it on the wall; I think of it with more emotion than I do my Oscar (for portraying a washed-up country singer in Tender Mercies (1983)). We had some good times on The Godfather.”

Duvall is aware that the careers of his Godfather co-stars, particularly Pacino and De Niro, took off faster than his. “Maybe I hung back, I don’t know. I’ve always been a late bloomer and I’ll keep blooming, hopefully, until the end.”

His relatively low profile has certainly given him access to a rich gallery of roles, his versatility prompting The New York Times to dub him “the American Olivier” in 1980. Asked to pick his favourite of the 84 screen roles that he has played since his debut as Boo Radley in To Kill a Mocking Bird (1962), he remembers an acting friend in Hollywood who would say: “I love ’em all.”

“I don’t know if I could say that!” he laughs, silently acknowledging the presence on his CV of films such as Gone in Sixty Seconds and The Sixth Day.

His eventual choice, though, is revealing: Gus McCrae, the rancher who undertakes an epic 3,000-mile cattle drive in the 1989 mini-series Lonesome Dove. Duvall recalls childhood visits to his uncle’s ranch in Montana and admits: “Maybe if I hadn’t been an actor, I could have done OK at ranching.” With his recent role in Open Range and a forthcoming turn in A Night in Old Mexico, his eyes are still fixed on the open road. While half of Hollywood loves to play the restless trailblazer, Robert Duvall is the genuine article.

The Times (UK)