ROBERT DUVALL doesn't like to attract attention to himself.
Although he is one of the most highly respected actors of this generation, people tend to think of him more in terms of the last role he played rather than as a ``movie star.''
``Well, I don't think it's worth a lot of talk,'' Duvall said quietly as he sat in a New York City hotel recently. ``I mean, the idea is to be loose and relaxed and go for the character. Acting is planned, but the planning is kind of, well, SPONTANEOUS.''
Duvall, who lives on a 200-acre farm he identifies as ``near Warrenton,'' claims Virginia as his home state. Even though he was born in San Diego, the son of a Navy officer who rose to the rank of rear admiral, he was raised in Fairfax County and lived briefly in Newport News.
Trim and athletic, he looks a good deal younger than his 65 years. In spite of the varied characters he's played, he keeps a hint of a Southern accent - a reminder that he has created such memorable Southern characters as the feeble-minded Boo Radley in ``To Kill a Mockingbird,'' a gung-ho military father in ``The Great Santini,'' an aging cowboy in the miniseries ``Lonesome Dove'' (his favorite) and his Oscar-winning role as a washed-out country singer in ``Tender Mercies.''
He was asked to play Gen. Robert E. Lee in the mammoth Ted Turner production of ``Gettysburg'' but turned it down ``because I think he's one of the great characters of all history and I want it to be just right when and if I do it. I was worried that that project seemed rushed. I was also worried about the makeup. With the right script, I'd love, someday, to play him.''
Duvall's latest creation is Earl Pilcher Jr., a middle-aged Arkansas redneck who runs a tractor-repair shop and has always adhered to local tradition until he learns that his mother was black. Earl is taken aback. He goes to Chicago to seek out the policeman who is his half-brother (James Earl Jones).
The movie, ``A Family Thing,'' is a project that Duvall suggested, promoted and produced.
``The idea just came to me,'' he said. ``What if a working-class white man learned that he was part black? What would be his adjustment? I brought just the kernel of the idea to Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, two really good writers. (They wrote the cult hit `One False Move.') What they came up with was amazing. It's a movie about healing. It's a movie about learning. The script turned out better than I could have hoped. The characters are well developed.''
The balding Duvall was wearing a plaid sports shirt and khaki trousers - hardly a hip outfit - for his big-city visit.
``My family background is Virginia and Maryland,'' he said. ``The family, way back, were tobacco farmers. I grew up in Fairfax County and never even considered becoming an actor. I didn't see many movies when I was a kid. Ironically, it was my family that pushed me into acting, when I was in college, about age 20.''
Duvall is so modest that you never know if he's underselling himself, but he claims that ``my parents pushed me into drama because I was just about flunking out in everything else (at Principia College in Illinois). It was during the Korean war and they were worried that I might flunk out and have to go to Korea. When I started taking theater classes, I began to make all A's. Before that, I didn't even know what an A was.''
As far as acting goes, it's been like that ever since.
He went to New York and trained at the Neighborhood Playhouse. Good friends were Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman, who were also struggling actors. ``I knew Gene first. He introduced me to Dustin one day when he was coming back from one of his first jobs, on the TV show `Naked City.' When we were struggling, and without jobs, we talked a lot about acting. Now that we're successful, we never have time to see each other.''
Boo Radley, Gregory Peck's neighbor in ``To Kill a Mockingbird,'' was his first movie role.
``I prefer films to theater,'' he said. ``I like having a second chance at a scene, but I never like to do more than two or three takes. If you go beyond that in repeating it, it's not spontaneous. I like to do a role and then leave it. These guys don't stick with me. Once I've played them, I'm through with them. I can walk away.''
Duvall made an uncharacteristic appearance in the tabloids last year when he reportedly caught his third wife, Sharon Brophy, having an affair with the pool repairman at his Virginia home. He threw her out, and the divorce proceedings are still storming.
He met Brophy when she was a cast member of the ``Tango Argentino'' troupe, and she subsequently became his tango teacher. The tango is one of his passions.
``I can't quite explain it,'' he said. ``The tango is more than just a dance. I practice almost every day. It's a dance you can practice alone, and, sadly, I don't have a partner now.''
He just returned from Argentina, where he played the infamous Nazi Adolf Eichman. (``A very good part,'' he said.) He brought back his own personal tango teacher - ``a little guy, a former jockey, who is great. The tango is a national pastime in Argentina. This guy can jump up on a table and dance.''
Duvall has two grown stepdaughters from an earlier marriage.
``It's hard to get back to single life again,'' he said. ``Dating is a pain. Back when I was young, the other guys would say, `Bobby, take off the hat and be the bait.' Now, I have to be my own bait for getting dates. Being a movie star helps. Women will talk to you, but that doesn't mean anything. A relationship is a very tricky thing. It's not easy to develop.''
He's vague about the location of his Virginia farm but says that ``it's in fox-hunting country. I'm very fond of riding, but I'm backing off the equestrian thing a little. I came in fourth in one riding competition, but the Chris Reeve thing is a little bit daunting. I've pulled back. I'd rather break my ankle tango dancing than horseback riding.''
As for Earl, his role in ``A Family Thing,'' he said: ``It was important for this movie to be low-key. The plot sounds melodramatic. It was important that it not be. Earl is an intelligent man. Just because he's a working-class man doesn't mean he's dim. I often think that so-called `rednecks' get a bum rap in movies. Earl goes to Chicago and he learns that his black brother is, after all, just another person, but a special person too. It's totally about family - and what that means.
``One of the most interesting things about this picture is that it shows that older people can adjust and change. It's the young people in the script who have trouble adjusting. Young people, contrary to what we hear, are often set in their ways and don't want to change.''
Jones said that he was eager to take the role in ``A Family Thing'' ``just for the chance of working with Bobby Duvall. Working with Robert, I knew I had to settle the issue of film subtlety right away,'' Jones said. ``He is the most subtle of actors. I had to get on that level.''
---- THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT by way of scholar.lib.vt.edu