June 25, 2006
TELEVISION

He knows the territory

In "Broken Trail," Robert Duvall embraces themes he finds familiar on screen and off: rambling, risk and, finally, redemption.
By Paul Lieberman, Times Staff Writer

# Video: Robert Duvall at his Virginia ranch (June 23, 2006)


Duvall prizes authenticity in his work - and others' "The Searchers"? Too stagy. John Wayne in "True Grit"? "He did OK." (Joshua Roberts / For The Times)

Robert Duvall stars in the two-parter (Chris Large)

SHORTLY after his 75th birthday this past winter, Robert Duvall found himself on the West Coast, so he told his companion of recent years, Luciana Pedraza, "Let's go find my old house." The place is outside San Diego, where his Navy admiral father was stationed for two years before WWII. Duvall, who was 10 and 11 then, remembered his mother falling over him while he was roller-skating and his parents taking him to dime movies at the Marine base, where he became a fan of Mickey Rooney romps, "Gunga Din" and a dog story, "The Biscuit Eater." Finding the house was no problem ? he still remembered the address ? but it looked different than he recalled. New owners had changed it, he said, "not for the better."

Duvall earlier had taken Luciana to see another of his childhood homes, in Annapolis, Md., near the U.S. Naval Academy, and he did not feel much emotional pull there either. Although many people emerge from their early years with some strong sense of place, Duvall is not one of them, the result of the transient military life, he is convinced. He is not even certain whether he is a city kid at heart or a small-town kid, though he leans toward the latter.

"I don't know what I am, yeah," he says, that being a favorite word of his, muttered in next to a whisper. "Yeah ... we moved so many times ... here, there and everything."

But Duvall does have glowing memories of one place, an uncle's ranch in Montana, where he spent two summers. No one thrust violin or piano lessons on him there. They gave him a horse and took him on roundups in the Sweet Grass Hills near the Bear Paw Mountains, where the white men captured the great Nez Perce leader, Chief Joseph, and where "my uncle would tell stories and play the harmonica."

Duvall was 13 and 14 those summers, and how could it not make a lasting impression, hearing how his uncle's father had emigrated from England to Denver and sold tombstones to supplant wooden crosses and thus made enough money to buy the Montana land. Or how his uncle, H.B. Prescott, spent his own boyhood summers going on horseback to a pristine Yellowstone National Park to camp, hunt and fish. His uncle was a marvel in the wild, able to rope a baby coyote from his horse or drop to his belly and shoot an antelope at 300 yards, "Boom, just get it."

Duvall recalls riding a gray steed in a lightning storm and staying on while draft horses ran loose around him. The second summer, his youngest brother ? Duvall was the middle of three ? came to Montana too, so they teased him, "You'll have to clean the chicken house." Except their uncle said, "Jack, you come with me," and guess who got that chore?

"I remember quite a few things, yeah," says Duvall, who has made nearly 100 films and played military types and weary cops and sin-confessing men of the cloth ? and a mob consigliere ? but keeps coming back, when he can, to the oldest of American film genres, the western, his latest, "Broken Trail," to be shown in two parts, at 8 p.m. today and Monday, on the AMC cable network.

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Embracing his Eastern roots

THOUGH moving around is hard on a life ? hard on maintaining friendships, for instance ? Duvall sees its benefits for a craft that takes you from location to location, and from character to character, something he has done as well as anyone of his acting generation. "That sense of a transient kind of fits what I do now as an actor," he says.

He was speaking at his 362-acre Byrnley Farm here in Virginia horse country, an area more like England's foxhunting regions than the wild West. He and Luciana spend most of their time here, with their dogs, when he's not off filming, except around Christmas when they visit her relatives in Argentina, where they have a small inn at the foot of the Andes. Duvall no longer keeps a home in New York ? his last was opera legend Enrico Caruso's former apartment on Broadway ? but he still has one in L.A., a bungalow with a lap pool in the flats of West Hollywood.

To the degree he has an ancestral home, however, Virginia is it. His dad's people worked a tobacco farm behind Confederate lines while siding with the Union and naming his granddad Abraham Lincoln Duvall. There's also Civil War history to the tiny town (pop. 284) that includes Duvall's property, the Plains being where a federal spy was hung during the Battle of Manassas. But his spread goes back further, featuring a 1744 hilltop manor house that George Washington may have visited. White fences and stone walls run past the ponds and pastures of the gentleman's farm Duvall bought a decade ago.

He has converted one of two barns into an enormous party space complete with Western saloon bar (with matching spittoons) and a dance floor suitable for the tango. The other barn is not quite as pristine as the one Duvall visits in "The Godfather" to persuade the film producer to give a part to singer Johnny Fontane ? and which houses the horse that becomes a bloody head in the man's bed ? but it's close. It's where Duvall keeps an 1884 saddle inscribed with the name of Augustus "Gus" McCrae, his Texas ranger character in "Lonesome Dove," the TV miniseries he counts, with his two "Godfather" films, among the most accomplished projects of his career.

Duvall's horses romp in corrals nearby. One is a still-nippy colt Luciana gave him as a surprise gift; the other, Red Man, a saddle horse he bought two summers ago in case he got a green light for "Broken Trail," in which he was not only going to costar, with Thomas Haden Church, but serve as producer. Duvall stopped riding for fun after he busted a few ribs preparing for Kevin Costner's 2003 "Open Range" and was worried that he would be only barely competent in the saddle. "Though we didn't have any financing, I figured we were going to do it sometime," he says, so he got Red Man to get back his form.

Duvall had the same approach a half-century ago, when he was a New York stage actor poised to be "discovered." While he was earning credits in such plays as "Wait Until Dark" and episodes of TV shows such as "Naked City," he kept up his riding at a low-rent stable in Queens, because when he'd watch westerns such as "Gunsmoke" ? still mainstays of prime time ? he found too many actors unconvincing. "All these guys could draw guns" ? that, they practiced ? "but they couldn't sit a horse." He was resolved that, if given the chance, he would not look like some tinhorn whose only experience was as a 4-year-old playing cowboys and Indians with miniature chaps and a stick horse.

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True to character

IF transience is one theme of Duvall's life, another is authenticity ? his drive, from Day One, to look real, and sound real, in his roles.

Writer Horton Foote, who helped get him his first film job, at 31 ? as the mute Boo Radley in 1962's "To Kill a Mockingbird" ? recalls first seeing Duvall when he was right out of the Army renting a $7 room and taking classes at the Neighborhood Playhouse, whose natural-style guru, Sanford Meisner, said, "'Get down here to see this boy." Foote goes on, "He played a total alcoholic.... And the interesting thing is he never smokes or drinks. I said, 'How did he do that?' 'He went down to the Bowery and watched people,' " spent days with the derelicts.

Years later, when Duvall was creating "The Apostle" ? which he wrote, directed and starred in ? he'd call Foote while checking out churches around the South. "I could always tell when he'd been with a different preacher," Foote says, "because he'd try out these different voices." Duvall hit the road in Texas to become the itinerant country singer in the Foote-penned "Tender Mercies," which won each an Academy Award.

But Duvall did not have to learn strange skills when, nearing 40, he finally got a marquee western, 1969's "True Grit." He was able to do his own horse work even in the climactic scene in which he and fellow bad guys face off across a field against John Wayne, who won his only Oscar for his portrayal of eye-patched Rooster Cogburn. True, the Duke had to be shot on some close-ups with his saddle on a 2-by-4, in the back of a pickup, and some suggested the award was a gift for past work, but Duvall saw grace in the USC football player who'd become the iconic western hero. "Well, he did OK," Duvall says, "and he rode in other scenes. He was smart enough to know to use a double when it's a little bit touchy, you know?"

Duvall was still relatively unknown ? "MASH" came the next year, "The Godfather" two later ? but was not shy about reaching a different opinion to that of the film's 71-year-old director who had worked on a silent western in 1925, when they were black and white in more ways than one.

"He said to one actor, 'When I say "action," tense up, goddamn it!' I mean, can you imagine saying that to Joe Montana in the Super Bowl? 'Tense up'? "

Duvall's acting credo has always been "Simple reality," to wit: "Just talking and listening. Not going for results.... Even in life in emotional situations ... be offhand. Nothing's precious. Just let it sit there and find its own way."

His critique could apply to other films, of course, but he finds westerns particularly prone to scenery chewing, actors "acting up a storm."

Many people consider John Ford's "The Searchers" one of the greatest westerns, but Duvall got through only 10 minutes the first time he saw it, finding it too stagy and Ford's frontier men unrealistically "up, up, up" and with a superimposed energy, not their own.

To him, a good director says, "Just do nothing. See what happens. Instead of 'Action!' "

He couldn't watch HBO's "Deadwood" either, because of its cursing, which suggests that viewers are finally hearing how cowboys really talked. Duvall suspects that that reality was dreamed up by writers in the Bronx for whom the West means "20 miles west of Buffalo." That wasn't how it was on his uncle's ranch, where the head wrangler was a Scottish fellow known to "profess love for my aunt" when they all drank too much, and his uncle would say, "Now Jimmy, back off," but they rarely swore ? and most often at stubborn cows.

His critic's eye doesn't spare even the Oscar-winning "Unforgiven," in which Clint Eastwood's aging gunman is in no way "up, up, up." It may well be the best of the gritty films that try to demythologize the West, and the western, but Duvall was bothered by a scene in which Eastwood's William Munny shows how out of shape he is. "I didn't buy the fact that he couldn't get on a horse anymore," says the onetime teenage summer cowboy who can still do that himself, after all, at 75.

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Tackling the all-American genre

"I keep saying that the English have Shakespeare, Moliere with the French, Chekhov with the Russians. And the western is ours."

Dressed in bad man's black, Duvall is seated on an easy chair in his den, his right arm on a flowered cushion, his "Tender Mercies" Oscar standing watch from a fireplace mantle.

He came up with the idea for his western with a neighbor here, Alan Geoffrion, who published a regional magazine and whose wife runs a stable. Also a history buff, Duvall brought him into the filming of Costner's movie in Western Canada, then suggested he visit a Nebraska rancher whose grandfather had once taken 700 horses from Oregon to the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota. That became raw material for a script, melded with other historical nuggets: how two Wyoming families became agents for the British Army, which wanted to export horses to South Africa's Boer War; how poor Chinese girls were sold into service in America, which meant prostitution at mining camps; and one from Duvall's uncle, naturally, about white men who traded blankets infected with smallpox to the Blackfeet. Yes, and the invention of therapeutic papers. "This may be the first western that addresses the question," Geoffrion says, "of 'What did they use for toilet paper?' "

He did the writing and Duvall consulted ("from an actor's point of view ... try this") until they came up with the scenario of an uncle and nephew leading a horse drive out of Oregon in 1897 and being joined by a wagon with five Chinese girls entering lives as "daughters of joy." En route they meet other characters of the West, some of whom ? like "Smallpox Bob" ? need killing. As with any western's drive, the most basic issue is whether they'll make it to the end. But here there's the issue too of whether the wandering cowboys can ever settle down: Duvall's Print Ritter, with his Wilford Brimley mustache ("That was mine!" he says), is wooed by a fleeing prostitute, played by Greta Scacchi; Church's Tom Harte feels stirrings for the oldest Chinese woman.

Duval considered marketing the story as a feature or one-day network TV movie before landing at AMC, which has never bought the notion that the western is dead, having stopped speaking to audiences more inclined to watch antiheroes than heroes and who find their escapist clashes between civilization and a lawless frontier in sci-fi tales set in space. Or maybe it was simply counterprogramming that led AMC to embrace westerns and John Wayne, licensing 32 of his films. In any case, the network was eager to back its first original project.

"We were looking for a big event that would be our first big event," says AMC President Ed Carroll, who gave the go-ahead for shooting the two-part "Broken Trail" last summer in Alberta, Canada, with the confidence that Duvall would "lend immediate credibility" to the debut effort but also understanding that AMC was getting "a perfectionist ... who has a strong point of view."

Translation: This star-producer would not sit quietly by if a network suit decided that TV required a happier ending, say, than he believed appropriate.

Duvall is not generally a believer in those. The 90-year-old Foote recalls the one line in "Tender Mercies" for which the actor, in character, allowed himself tears. It goes, "I don't trust happiness. Never did. Never will."

So that was one issue, how much happily-ever-after. Also how much gunplay. "You gotta have a shootout in a western, I suppose," Duvall says, but "you can't overdo that. They weren't such deadeye shots, those guys."

In late afternoon, he's joined by Geoffrion, just off his tractor "moving a manure pile," and they recall how there came to be "three camps" on the project: theirs, which favored character scenes around the campfire; the director's (Walter Hill, who won an Emmy for "Deadwood"), who wanted more action; and the network's, in between.

That reminds Duvall of his old pal Gene Hackman, who once offered him his last $300 during their struggling days in New York, when their crowd included Dustin Hoffman and Jimmy Caan, "all these guys I never see anymore," Duvall says, years and success leaving them thousands of miles apart.

Hackman too grew into a character actor known to speak his mind, and Duvall mentions his storming off the set on "Behind Enemy Lines." Duvall says, "Yeah ... old Gene, he doesn't want to take any direction unless you know what you're talking about." Then Duvall asks, "I'm not that bad, am I?"

Geoffrion tells him he's not, that he saved the project, in fact, after they got the director's cut last winter. Duvall, who was in Argentina, returned, hired his own editor and camped out in a back room at the old Warner Bros. lot in L.A. and "in 16 days, we turned it," he says, restoring "our vision."

Even Luciana, the rail-thin 34-year-old Argentine who has been with Duvall for a decade, lent a hand. She spotted film in which Duvall and Scacchi were sitting with their feet in a river, speaking as actors, not characters, and Duvall asked, "What was that?" It seems he sometimes has trouble hearing from his left ear ? so why not stick that in as something that might afflict an aging cowboy? Duvall calls it "real behavior in real time that serves movie time."

He sent in their cut and the network people liked it, though they maintained final say. "We still don't know how it really, really ends," Duvall says just weeks before the premiere.

"There was a lot of pressure to ... have little bows on everything," Geoffrion adds. "Life isn't like that. People drift into your life and people drift out."

"Passing ships," says Duvall.

*

What lies ahead

DUVALL went out once on one of his dad's boats before the admiral retired at 50. He says his father never found anything as fulfilling as the Navy, trying real estate and selling silver, but mostly his folks "sat around."

His plan is to never retire, "not till they wipe the drool."

After that, "Maybe half of my ashes here and half in Argentina. Yeah ... I guess since I'm still a transient, all over. I leave it up to my wife."

He calls Luciana that at times while speaking with typical candor about his three failed marriages, how one wife made time with the pool man, and how he was caught talking too gleefully on a pay phone to someone not his spouse. He helped raise a couple of stepdaughters early on, but has no children of his own. And while he's read of a 100-year-old Russian who procreated with 20-year-old girls, Luciana will have to make do with "the wonderful nephews and nieces in Argentina."

The week before last, they made their way to New York for the premiere of "Broken Trail," Duvall again in black. He had already screened it for an audience ? at the White House ? and, one hopes, that went more smoothly. At the theater near Lincoln Center, the dialogue goes silent after an opening snippet, when Duvall rides onto the range to find his nephew, played by Church, who says, "What brings you out this far? Thought maybe you'd gone under." Duvall replies, "I ain't gone under yet. No, sir."

They finally fix the problem, and after Part 1 is finished, the cast and guests move to a party at a Chinese restaurant. Duvall holds court from a central table, teasing well wishers that they should be at the theater, watching Part 2.

"We missed our Uncle Bobby!" says Valerie Tian, 17, one of the Chinese Canadians who played the enslaved prostitutes-to-be. Wearing a terrorized look in the movie, the tiny teenager now flits gleefully about the party on new white platform shoes, the price tag still on them. She gives Duvall one last hug and reports, "I saw 'Apocalypse Now.' 'I love the smell of napalm in the morning!' But I have not yet seen 'The Godfather.' "

Duvall has a couple of other films coming out: the animated "Bee Movie," in which he's the voice of a crusty lawyer amid a horde of bees led by Jerry Seinfeld; and a Russian Mafia story, "We Own the Night," by young auteur James Gray, which he filmed this past spring as a last minute fill-in, in a supporting role.

Other than that he has no projects inked, he says, "None, none."

He has optioned a story by Alabama writer Michael Knight about racial conflict in a tiny Southern town, which, if he gets funding, would be an apt bookend to his first film, "To Kill a Mockingbird."

But he also has his eye on an Eric Roth script about the bloody Hatfields and McCoys feud, a project being nurtured by Brad Pitt's production company. Duvall hopes to play "Devil" Anse Hatfield, one of the clan's patriarchs. "He's like a devil, but he did good things. He had a sense of humor," Duvall says. "I think I know how to play that guy."

While in Canada, he got to lobby Pitt, who was there for a western too, one about Jesse James. Duvall said his approach would be to find pockets of West Virginia where people talk like they did a century ago, with a nasal twang. But "who knows who the director's going to envision?"

Robert Duvall ponders whether they might think another actor could better play Devil Anse.

"I'd like to think," he says, "there's none."

---- LA Times, 2006-06-25