Tall hat, tall role for Duvall again

The actor saddles up once more for a uniquely American character.
Hal Boedeker | Sentinel Television Critic
Posted June 24, 2006
PASADENA, Calif. - His most popular role? That's easy, Robert Duvall says, picking Gus McCrae of Lonesome Dove.

Strangers bring up McCrae, a cantankerous cowboy in the 1989 miniseries, more often than Duvall's big-screen roles in The Godfather, Apocalypse Now or Tender Mercies, for which he won an Oscar.

"Even though it's television doesn't mean it can't be fine," Duvall tells TV critics. "I've seen performances on television that match anything in feature films. Depends on what it is and who the individual talent is."

Duvall, 75, saddles up for another TV Western in Broken Trail, a two-part miniseries that premieres Sunday and Monday on AMC. Duvall, who is an executive producer, talks effusively about the new project.

"I think our cast of actors [is] better than Lonesome Dove," he says. "I'm not saying it's going to be that good, but at least we have a standard to go to. And we tried hard."

Matching Lonesome Dove would be difficult, as that adaptation of Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel ranks among television's finest productions.

Still, Broken Trail gives Duvall another showy role that should please fans. He plays Print Ritter, a veteran cowboy who faces several major challenges in 1897. He's moving 500 horses from Oregon to Wyoming. He's trying to help his estranged nephew (Thomas Haden Church). On their difficult journey, the two men rescue five enslaved Chinese women who have been sold into prostitution.

Church, an Oscar nominee for Sideways, relished the chance to work with his idol after studying Duvall in True Confessions, The Great Santini and other films. Church relayed his feelings in a letter to Duvall after completing Broken Trail.

"I wrote in the note that he inspired me to choose acting as a profession for the dignity of it," Church says. "By virtue of working with him, he was going to inspire me really for the rest of my life."

Director Walter Hill says it was a privilege to work with Duvall during the 45-day shoot in Calgary. Their first film together was Geronimo: An American Legend, a 1993 Western.

"You're getting the creme de la creme," Hill says of Duvall.

Oscar voters have felt the same way, nominating Duvall six times. He was in the supporting category for The Godfather, Apocalypse Now and A Civil Action. He was in the lead category for The Great Santini, Tender Mercies and The Apostle.

He didn't win an Emmy for Lonesome Dove, a decision that still rankles award experts. (James Woods took the prize for My Name Is Bill W.) But Duvall recognizes he was part of something enduring.

"It is a great novel, and we try to approximate that quality in the film," Duvall says.

"The American cowboy and the Canadian cowboy and the South American cowboy relate to Lonesome Dove more than anything," he says. "And people say, 'When will you do another Lonesome Dove?' And I say, 'Not for another hundred years, because it's very unique.' "

Duvall says his character in Broken Trail could be a cousin to Gus McCrae. "McCrae, although he couldn't consummate things, was much better with women than this character," he says. "This guy is not good with women."

The actor cites the plot about the Chinese women as giving Broken Trail a distinctive wrinkle. Duvall says the public remains fascinated by Westerns even if fewer are made these days.

"When they do come out, people love them very much," he says. "The Western is ours. I always say the English have Shakespeare. The French have Moliere. The Russians have Chekhov, and so forth and so on. The Western is uniquely ours."

---- Orlando Sentinel, 2006-06-24