NEW YORK - Actor Robert Duvall got into life in the West as a child, when he'd visit his uncle in northern Montana and hang out with ranch hands.
He has loved Westerns ever since.
"Westerns are our kind of thing, not that we own them, but in America they're our thing," says Duvall, 75, who stars Sunday and Monday at 8ET/PT in Broken Trail, AMC's first original movie and miniseries, which he produced. "I look at this as the end of a trilogy for me, starting with Lonesome Dove and Open Range."
In Trail, directed by Walter Hill (48 Hours), Duvall plays a gruff rancher named Print, slightly reminiscent of his iconic Dove character, Gus. He teams up with his estranged nephew Tom (Sideways' Thomas Haden Church) for a horse drive from Oregon to Wyoming. "Gus and Print could be relatives, but Gus was a little better with the ladies," Duvall says.
Duvall, who keeps a horse at his home in Virginia, did nearly all of his riding in the film, and he grew a moustache and took on an accent "with a hard R to give it a flavor."
Duvall notes that a strong sense of morality, a staple of Westerns, runs throughout the miniseries. "Maybe things were more black and white back then," he says. He calls Trail "a good tonic for the nation. I think people will respond to it nicely because there are so many negative things in the news, in entertainment."
AMC programmer Rob Sorcher says that the cable classic-movie network, which unveiled its first series, Hustle, this season, chose a Western for its first movie because AMC has always had success with the genre.
"We were looking for something that would capture an audience that was already watching us, and draw to the widest possible audience, which goes immediately to Westerns," he said. "And a Western also allows us to present what we're very successful with, which is iconic stars" such as Duvall.
During the horse drive (filmed in the Canadian Rockies), the two men meet up with five enslaved Chinese women, who are destined for forced prostitution, in this history-based drama by Duvall's friend, writer Alan Geoffrion.
That gives the movie "a new take" on the Western, Sorcher said. "The movie has the heroes, the journey and a sense of drama of going place to place, but you also have the plight of five girls on the trail. The men are unprepared to take care of them, but they take on this task. That's a new layer."
Duvall, a big fan of tango dancing, does an impromptu two-step in Trail. "We just kind of improvised that scene. A lot can happen if you just let it - without predetermining too much."
He has several films in the works and other projects that may or may not pan out. There's enough acting work ahead, he says with a laugh, to keep him busy "until the drool comes."
"None of the cowboys and ranchers I know think much of it at all," says Duvall, who summered in Montana as a child. Ranch hands there, he says, used a fraction of Deadwood's profanity. "I get the feeling that it's a provincial New Yorker's concept of what the West was like."
But The Sopranos is a different story, says Duvall, who famously played lawyer Tom Hagen in The Godfather and Godfather II. Actors in the HBO Mob drama "were born to play those parts. The show is stunning in its authenticity."
He ranks The Godfather movies and CBS' Lonesome Dove miniseries among his best works. The Godfather "was brilliantly directed and conceived," he says. Lonesome Dove was special because "there were so many hours to develop Gus. He had so many contradictions."
Duvall was in New York recently, promoting Broken Trail and taking in restaurants. He loves pizza - and asks for recommendations - and says Argentina, where he and his wife, Luciana, own a small hotel, has some of the best.
The Duvalls and friends spent an evening at the White House recently, invited by President and Laura Bush for a screening of Broken Trail. Bush, he says, is "much less intellectual" than President Clinton, with whom he once spent two hours at a dinner, but "a very bright guy, very focused - and he'll excuse himself and go to bed at 9 o'clock."
And there's something special about a visit to the White House, no matter who the occupant is, Duvall says. "For all our perceived or real faults, we're OK as far as I'm concerned. We're not as bad as a lot of people think. Why would 5,000 people want to come over the wall a day to get here if it was that bad? That's the way I look at it."
---- USA Today, 2006-06-22