PASADENA, CALIF. - Five reporters stand around Robert Duvall, and one asks what the Oscar-winning actor would do if he weren't a performer.
"If I weren't an actor? Maybe a rancher, I don't know," he replies.
Don't be deceived by the brevity of his answer. Duvall is surprisingly amiable, and there's no hint, other than the deference of those around him, that he's aware of his greatness; 43 years of acting with dozens of roles and six Academy Award nominations for acting. He laughs and responds to any question thrown at him. He's 74 and in no hurry.
Duvall is here to discuss Broken Trail, the first original film by cable network American Movie Classics, which will air the two-part drama in June. He co-stars with Thomas Haden Church.
Duvall and Church go back before Broken Trail, kind of. They share a chuckle over their first meeting, more than 15 years ago at the Adolphus hotel in Dallas.
"No, I don't remember," Duvall says about the encounter, his blue eyes twinkling and his lips curving upward. But Church evidently has told him about it.
"He was the concierge," Duvall says. "He helped me with my bags."
On a more serious note, Duvall thinks Broken Trail could be another Lonesome Dove if it comes out right.
It's not a brag, just a comparison. One that comes naturally.
Print Ritter, the part he plays, is a veteran cowboy. He and his nephew (Church) undertake an arduous 1,000-mile horse drive from Oregon to Wyoming.
In Lonesome Dove, the 1989 TV miniseries based on Larry McMurtry's best-selling novel, he was Augustus McCrae, a Texas Ranger who, purely for the sake of adventure, led a cattle drive from Texas to Montana. He partnered with another crusty Ranger (Tommy Lee Jones).
"That was my favorite (role), Lonesome Dove," he says. "I don't care if it's television, off-Broadway, Broadway, film ?that was my favorite.
"(But) I like this (new one) a lot. It's right up there. They're like cousins. If we get it right."
Duvall is the project's executive producer. Walter Hill (The Warriors, 48 Hours) is the director. Hill is still cutting, so further details about the film are scant.
So Duvall took the opportunity to comment on his great career. He recalls his Oscar win, a best actor honor for Tender Mercies. Did he realize it was going to change his career?
"It didn't change my career. It made me a little more important at airports.
"But the night I won it, I ran to the urinal and placed my Oscar on top."
He laughs gustily.
"It's sitting on our farm in Virginia on the mantel. And across from it ?and I say this with great pride ?I have a letter from Marlon Brando that I maybe like even better than my Oscar. He had some nice things to say to me about The Apostle (the 1997 film Duvall directed)."
Duvall won't say what the letter said. He changes the subject and talks about young actors today.
"I think the bar has been raised. Maybe we've helped, I don't know. I think the young actors are better than ever. I really do. I'm not saying they're more interesting than the old guys, 'cause all those old guys, Cagney and others, were great personalities. But the level of acting has come up. ... I think they're more advanced at a young age, more than certainly I was. I was always kind of a late bloomer and (I'm) still kinda bloomin'."
This from Boo Radley (To Kill a Mockingbird, his first movie, 1962).
This from Frank Burns (M*A*S*H) and Tom Hagen (The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II). From Frank Hackett and Bull Meechum (Network, The Great Santini). Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore, Mac Sledge, Max Mercy (Apocalypse Now, Tender Mercies, The Natural). From Sonny Dewey (The Apostle).
Next will be Broken Trail's Print Ritter, as Duvall is still kinda bloomin'.