Robert Duvall turns down movies with death scenes these days. "I've had three good death scenes," he laughs. "I don't want to die."
He's referring to his onscreen demise as a cattle-driver in Lonesome Dove, an L.A. cop in Colors, and as a military man in Geronimo. And at age 75, with more than 100 acting credits, he can afford to nix roles he doesn't like.
Make a list of America's iconic films, and Duvall will be in at least one of them. Minimum.Start with his first movie role-- as mysterious neighbor Boo Radley in the 1962 adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. He still remembers the telegram Harper Lee sent-- he still remembers telegrams!-- when he landed the role: "Hey there, Boo, congratulations."
"I just met Harper Lee for the first time about a year ago," he says over lunch at the Rail Stop, a restaurant he used to own in The Plains, the northern Virginia burg near his cattle farm/residence.
Of course, any top-10 list of movies will include The Godfather-- and Duvall was in parts I and II as the Corleone family consigliere, Tom Hagen. Despite some disagreements, Duvall still speaks highly of Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola. "When you get down to it, he made the best two, three movies," says Duvall, adding Apocalypse Now and The Conversation to his personal list.And who can forget Duvall as Lt. Col. Wagner in Apocalypse Now uttering the immortal line, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells like victory"? Just don't ask him how napalm smells. "Everybody asks that," he says, "and they act like only I know and they know." When he's channel surfing, Duvall won't watch his own movies. "I'm superstitious," he says, although an exception was The Godfather: Part II, when he ran across it a couple of years ago. Duvall will appear at the 19th Virginia Film Festival at an October 27 screening of his 1997 film, The Apostle, a fitting entry for the festival's theme, "Revelations: Finding God at the Movies." Duvall wrote, starred in, and directed The Apostle-- a labor of love that he calls a "personal quest" he financed himself. It paid off. "I made my money back, thank God," he says with relief. The screening at Charlottesville's Paramount Theater will be a chance for him to cross paths with Morgan Freeman, who's appearing the same night for his new movie, 10 Items or Less. Duvall says the two often bump into each other at the Four Seasons. And they share a fondness for certain roles. "Morgan likes playing cowboys," says the man who's been in the saddle in everything from TV's Lonesome Dove to John Wayne's epic, True Grit. Earlier on Friday the 27th, Duvall will host a screening of Tender Mercies, the 1983 film for which he won a best actor Oscar. Both that and The Apostle are sold-out events. With so many acting feathers in his cap, including six Academy Award nominations, he doesn't hesitate to name his worst movie experience. That distinction belongs to Broken Trail, the 2006 miniseries produced by his production company, Butcher's Run Films, for American Movie Channel. According to published accounts, Duvall and director Walter Hill had creative differences, with Duvall envisioning a character-driven piece while Hill favored more of a shoot-'em-up Western.
"It was horrible working with those people," declares Duvall. "They ruined it. We had to re-edit it."
However, Duvall doesn't spend much time looking back. He just finished filming We Own the Night, a New York crime drama in which he plays the father of "very talented" Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix. "I call him ˇ®Wack-keen'," he says of Phoenix.That affectionate moniker indicates the appreciation he feels for the current generation. "There are better actors than ever," he says. "One of my favorites is Brad Pitt. Ever see him in Snatch?" One of the best scripts Duvall says he's read lately is a Pitt-owned property about the Hatfields and McCoys. "I said, 'That was written for me.' Let's do it before I get too old." But Pitt didn't return his call. Nor did Matt Damon and Billy Bob Thornton. "Those guys are inaccessible," he says. He speaks fondly of Thornton, whose father he played in Sling Blade-- "the hillbilly Orson Welles," Duvall calls him. Maybe it's a Southern bond. Duvall was born in San Diego, where his father was in the Navy, but his family hails from Virginia. During the Civil War, his father's people were pro-Union Virginians who named his grandfather Abraham Lincoln Duvall. Duvall doesn't mention that he's related to Robert E. Lee. "So is everybody else," says the man who played the beloved Confederate leader in Gods and Generals, part of which was filmed at his farm in The Plains. As for the accent, he says, "I just talked like my father." Another accent he can nail is Spanish. "I speak it better than I can understand it," he admits. Still, his Spanish skills come in handy when he's visiting his favorite getaway, Argentina, a country he loves because of its tango and music. That's also where he met his fourth wife, Luciana Pedraza, who shares a January 5 birthday with him-- although the dates are separated by 41 years. In a bit of native-land reciprocity, he says, "My wife loves Virginia. She says this is the station before heaven." The couple was recently listed in Washington Life's September feature, "100 Most Invited," but Duvall claims he doesn't like going out all that much, even though, "We were at a British embassy thing last night." How did the reluctant socialite get into acting? "My parents pushed me into it," he says. He first stepped onstage as a harlequin clown in a mime play while attending Principia College in Illinois when he was 20 years old. "That was when I shifted my major," he says. "I was floundering." His nascent acting career was interrupted when he was drafted into the Army and sent to Korea. There he met British serviceman Michel Caine and a Marine named Gene Hackman. Duvall later studied with Hackman at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. During the struggling New York years, Duvall roomed with Dustin Hoffman. "We never hang out anymore," he muses. "I don't keep up with too many actors." He does remain on good terms with Coppola, despite a haggle over salary that resulted in Duvall being omited from The Godfather: Part III, an episode he won't discuss. "He says I'm ornery," allows Duvall, and he concedes there's a measure of truth in the characterization. "They say it's the actors who are hard to work with," he says, "but I'm convinced it's the producers and directors." And since the actor in front of the camera is what people remember about a movie, "An actor wants to protect his face," he explains. Which movie his face is associated with depends on where he is, he says. In NASCAR-lovin' North Carolina, it's Days of Thunder. If it's someone in L.A. with a boombox, "they'll say, ˇ®Hey, I saw Colors,'" he says. And for many, it's The Godfather and Lonesome Dove. For Duvall, his part in the latter is his favorite. Augustus "Gus" McCrae was a former Texas Ranger making one last cattle drive to Montana alongside his taciturn partner, played by Tommy Lee Jones. McCrae is an articulate ladies' man whose pursuit of pleasure does not necessarily include work. Duvall says it's the role that's closest to his own personality. "To this day, [author] Larry McMurtry says I should have played the other part," says Duvall. "I say he's out of touch." Unlike Gus, Duvall does devote time to his work, and plenty of it. "Whatever my niche is, all I want is what I have," he says. "I like what I do." Duvall, who still acts in multiple movies every year, says he might retire one day. And when will he know to hang it up? He chuckles, "When the drool comes, and they have to wipe it off."
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
October 26, 2006 in issue 0543 of the HooK