From The Times
June 21, 2007

Always raising the stakes

Robert Duvall tells our correspondent that it is his insatiable curiosity that keeps driving him on
Will Lawrence

While shooting their latest movie, Lucky You, Eric Bana asked a question of his fellow actor Robert Duvall. "We were talking about the old days," he recalls, "the 1960s and 1970s, and I said, 'How did you survive? All your friends were doing loads of coke and going into rehab . . .' And he looked me at said: 'Hobbies! You got to be interested in other things'."

One of Hollywood's true elder statesmen, Duvall is a man to whom it is worth listening, and Bana's observation is readily borne out by the 76-year-old actor's interest in an eclectic mix of subjects. His liveliness belies his age, and as he settles down in one of the fancy antechambers in the Grand Hotel in Rome, he talks keenly on a range of topics, from politics to horses, from food to football.

"I've played so many characters, but never a professional poker player like L. C. Cheever," Duvall says of his character in the new film. "And, truth be told, I didn't know a straight from a flush. I had no desire to be a poker player in a movie so I had to kind of work backwards. I don't usually like to rehearse, but I really had to work for this."

Duvall's dedication to his profession seems as strong as ever, and while, for example, his old friend Gene Hackman has worked less and less, Duvall has kept on making films.

"I like working if I'm interested in the subject or the part," he says. "I'll stop working when they have to wipe the drool off me!"

Duvall's 45-year career began in the early 1960s, although it was during the golden age of 1970s American cinema, when the likes of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola kept an independent spirit burning within the studio system, that he first flourished. His five collaborations with Coppola alone constitute a small but highly distinguished career.

"You're right," he beams. "That would make a good small career, and I'll tell you what: in the early 1970s, when I did THX 1138 with George Lucas, which was my first lead role, I thought that guy would go on to be the greatest director of his generation. Greater even than Coppola, but I was wrong. When Coppola and I did The Rain People, I couldn't figure him, or maybe he couldn't figure me out, and while I enjoyed it and thought he was good, it was only when we did The Godfather that . . . well, I gave him a lot of respect for that."

For the first two Godfather films Coppola earned not only the respect of the man he cast as consigliari Tom Hagen, but also the respect of millions the world over. He shot two of the greatest films in the history of American cinema. And he shot them while under immense pressure from the studio.

"Even as he made it, there was a stand-by director there on set, in case the studio had to fire Coppola," Duvall says. "The hostility with Paramount was unbelievable.

"In fact, Jimmy Caan told me this wonderful story that the studio had wanted Marlon Brando to come in and do one scene for The Godfather: Part II. And one of things that Brando had put in the contract was that he'd only come and do it if they fired the head of the studio. Needless to say, he didn't come in and do the part!"

Brando may not have joined Duvall and Coppola for The Godfather: Part II, but the three were reunited on the trouble-plagued set of Apocalypse Now, in which Duvall's Colonel Kilgore earned him the second of his six Oscar nominations. In a recent BBC poll, Kilgore's iconic utterance "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" was voted the all-time most popular piece of movie dialogue.

"Apocalypse was an unforgettable experience," Duvall recalls. "It was crazy. Dennis Hopper was so hopped up on dope; he did 50 takes on one day. Or 48 at least. Francis was going nuts, screaming: 'Will you do it my way!' And Hopper said: 'Listen, mother******, I've directed, acted and played Gabby Hayes all in one movie, and what have you done?' It was a mess and we were lucky no one was killed.

"But what's funny is that while people internationally remember me most for Kilgore, in most of America people recognise me from Lonesome Dove. And of all the parts I've played, and while The Godfather was much better directed, Lonesome Dove is my favourite. I love westerns."

Duvall has appeared in a posse of westerns, from his early outings playing the likes of the legendary outlaw Jesse James in Minnesota Raid and nasty Ned Pepper in True Grit, right through to recent work like Open Range in 2003 and the mini-series Broken Trail, directed by Walter Hill. It was in the 1989 TV epic Lonesome Dove, however, that Duvall truly earned his spurs, undertaking all his own riding as he played the grizzled Texas Ranger Augustus McCrae.

"You have Shakespeare, the French have Molière, the Russians have Chekhov, America has the western," Duvall says. "I loved the character in that film. I did OK in The Godfather [for which he got his first Oscar nomination], but playing that Texas Ranger, well, I had eight hours to do it in! But I do love the genre as a whole, and I'm hoping to direct a western myself soon. It's about the Pony Express. I just need to raise the finance."

Should he raise the capital, the project would be his first outing behind the camera since he directed and starred in The Apostle a decade ago. That film, which told the tale of a Southern evangelist preacher, was well received, his performance on screen earning him another Best Actor nomination. He wanted to carry on directing, but could not find anything else within Hollywood that excited him.

"I get disillusioned with modern Hollywood," he says, "especially all these big-budget films. With $100 million you could make ten great independent films. It's a shame, although that can make it more interesting, searching for things that interest you, working with young people. You can learn a lot from them, as they can learn from you. You've got to keep learning and taking an interest. You got to have hobbies."

Given Duvall's remarkable longevity, this is a lesson well worth learning. Eric Bana, for one, has already taken note.

* Lucky You opens on Friday nationwide

---- Times Online (UK), June 21, 2007