Robert Duvall

by JOE LEYDON


Sissey Spacek says working with her Oscar-winning costar in Get Low was a great ride. "He doesn't act the character, he becomes the character. And so, really, when you're working with Bobby, you just ahve to react. It's that easy."
Photography by W. Ben Glass

Robert Duvall is chuckling heartily, amused by memories of a years-ago encounter with a difficult costar on a half-forgotten film. We’re tucked away in a quiet corner of the spacious lobby of a luxurious Los Angeles hotel, largely hidden from the view of passersby, and our freewheeling conversation often has an almost conspiratorial tone.

“Excuse me,” interrupts a dark-suited, scrupulously polite hotel functionary standing next to our table. We are slightly startled, having failed to notice the man’s arrival during Duvall’s discourse. But Duvall smiles politely, then nods, as though encouraging the man to speak. I half-expect him to ask for an autograph and suspect, judging from Duvall’s body language, that Duvall does, too. But no.

The hotel functionary asks: “Are you Mr. John Doe?” [Name changed to protect the innocent.] Duvall: “Uh, no.” Hotel functionary: “Sorry.” And then the functionary departs.

This brief interlude strikes me as so odd — so ludicrous — that I can’t help marveling: “He didn’t recognize who you were?”

Duvall laughs, shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders. “Actually, that sort of thing happens all the time. It’s like, a few weeks ago, I was at this club in Dallas for an event. Real crowded. I was kind of jammed against a wall. And every so often, this guy walks by and sort of nods, like he’s not going to let anybody else know that he knows me. Like he’s the only guy in the place who recognizes me. And then, finally, he stops by me, sticks up his thumb, and goes: ‘Yeah! Terry Bradshaw!’ ”

For many, if not most, actors, being mistaken for another celebrity — or, worse, for a non-celebrity — might be nothing short of an ego-bruising trauma. But not for Robert Duvall, an actor who has long prided himself on being a chameleon, who has amassed a prolific and prodigious string of film, stage, and television credits by dint of his ability to immerse himself, completely and seamlessly, into an astonishing variety of parts.

Consider the diversity: everything from loyal mob lawyer (The Godfather) to washed-up country singer (Tender Mercies), savvy corporate attorney (A Civil Action) to surfing Vietnam warrior (Apocalypse Now), tough-loving father (The Great Santini) to guilt-ridden evangelist (The Apostle). And, mind you, those are just the performances for which he’s received Oscar nominations (or, in the case of Tender Mercies, the Best Actor prize itself).

Sissy Spacek, Duvall’s costar in the upcoming period drama Get Low, admiringly says, “He’s such anamazing actor that he simply is the character. He doesn’t act the character, he becomes the character. And so, really, when you’re working with Bobby, you just have to react. It’s that easy. You just show up, and he’s like this engine. All you have to do is catch this moving train. You get a great ride when you work with Bobby.”

Robert Duvall in Lonesome Dove

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Duvall starred in the classic miniseries Lonesome Dove as Gus McCrae.
Photography ©Getty Images/Bill Witliff

Of all the characters he’s “become,” Duvall will admit to a certain partiality for iconic western heroes and villains: Gus McCrae, the grizzled ex-Texas Ranger who leads an epic cattle drive in the classic miniseries Lonesome Dove. Prentice Ritter, the cowboy who becomes an unlikely savior for a group of abused and abandoned Chinese girls during a cross-country horse drive to Wyoming in AMC’s top-rated Broken Trail. Boss Spearman, a free-range cattleman who backs his longtime partner and friend (Kevin Costner) during a dispute with a small-town tyrant in Open Range. And, going back a few decades, a wild-eyed, short-fused Jesse James opposite Cliff Robertson’s Cole Younger in The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, and a smart-mouthed, quick-triggered Ned Pepper who runs afoul of a certain “one-eyed fat man” in True Grit.

(Not incidentally, Duvall expects the worst from Joel and Ethan Coen’s remake of the latter film: “I don’t know why they’re doing that.” He’s certain that Jeff Bridges, with whom he recently appeared in Crazy Heart, will do a fine job filling in for John Wayne as lawman Rooster Cogburn, “because Jeff is a wonderful actor. But I don’t know why they want to do a remake.”)

Any westerns in his future? “I like westerns, and I would do some more,” Duvall says. “But I have to prepare myself. I’m 79. And when you get to be my age — if I want to do another western, I’ve got to ease myself back into it. Back when I did Lonesome Dove, I was riding everything. Anything and everything. Jumping horses, everything. But when I did Broken Trail, I had to buy a horse a year in advance to get ready. See, I busted six ribs before I did Open Range. Landed on my head once, too.”

And then there was a time, early in his career, when Duvall took a nasty spill from a pony. No, seriously: a pony. And not in a movie, mind you, but in real life.

It was back in the mid-1960s, when he was scaring audiences nightly as a singularly sinister psycho in the original Broadway production of Wait Until Dark. On a day off, he thought he would take his daughter’s pony, normally housed in a New Jersey stable, for a little canter through the countryside. This was a big mistake.

“You know,” says Duvall, suddenly straight-faced and serious, “ponies can be wacko. I was riding in the woods, without a saddle. And somehow this pony — on purpose — took me into a tree. So now I’m on the ground, practicing my line readings: ‘Help! Help! Help!’ And it took about an hour before somebody came. Some kids came by — and so naturally, they started throwing rocks at me. I had my head shaved for the part I was doing in Wait Until Dark on Broadway, so I guess I looked weird to these kids. But finally they brought an ambulance. And I got to call my wife at the time. She said, ‘Where are you? Dinner’s waiting. When are you gonna get home?’ And I said, ‘I don’t want to alarm you, honey, but I’m in the hospital ... .’ ”

Duvall fares MUCH better opposite the quirky but relatively complacent mule valued by his character in Get Low, a Depression-era folk tale that’s due in theaters this summer after gaining considerable acclaim on the international film festival circuit. It’s the first feature directed by Aaron Schneider — who earned an Oscar for his William Faulkner-inspired short film Two Soldiers — but it surrounds Duvall with some very experienced costars. In addition to Spacek, the cast includes Bill Murray, Lucas Black, and Gerald McRaney.

McRaney admits that his part is relatively small — just a handful of scenes, actually — “but the chance to work with Robert Duvall was all I needed,” he says. “When I was first starting out as an actor ages ago, Robert Duvall was the benchmark — that was who you wanted to be if you worked your tail off and were blessed with enough talent. That was the goal — to be that good.”

The first day McRaney worked with Duvall on location in Georgia, “I got so caught up watching him work that I was out of the scene,” McRaney says. “I had to stop and start again because I was so captivated just watching him work. It’s so simple, so honest, so real — it sort of takes your breath away.”

Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek in Get Low

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Duvall stars with Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray in the upcoming Get Low.
Photography ©Zanuck Independent

McRaney isn’t the only one who’s been impressed by Duvall’s compelling portrayal of Felix Bush, a notorious hermit who rejoins society only to plan his own funeral. Indeed, there’s already been talk about another Best Actor nomination for the veteran actor. And while he’s been in the business far too long to pay much attention to early buzz, however flattering it might be, Duvall is proud of his work in Get Low and ranks Felix among the most complex and demanding roles he’s ever played.

“I thought Felix was a very important part,” he says, “and a wonderful character to do at this point in my career. Felix has been maybe not such a great guy at various points in his life, but now he’s moved to ask for a certain forgiveness at the end. He’s at a point where he wants to get things off his chest, to clear his conscience, to make himself right with his Maker.”

As for the movie’s title, “We had a lot of talk about [the meaning of ‘get low’] while we were making the film, back-and-forth,” Duvall says. “I think it means get down to your Savior, to your beliefs. Before you go under the earth, while you’re still on the earth, to supplicate yourself to Jesus Christ in a humble way.”

Like many classic American folk tales, the story of Felix Bush is rooted in true-life experiences. The real Felix “Bush” Breazeale was born into a prominent Southern family but became infamous in the Depression era for his wild and eccentric ways. For years, Felix lived completely alone, refusing all company — except for his beloved mule — deep in the woods of East Tennessee. But then, suddenly, Felix decided that he’d like to know in advance what people would say about him after he died. So he hatched an outrageous idea for a “living funeral” that, thanks to widespread radio and newspaper coverage, wound up commandin national attention.

To draw a sizeable crowd to his premature memorial, Felix sold lottery tickets offering his valuable plot of land as the prize. The ploy worked: According to contemporary accounts, as many as 12,000 “mourners” from at least 14 different states — including a Life magazine photographer and major newspaper reporters — came on June 26, 1938, to pay their respects to Felix — who watched it all transpire. Afterward, Felix told the Roane County Banner: “Just wanted to hear what the preacher had to say about me while I am alive.” From these stranger-than-fiction events, scriptwriters Chris Provenzano (Mad Men) and C. Gaby Mitchell (Blood Diamond) crafted a screenplay that immediately attracted Duvall’s interest — and sustained that interest during the several years producer Dean Zanuck devoted to finding financing for the independent production.

“The writing reminded me of my friend, Horton Foote, who passed away [in 2009]. There are wonderful things to this script, things like you find in a Horton Foote script — just with more of an edge,” Duvall says.


Duvall won an Oscar for his role as a country singer in Tender Mercies
Photography ©EMI/Antron Media/Kobal Collection

No small compliment: Duvall made his movie debut as Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), taken from Horton Foote’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel, and later received an Oscar as the star of Tender Mercies (1983), for which Foote earned his second Oscar as a scriptwriter. Get Low, Duvall adds, “offers a deep slice of humanity, and with the great actors we have, we’ve tried to make it as real as possible.”

Even so, at least one of those actors — Bill Murray, audaciously and effectively cast as Frank Quinn, the funeral home proprietor who accepts Felix as a customer — took a while to warm to the project.

“I really don’t like to work,” Murray says with his trademark deadpan snarkiness, “so it was a drag when I read the script and it was really good. Then I saw the director’s Academy Award-winning short, and that was really good. I was actually quite comfortable just going out to dinner to discuss the film. But Dean Zanuck and Aaron Schneider just wore me down and I knew I had to do it. Plus, I figured I’d get to find out what it’s like to work with Robert Duvall.”

That experience, Murray says, was inspiring. “Robert is a unique cat,” he says. “There’s only one drum that’s marching in that head, so when you watch him work, he’s just a magnet. It was a lot of fun to watch him carry this relentless confessional story all the way to its conclusion.”

Indeed, Get Low is most appealing during scenes in which Murray’s deadpan wit plays off Duvall’s dour irascibility, and both actors seem to effortlessly bring out the best in each other. And if Murray seems just a tad overmatched, that’s entirely appropriate for the relationship between the two characters. “Is it just me,” Frank asks his assistant after losing at wordplay with Felix, “or is he extremely articulate when he wants to be?”

Duvall’s reaction to Murray as a costar? “My first question was, ‘Is this guy a smartass?’ Because I’d heard he was a smartass.

“And he is, kind of. But that works. And he’s got this edge. But that’s okay. He’s an inquisitive guy. He wanted to learn something about the tango, so my wife and I taught him a few tango steps. And he’s a talented guy. So we got along fine. Look, I believe that artists are tremendously competitive. Viciously competitive at times. But not on this. We knew — Bill, Sissy, all of us — we were there to help each other, support each other.”

Robert Duvall

EnlargePhotography by W. Ben Glass

After completing promotional chores for Get Low, Duvall is looking forward to rest and recreation back home in Virginia, where he and actress Luciana Pedraza, his Argentinean-born wife of six years, reside in a beautifully restored 18th-century home on their 360-acre ranch in The Plains. They keep “just a couple” of horses — “I really don’t do much riding these days,” he says — but that doesn’t mean he won’t get back in the saddle for the right role. In fact, he may have to ride quite a bit — and carry a lance! — if director Terry Gilliam is able to follow through on plans to direct Duvall in a fanciful retelling of Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

As our conversation draws to a close, I feel compelled to ask what, under the circumstances, seems an apt question: What would Robert Duvall like to hear folks say about him at his own funeral?

“Wow!” Duvall appears surprised, then intrigued, by the question. He pauses, gathers his thoughts, then responds: “I honestly don’t know. I guess the older we get, the more we think of those things. But I don’t know. I guess whatever they want to say. Maybe that from the cradle to the grave, I made my own journey without stepping on too many toes. And maybe there’s some good work that I left behind.”

And as for the final ceremony itself? Again, laughter. “I’ll leave it to my wife,” Duvall says, “to kind of choreograph all that whenever it happens.”

Issue: July 2010

--- Cowboys & Indians, July 2010