Robert Duvall, Still Living 'In The Potential'

June 1, 2010

"It's like kids playing house: 'You play the father, I'll play the mother.' ... You know, you dress up, you play, they pay, you go home. It's a game acting's a game."
Robert Duvall

Acting's a game that Robert Duvall has played as well and as long as just about anyone. He was Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962, urbane broadcast executive Frank Hackett in 1976's Network, the spirit-driven Texas preacher Sonny Dewey in 1997's The Apostle.

Just last year, he was Jeff Bridges' bar-owning buddy in Crazy Heart and at age 79, he's got a new movie, called Get Low, coming out next month.

This week, Duvall is auctioning off a prize to benefit The Robert Duvall Children's Fund: a visit to his own heavenly patch of Virginia horse country and a personal acting workshop.

"You know, I demonstrate little exercises to boil it down to the basics of just talking and listening, the way we're doing now," Duvall tells NPR's Robert Siegel.

"To do that is the beginning and end of acting for me. And it's not as easy as it looks sometimes. To basically just talk and listen and keep it simple. And whatever way it goes, it goes."

Sound too easy?

"It's very simple, but it's not that easy to do always," Duvall says. "Everybody says, 'Oh you're just yourself up there.' I say, well, try it. Try it."

There are techniques that can help smooth the way, Duvall says, some of them rooted in the Stanislavski method.

"You have to treat it as if it's the first time you've ever heard it, even though you may have rehearsed it," he says. "It's difficult to do sometimes. Sometimes you can break that by doing an actual improvisation, but if the writing is very good, as it was in Get Low, then you don't need to improvise so much. ... And sometimes you know, the first take, that's it. We don't have to do it 78 times like Stanley Kubrick did."

Shared Dreams, And A Common Hero

Before he played Maj. Frank Burns in M*A*S*H, before his Oscar-winning turn as a broke-down country singer in Tender Mercies, Robert Duvall was a young actor in New York. At one point, he shared a place with Dustin Hoffman at Broadway and 107th. Gene Hackman had introduced them to each other.

"We all three, we palled around together," Duvall says. "You know, talked and had our dreams and talked about our dreams and so forth what we wanted in life and what we wanted out of our profession. And now I never see these guys. I never see these guys."

Back in the day, though, they were on the same page.

"There was a sort of naive confidence, us saying one kind of thing, like 'We're going to make it.' But we didn't know if we were going to make it," Duvall says.

And they had one shared icon.

"If we mentioned Brando's name once, we'd mention it 25 times in a day," Duvall says. "He was kind of like our guy that we looked to."

One of Duvall's treasures he says it means as much to him as the Oscar he won for Tender Mercies is a framed letter from Marlon Brando, who'd seen Duvall die in a particular way in a Western, and was impressed enough that he tried the same approach in a movie of his own. In the letter, he confesses to Duvall that he couldn't pull it off.

Younger audiences, especially those who know Brando only from his later movies, have trouble sometimes grasping what Brando meant to actors and to acting in the 1950s.

"I think he was kind of like a a revolutionary example," Duvall says. "He presented a certain kind of realism that was very startling. You'd never seen it before. I mean, he was willing to do nothing."

Like listening convincingly, doing nothing on a stage or on-screen in an interesting way can be incredibly challenging.

"Some people say, 'Do you have any theories on acting?' And I say, well maybe: I think you can start with zero and end with zero," Duvall says. "You don't have to go anywhere, you don't have to go for the result. And I think Brando kind of showed that to people as a young actor. And then he got jaded and didn't like acting, and people went after him and criticized him, but when you really looked at his work, it was really startling to see what he could do in a realistic way."

'Always Looking For What's Out There'

Duvall would eventually work with Brando, of course in The Godfather, and in Apocalypse Now, where his Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore gave us that deathless line about the smell of napalm in the morning and he anchored the TV miniseries of Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. That epic tale of the American West, in which he played the philosopher cowboy Gus McCrae, is the project he mentions when he's asked what work sums him up best.

"Yeah," Duvall says, confessing that McCrae is still his favorite part. "When I walked into the dressing room one day, I said, 'Boys, we're making the Godfather of Westerns.' "

Some actors, having made both The Godfather and "the Godfather of Westerns," might retire quietly to a horse farm and practice the tango. Duvall is famously passionate about both but he remains deeply engaged with his career. Ask him what he still wants to do, and this is what he'll tell you: "I don't know, do it till they wipe the drool?"

"I mean, I've got a few things I want to do," he says, "things ... that are just as challenging and as exciting, or more so, than 20 years ago. But it's very difficult to raise money nowadays, unless you're a big big star. ... Right now there's a wonderful script on the Hatfields and the McCoys, which is really like American Shakespeare. It's a brilliant, brilliant script."

And there's another project, sufficiently unlike that feuding-frontier-clan story to underscore how diverse Duvall's career has always been: "They want me to play Don Quixote de la Mancha."

"I said to Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse way back, 'I always want to think of myself in the potential,' " Duvall remembers. "What's next? I can always grow a little bit, and try to do something different. So I'm always looking for what's out there the potential."

--- NPR, June 1, 2010