Duvall goes for flavor, not flash in 'Get Low'

G. Allen Johnson, Chronicle Staff Writer
San Francisco Chronicle
August 1, 2010 04:00 AM

There are a lot of things to recommend San Francisco as a destination, but Robert Duvall came up with a new one - at least, you won't find it in any of the travel guides.

"One time when I broke up with my wife, I came up for four days, five days with friends," Duvall said. "I said, 'This is the perfect place to go through a divorce.' That was a great time."


Russell Yip / The Chronicle

Then he let out one of his distinctive guffaws, as he did before saying "Charlie don't surf!" in "Apocalypse Now," and settled into a couch in a suite at the St. Francis Hotel, the sun pouring in on a beautiful late April afternoon. That night he would receive an award for his lifetime's work at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Although he looks every bit of his 79 years - his weathered countenance is one of the keys to his enduring success - Duvall doesn't seem like a man soon to enter his ninth decade. Still trim, he's wearing an open-collared shirt, jeans and cowboy boots and has just come from a big lunch (he's a huge foodie, and publicity tours are for him an opportunity to canvass a town's restaurants).

He's rarin' to go. The occasion for the hourlong chat was his new film, "Get Low," which opens Friday. Set in the rural Deep South in the 1930s, the film stars Duvall as a hermit who emerges from 40 years of isolation in the woods to ask an undertaker (Bill Murray) to arrange for a "living funeral," in which anyone who's ever heard a story about him - and there are some doozies - is invited to come tell it to his face.

Naturally, that sets the whole town talkin', and some of that talk is about a woman (Sissy Spacek) from his past. Based on a true incident and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Aaron Schneider, "Get Low" seems destined to become one of Duvall's signature roles.

"I've always been a late bloomer," said Duvall, who didn't become a star until he'd been acting for almost two decades. "I'm starting to get - if the money (for the budget) comes through - as good a project now as ever in my past. This being one of them.

"It's not a flashy part, because there's a lot going on inside. I went for the flavor of my father's family - though they're not quite from the Deep South. My people are from the mediums of Virginia."

Although he was born in San Diego - his father was in the military - Duvall considers Virginia his home. (He splits his time between there and a residence in Buenos Aires, his favorite city and his wife's hometown.) A descendant of Civil War general Robert E. Lee, Duvall's most enduring characters often have had a Southern, no-BS bent to them.

In a way, Duvall's crotchety old Felix Bush in "Get Low" is a chance to see how Boo Radley might have turned out. Duvall's first notable role, of course, was as the small-town hermit in the classic 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee's novel "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Although that film was a smash hit (star Gregory Peck won an Oscar) and Duvall made a lifelong friend out of "Mockingbird" screenwriter Horton Foote, whose wife, Lillian, had suggested him for the role after seeing him on the New York stage, it would be another decade before Duvall broke through as Tom Hagen, the Corleone family attorney in "The Godfather."

In the meantime, he worked steadily throughout the '60s in television (episodes of "The Twilight Zone," "The Outer Limits" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" among his appearances) and films (a villain in "True Grit," Maj. Frank Burns in Robert Altman's "MASH" and the star of George Lucas' first foray into science fiction, the low-budget "THX 1138").

Since becoming a star he has had plenty of high-profile urban roles in films such as "Network" and supporting work in big-budget films, including some Jerry Bruckheimer productions.

But Duvall will be most remembered for, and is most comfortable playing, rural characters. He specializes in men self-imprisoned against a backdrop of open land, such as his Oscar-winning role, written by Foote, as the alcoholic country singer in "Tender Mercies"; the retired Texas ranger driving cattle in "Lonesome Dove" and now the hermit of "Get Low."

"I feel fortunate in the last 30 years of the last century to be in the two biggest phenoms in 'Godfather' I and II and 'Lonesome Dove,' " Duvall said. " 'Lonesome Dove' is my signature performance, for me. Wherever I go - more than 'The Searchers,' it's the cowboy's bible. The overall arc of that novel was like Dostoyevsky - it was a helluva novel by (Larry) McMurtry. (Early in the shoot) I went into the tent and said, 'Boys, we're going to make the "Godfather" of Westerns.'

"But it always comes back to 'The Godfather.' The first ones are two of the best films ever made. About a quarter of the way into it, we knew we had something special. They had a guy on the set ready to take over if Coppola couldn't handle it. I gained a lot of respect for (Coppola), working under those conditions. You have to really look to Francis as the guy who pulled that off."

Coppola became a friend and, as with Foote, Duvall would send them screenplays on films he was preparing to direct for feedback. Duvall has directed four films, most notably "The Apostle," in which he starred as a troubled evangelist.

"I got a nice letter from Marlon Brando about that," Duvall laughed. "I put it on the wall. I like it better than my Oscar!"

He says he's still up for the rigors of directing, but he is now preparing to play the lead in Terry Gilliam's time travel project, "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote."

Duvall might feel an affinity toward inwardly conflicted rural characters like his part in "Get Low," but he seems exactly the opposite of a man preparing for his funeral.

"Life's good now," Duvall smiled. "The older you get, it's always Christmas. I like to hang around with younger people.

"I still try to think of myself in the potential."

Catching Up With Robert Duvall

The early years: Duvall began on the New York stage in the 1950s, where two of his best friends were Gene Hackman and onetime roommate Dustin Hoffman.

The later years: He has been married to his fourth wife, Argentine actress and director Luciana Pedraza, for six years (they've been together for 13) and divides his time between his home, Virginia, and hers, Buenos Aires. Perfect start to a day: "I get up. We walk up the (street). You keep going, there's a racetrack, and two world-class polo fields. Then I go to a cafe across from where Eva Peron is buried, the kind that stays open until 3 in the morning and opens up again at 8, and have a coffee."

Did you know?: Duvall leans Republican and endorsed John McCain in the 2008 election. Is a huge fan of international soccer, American football and dancing.

Favorite San Francisco experience: Playing a cabdriver in all of about three scenes in the Steve McQueen action flick "Bullitt" (1968). "I had a great time working here. I rented a house above Green Street, I really liked it. ... I worked the second three days, then I had 5 1/2 weeks off. With pay! (laughs) And per diem!"

On taking almost two decades to become a star: "It was OK, because even if I had quit after doing Horton Foote ("To Kill a Mockingbird") and Coppola ("The Godfather"), it would have been a fine mini-career."

Five films he'll be remembered for:

"To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962) Boo Radley rocks!

"The Godfather" (1972) Got the Corleones out of jams.

"Apocalypse Now" (1979) Napalm "smells like victory."

"Tender Mercies" (1983) Wins Oscar as country singer.

"Lonesome Dove" (1989) "The cowboy's bible."

--- San Francisco Chronicle, August 1, 2010