Robert Duvall has appeared in some of the greatest movies ever made and played an array of iconic film and television roles. So, what has been the key to his success during a distinguished career spanning more than 60 years in which he has won an Academy Award, four Golden Globe Awards, a BAFTA Award, two Primetime Emmy Awards, and a Screen Actors Guild Award?
“Leave me alone,” the 91-year-old actor said bluntly but endearingly of what he has always sought from his directors. “See what I bring rather than superimposing your perceptions and concept. [Francis Ford] Coppola (who directed Duvall in 1972’s The Godfather, 1974’s The Conversation, and 1979’s Apocalypse Now) was very good at that. He wanted to see what you would bring to the table, which is a sign of a more than competent and outstanding director. I loved working with Coppola.”
Duvall recently shared his insights on acting, directing, and screenwriting during a conversation with students from Hollins University’s graduate programs in screenwriting and film studies. The event was made possible by writer/producer Colleen Hahn, a screenwriting student who first met Duvall on the set of Tender Mercies, the 1983 film that earned him a Best Actor Oscar.
“Colleen came to me and said, ‘Do you think we have any room in our schedule to talk to Robert Duvall?’” said Brian Price, director of the screenwriting and film studies programs. “I think my reaction was something like, ‘We’ll reschedule everything we have to bring Tom Hagen (Duvall’s unforgettable role in The Godfather) to talk to us in person.’”
In paying tribute to Coppola, Duvall recalled arriving in the Philippines to work on Apocalypse Now. “The name of the character was Colonel Carnage, and it was ridiculous the way it was written. So, I said to Coppola, ‘Let me do some research.’ I got with a guy who’d been a helicopter pilot in Vietnam and he told me about the air cavalry. That helped me craft a part that made sense. Colonel Carnage was a joke, really.” Influenced as well by his own time in the service and his father’s military career, Colonel Carnage became Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore. The character would proclaim what Duvall said is one of his favorite lines of dialogue from his roles, and one of the most memorable from any film: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells like victory.”
Duvall used the anecdote in part to emphasize his firm belief that “research, research, research” is essential to crafting an impactful script. “Immerse yourself in the subject matter and then put forth something that you love. I haven’t written that many screenplays, but sometimes I just sit down and start writing and just see where it goes. I go from A to B to C to D and just follow the logic of the script.”
As an actor, Duvall noted that when he reads a script, “I look for whether I can take what’s in ink and turn it into organized behavior. ‘From ink to behavior’ is what I call it. You let your imagination take over and encompass you and propel your ideas into results.”
One of Duvall’s triumphs as an actor, director, producer, and screenwriter was 1997’s The Apostle, in which he played a Pentecostal preacher. “I was doing an off-Broadway play where I played a guy from Hughes, Arkansas. I was coming back from California and I got off the plane and thought maybe I’d like to go to Hughes to see what it’s really like there.”
While walking down the street he came upon a Pentecostal church and decided to go in. “A woman was preaching. It was the first time I had ever seen something like it. I never forgot it and that was my guide in writing The Apostle.”
Duvall said he chose to avoid going “the Hollywood route” to get The Apostle made because he feared “they wouldn’t have taken this real sense of the subject matter.” As a result, “it was quite a few years before I could actually get it done. I also put up my own money.”
The Apostle earned critical acclaim (Roger Ebert said it was “a lesson in how movies can escape from convention and penetrate the hearts of rare characters”), but the reaction from two people particularly resonated with Duvall.
“I understand that Billy Graham liked it and I know for a fact that Marlon Brando liked it. So, I got it from the religious and the secular. We tried to present this aspect of a truly American art form, the American preacher, and tried to show him without any ‘Hollywood’ around him. We made it a personal film about that clapboard church I’d seen maybe 18 or 20 years before.”
Brando’s approval was especially gratifying to Duvall. As young actors starting out years ago, “Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, and I used to meet at Cromwell’s Drugstore in New York City once a week. If we mentioned Brando’s name once, we mentioned it 25 times. He was our guy, a hero to us.” Later when he first worked with him, Duvall said Brando told him, “Screw the director. Do what you want to do.”
When asked about the roles he’s enjoyed the most, Duvall cited Walter, the retired Cuban barber he played opposite Richard Harris’s Irish seaman in 1993’s Wrestling Ernest Hemingway and the title role in the 1992 HBO film Stalin. But his all-time favorite role is that of Augustus “Gus” McCrae, the former Texas Ranger turned cattle driver in the 1989 TV miniseries Lonesome Dove.
“When I was doing The Godfather, I knew we were doing something important,” Duvall said. “The only time I got that feeling again in a strong way was when I did Augustus McCrae. One day when I was playing Gus I walked into the dressing room and said, ‘We’re making The Godfather of Westerns.’”
In recent years, Duvall said he has focused mainly on small parts instead of lead roles. In terms of retirement, “There always comes a day where you say, ‘That’s it, no more.’ I haven’t quite come to that, but almost.” He believes that “there will always be good actors. But it’s all the same, it’s always ‘action’ and ‘cut.’ To live between an imaginary set of circumstances, between ‘action’ and ‘cut,’ is what you do. You try to be in touch with yourself and make that live from yourself.”