Alfred Hitchcock reportedly said that actors should be treated like cattle. Of all the livestock that has grazed in Hollywood's pastures, 83-year-old Robert Duvall may have the toughest hide and the softest heart. His 81 film performances are all well-marbled, and you can hardly find an ounce of gristle in any of them.
Duvall plays Red Bovie, a Texas rancher out with his grandson in his new film, A Night in Old Mexico. Red is really just an update of Gus, the cowboy he played in Lonesome Dove, says the actor. (The screenplay, by Lonesome Dove co-writer William D. Wittliff, went in search of a director for about 35 years.)
Our Skype interview is the first of his life. He seems a little befuddled by the whole thing. Sitting in front of a laptop, he removes his Texas Rangers cap, leans into the monitor and keeps leaning until his nose is almost mashed against the glass. For most of our conversation, I’m speaking directly into his nostrils.
A six-time Academy Award nominee, Duvall is known for many things. As the mob lawyer Tom Hagen in the Godfather trilogy, he introduced American audiences to the Italian word consigliere. As gung-ho Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, he popularized the line “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” He made his movie debut in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) as the mysterious Boo Radley, a role in which he didn’t utter a word.
“I did have one line,” he tells me. “But they cut it.”
What was it?
“’Where?’ When they ask me to go home, I said ‘Where?’”
What would Boo be up to 52 years later?
Boo would be in a nuthouse, trying to get out.
Would he still be carving soap dolls?
In 1963 you played a nebbish named Charley Parkes who falls in love with a female figurine in a dollhouse in a Twilight Zone episode called “Miniature.” Charley gets committed to a psychiatric hospital and is released only after he pretends to be disabused of the delusion. At the end, he becomes one of the tiny dolls, finally together with his love.
Charley’s probably saying, “That doll I fell in love with is growing old. Maybe I could find a younger one.”
Guys and dolls! You old guys are the same! How about Edwin Stewart, the pussy-whipped, tattletale bank clerk you played in the 1966 picture, The Chase?
The Chase is where I met Marlon Brando, kind of my hero coming up. He called me into his dressing room and asked about the script, “Whuh you think about this?” He thought it was pretty sh***y. I laughed and said, “It’s OK.” We talked during the filming, but I’d pass him in the daytime, and he’d never say ‘Good morning’ or anything! Brando knew you were waiting to say ‘Good morning’ to him, so he wouldn’t. I guess he had his own system.
What about Major Frank Burns from M*A*S*H, in 1970?
Frank was a horny bastard, so he’d still be horny.
He’d definitely have a few!
The outlaw Jesse James from the 1972 Western The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid?
Those guys were pretty bloodthirsty. They liked to cut people up, guys like Jesse James! I guess, once again, he’d be reminiscing. Like, “Who was the toughest guy I ever came up against? Was I tougher than him? Maybe I was tougher than anybody.”
Tom Hagen from the Godfather movies wasn’t exactly a tough guy. Would he be retired from crime?
It’s possible, but I don’t think he would ever retire from that completely. I don’t know if Tom was ever treated fairly by the Corleone family. He was like a stepson, so he would never be accepted as blood. I think that he would always wonder if he was really was one of them. I think guys like Tom overestimate this thing of loyalty—sometimes the concept doesn’t work in an individual’s favor.
What’s Bill Kilgore from Apocalypse Now doing 35 years later?
I think reflecting on the past and past glories, magnifying things a bit. Living in the past, hoping that his offspring and those around him would appreciate what he had supposedly done in the war. Those kind of guys live with what made them great in the war.
Mac Sledge from Tender Mercies—the part that won you an Oscar in 1984?
Mac would be writing music, like my friend Billy Joe Shaver, the country singer in Texas. Billy Joe writes on and on. He’s always looking to write something new and beautiful. Billy Joe is dreamer. Mac would be dreamin’ on, too.
After 23 years, could Daddy Hillyer from the 1991 Rambling Rose still fend off nymphomaniacal servants?
I guess he’d just be living his life with his wife. Is she bearable enough to live life out with? I don’t know.
In light of Vladimir Putin’s excesses, how about Joseph Stalin from the 1992 TV movie Stalin?
He’d probably be thinking: Who’s a better guy or a worse guy—me or Adolf Hitler? Because they had a pact at one time. Stalin once said to his daughter: “If Hitler lived, we would have ruled the world together.” They had a falling out, though. I like bad guys. Stalin was a bad, bad guy.
Walter from Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, in 1993?
I played a Cuban barber. One of my favorite characters. In fact, a director saw that character and asked me to come to Europe and play Don Quixote in a movie. Who was that director?
Yes. I still don’t know if Don Quixote is ever gonna happen. But that Walter, he loved to dance. Today he would be dancing to a song at a club after playing dominoes with his favorite dance partner. End of the movie I was dancing, so Walter would still be dancing.
The 1996 film you did with Billy Bob Thornton—Sling Blade? What would Karl's—Billy Bob’s—heartless dad, be into?
Oh! That’s funny. We never had a script. We just improvised. Just wondering if Karl can get me a new dog. In the movie, my dog died.
How about Euliss "Sonny" Dewey, your charismatic preacher in the 1997 drama, The Apostle?
A guy like that, once he got out of jail, would go back to having a small church. I’ve met some of those guys, though, who just totally divorced themselves from preaching. They’d been seduced by the phoniness of it all. I hope he’d find some peace. And minister to the weak.
Any favorite characters I’m forgetting?
One other! Mr. Cox! I did a movie in the mid-'90s called The Stars Fell on Henrietta. Mr. Cox was a mule-headed optimist of a wildcatter. On the set, I did something unrehearsed. Years before I’d heard about a wildcatter who liked to pitch silver dollars over his shoulder. Wherever they landed, he’d drill for oil. So I did that [and hit] one of the cats in the movie, and the poor thing got crippled. So maybe Mr. Cox would be spending the rest of his life wishing he hadn’t hurt that cat.