After five decades in show business, Robert Duvall often fields offers from Hollywood’s elite crop of directors. Instead of accepting them, he bucks convention by frequently collaborating with novice helmers.
“I like to work with new people and young people,” says Duvall, a six-time Oscar nominee who won a statue for his star turn in 1983’s “Tender Mercies.” “Maybe they can learn from me. I can definitely learn from them. Sometimes a first-time director is better than a guy who has done it 50 times.”
Duvall himself benefited from a similar sentiment when director Robert Mulligan plucked the thesp from relative obscurity for the juicy role of Boo Radley in 1962’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Though Duvall’s resume included only a few TV roles and some summer stock theater in Long Island at the time, Mulligan took a chance on the San Diego-born actor based on Duvall’s performance in the Horton Foote-penned drama “The Midnight Caller” at Gotham’s Neighborhood Playhouse.
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“Mulligan liked what he saw,” recalls Duvall, who was pushed into acting by his parents after being something of an academic underachiever at Illinois’ Principia College. “I played a guy who comes home drunk. It was an emotional part. That’s what he saw — this emotional thing.”
“To Kill a Mockingbird” marked Duvall’s second collaboration with Foote, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter who became one of two defining collaborative forces in the actor’s career.
“You look back at the jumping-off points, the roles that served as a catalyst to bigger things,” notes Duvall of the “Midnight Caller” part.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” led to a role in the Foote-penned drama “The Chase” with Marlon Brando. The fledgling thesp became an apt pupil in Brando’s company.
“We all looked up to him,” recalls Duvall, calling Brando one of the great on-set jokesters. “He was like an icon for all of us young actors. Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman and I used to gather at Cromwell’s Drugstore three or four times a week. If we mentioned his name once, we mentioned it 20 times. He was our hero coming up.”
Nearly two decades after “The Chase,” Foote’s screenplay for “Tender Mercies,” about a troubled country singer looking for a fresh start, provided the self-described character actor with a role that he parlayed into a best actor Oscar.
While the late Foote served as one creative pillar in Duvall’s filmography, director Francis Ford Coppola became the other. The two worked together on some of the most acclaimed films in cinematic history, including “The Godfather,” “The Godfather II” and “Apocalypse Now,” the latter of which featured Duvall’s famous line: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
“If I only worked with just (Coppola and Foote), it would have been a wonderful career,” notes Duvall, whose credits also include such iconic films as “Bullitt,” “True Grit,” “MASH,” “The Conversation,” “Network,” “The Natural” and “Rambling Rose.”
“Coppola was great to work with,” Duvall adds. “He respects the actors. He likes to see what you bring. He doesn’t say, ‘You have to do this or that.’ He’s open to your ideas, so any collaboration that follows is natural.”
Still, Duvall cites two roles — the miniseries “Lonesome Dove” and an off-Broadway performance in “A View From the Bridge” — as the highlights of his five-decade career. And though he has taken on such showy roles as Josef Stalin or tentpoles like “Deep Impact,” these days he is most comfortable toiling in smaller-budget passion projects for first-time helmers like Scott Cooper’s “Crazy Heart” (Duvall produced and played a cameo role) and Aaron Schneider’s “Get Low,” which finds Duvall once again in the Oscar hunt.
And after directing his own passion project — 1997’s “The Apostle” — as well as the 2002 thriller “Assassination Tango,” Duvall says he would welcome another chance behind the camera.
“They say directing is very tiring, and directing yourself is impossible, but I found it more relaxing and exhilarating than if I was just acting,” explains Duvall. “I found directing was an extension of myself as an actor. It became a vision that I could control.”