WASHINGTON — He’s one of the most accomplished actors in film and TV history with iconic roles as Boo Radley, Tom Hagen, Col. Kilgore and Gus McCrae.
“I bought a farm down here. … I love living in Virginia,” Duvall told WTOP. “My wife is now a citizen here in the United States and she considers Virginia to be the last station before heaven.”
Duvall’s return to The Old Dominion brings him full circle to his family roots. His father hailed from Virginia, while his mother was related to Robert E. Lee, played by Duvall in “Gods & Generals” (2003).
“They say I’m related to Robert E. Lee, but I always say, ‘So is everybody else in Virginia,” Duvall joked. “Very troubling times those were, but my father’s people were pro-Union during the Civil War and they named my grandfather Abraham Lincoln Duvall. They were pro-Union behind Southern lines.”
This weekend will be his second time attending the Washington West Film Fest.
“This’ll be my second year,” Duvall said. “I remember one [film] from a year ago, a gentleman from California did a wonderful short on wounded warriors. It was absolutely first-rate, the filmmaking.”
He says he’s happy to throw his starpower behind any film festival that cares about new voices.
“Anybody that is sincere about filmmaking and wants to generate new filmmakers and wants to help them out, that’s a fine thing,” Duvall said. “I know in France alone there’s 300 film festivals, so there are film festivals all over the world. … It’s very much a phenomenon going into the 21st century.”
We’ll get more to Duvall’s stellar career in a second, but first, what else can you see at the festival?
This year’s event kicks off with Wednesday’s opening night film, the touching documentary “Life, Animated” (2016), following an autistic boy who learns to communicate by watching Disney movies.
The inspirational film has already won the Audience Award at the San Francisco International Film Fest. It also earned filmmaker Roger Ross Williams a directing award at Sundance for “fashioning a compelling, exquisitely wrought, beautifully crafted, visually powerful and searingly moving film.”
Other highlights include the world premiere of “The University,” a documentary exploring Singularity University, where 80 young geniuses are enrolled on campus at a hidden NASA base in Silicon Valley.
It all builds to the closing night film, the feature-length sports drama “Bleed for This,” starring Miles Teller (“Whiplash,” “The Spectacular Now”) as the boxer Vinny “The Pazmanian Devil” Pazienza.
Aside from these new film releases, there are several once-in-a-lifetime retrospective events.
Legendary journalist Bob Woodward will attend a special 40th anniversary screening of “All the President’s Men” (1976) on Saturday, followed by a Q&A on the film and Watergate investigation.
“I got a story on Carl Bernstein I won’t tell you,” Duvall said, laughing. “He won’t want to hear it! Maybe I’ll tell him when I see him. But that’s good they’re coming. That’s nice they can re-show that.”
In fact, Duvall remembers Bernstein’s on-screen proxy, Dustin Hoffman, very well from New York.
“Me, my brother, other guys and Dustin Hoffman were all roommates years ago in New York on 107th and Broadway,” Duvall said. “[Hoffman] was smaller than this guy [we knew], who was a tall guy and had a thick neck. Dusty had a big neck although he was little, and he would steal this guy’s shirts, and put ’em on and roll the sleeves up, but the neck fit perfectly.”
In addition to the “All the President’s Men” event, Saturday also brings a special Duvall retrospective.
“I’ve had a lot of film clips, some of them I want to forget, some of them I like, but I hope they pick the best ones,” Duvall said, laughing. “We’ll have a conversation, which I always like, with an audience and a moderator. We’ll talk about this and that in a very informal way … just let people know what I do.”
Expect that Q&A to include Duvall’s debut role as Boo Radley in “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962).
“Horton Foote, who made the adaptation from Harper Lee’s book, was the one that helped me get the part,” Duvall said. “It was my first part in a major motion picture and it was wonderful to play, to meet Mr. Gregory Peck, who was a wonderful gentleman to work with. It was a wonderful experience.”
He says he got a chill when Scout turned to him and said, “Hey Boo.”
“I had a theory if I got goosepimples that meant I was acting good,” Duvall said. “The goosepimple theory paid off then, all during that [scene], especially when I went to see the boy sleeping in the bed, I remember I got goosepimples on my arm. That’s kind of a full-proof thing you’re doing good acting.”
He says Boo was no boogeyman like the kids thought, a lesson in not judging a book by its cover.
“He was a good man, good man,” Duvall said. “The fact that it was kind of a mute guy that helped save those children’s lives, it was a wonderful part to be able to play as a debut part in my film career.”
After debuting alongside a legend like Peck, whose Atticus Finch ranks as the American Film Institute’s top hero, Duvall next worked across John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit” (1969).
“The director and I didn’t get along — I don’t get along with a lot of directors, but I do OK! — but John Wayne was great working with,” Duvall said. “He was a good man and a very good natural actor, a lot better than a lot of people gave him credit for. He was an institution unto himself and that final film he did, ‘The Shootist,’ it was wonderful what he did. So he was a good guy to work with, absolutely.”
From there, he landed a role in the deep ensemble cast of Robert Altman’s Korean War dark comedy “M*A*S”H” (1970), playing across Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Sally Kellerman and Tom Skerritt.
It was a reunion for Duvall and Altman after “Countdown” (1967), starring Duvall and James Caan.
“Jimmy Caan, who I’ve stayed friends through the years, we worked with Altman before that, then I got to be in ‘M*A*S*H,'” Duvall said. “It was great to work with Altman, because he would allow a lot of relaxed freedom, a little improvisation. He didn’t nail you down like a lot of the old-time directors did. He was one of the new guys that allowed you to search and find yourself within the form.”
Caan and Duval would, of course, reunite for iconic roles as Sonny Corleone and Tom Hagen in “The Godfather” (1972) and “The Godfather: Part II” (1974), which both won the Oscar for Best Picture.
“There are movies from foreign countries that are wonderful, but as far as American films, that’s right up there [with the best], ‘Godfather’ 1 & 2.’ Absolutely wonderful,” Duvall said. “I liked the part, but it’s not at the foremost in my mind as my favorite. But I liked it, I liked working with Coppola.”
The role earned Duvall his first Oscar nomination thanks to deeply emotional scenes. His role as the mafia consigliere often made him the bearer of bad news, breaking the news of Kay’s miscarriage to Michael or having to tell Vito Corleone that his eldest son Sonny was gunned down at a toll booth.
“Coppola said, ‘Do you wanna do one more take?’ I said, ‘Yeah,'” Duvall said. “Coppola was good that way. … Coppola would see what you’d want to bring, he’d let you build on that, then he’d comment. But he wasn’t there to say, ‘Do this, do that, pick up the pace.’ It was good to work with Coppola because he was a very creative guy and he hired you to see what you could do.”
For Duvall, Caan, Al Pacino and the other young actors, it was a chance to work with Marlon Brando.
“It was great working with Brando because he was kind of like The Godfather of Actors to us young guys. When we were coming up, we had great reverence for Marlon Brando. Usually that doesn’t work necessarily, but it’s good to have idols. He was like a Godfather in life to many actors coming up.”
Duvall says Coppola kept the set loose, but also disciplined the cast when needed.
“We’d carry on and make faces and laugh, and he’d say, ‘Come on guys, we gotta be serious now,'” Duvall said. “Brando loved Jimmy Caan because Jimmy was so funny. … We’d moon each other, and Coppola would be like, ‘Guys, we gotta be serious now.’ But he knew that sense of humor helped relax the situation. … He was great that way. You could mess around and he’d say, ‘OK, that’s enough.'”
In between the two “Godfather” epics, Duvall reunited with Coppola for “The Conversation” (1974), a film that eerily foreshadowed the surveillance state we have today after recent NSA revelations.
He starred across Gene Hackman’s Harry Caal, a paranoid recluse who’s a saxophone player by night and a surveillance expert by day, suspecting a murder plot against the couple he’s spying on.
“I just had a small part, but I liked working with Coppola,” Duvall said. “Gene was a friend and a wonderful actor and retired too early. He just did some lovely work and that was one of them. … Coppola told me that might be his favorite film, ‘The Conversation.’ Lovely film. Lovely film.”
Two years later, Duvall starred in Sidney Lumet’s “Network” (1976) with a script by Paddy Chayefsky.
“I like it OK, not one of my favorite films, but it was nice to do,” Duvall said. “Nice to work with Bill Holden. Great guy to work with. Bill Holden was a great actor and whenever a woman would come on the set, his antenna would go up. Boy, he liked to have the ladies around! He was terrific, that guy.”
In this case, that woman was Faye Dunaway, a ratings hound described as “television incarnate.” Its most famous line came from Peter Finch’s divinely imbued anchor Howard Beale, shouting, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” predicting much of today’s sensationalized cable news.
“The news today, I watch and my mind goes in circles,” Duvall said. “‘What am I watching this for?’ But I do! It’s kind of interesting to see the different shows. Everybody’s an authority on everything.”
After “Network,” Duvall reunited with Coppola and Brando for the Vietnam epic “Apocalypse Now” (1979), winning a Golden Globe and another Oscar nomination as Col. Kilgore, leading a helicopter raid blaring Wagner and delivering the signature line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
“It was interesting playing that part, because initially it was a little too much, as they say over-the-top,” Duvall recalled. “My character’s name was ‘Colonel Carnage,’ but they tempered it to ‘Kilgore.’ When I got there, they had him dressed in cowboy boots and I said, ‘No, no, let me do my homework.'”
So he looked into the historic military garb, which is still on display at a museum in Fort Hood, Texas.
“[The air cavalry] did wear cavalry hats, cross sabers, boots with spurs, the cavalry of the last century, that went into helicopters and tanks in the following century,” Duvall said. “So I did my homework and Coppola let me find my research and come up with that, which was different from the actual script.”
Does he still smell napalm in the morning?
“Not too much,” Duvall said, laughing. “When I was in the service in the army, I remembered how the special service officers stood and talked and knelt and dealt with each other. I remembered those images from when I was at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, so that influenced me in that part of the performance when I said those lines, ‘The napalm in the morning, smells like victory.'”
A few years later, Duvall reunited with his “To Kill a Mockingbird” screenwriter Horton Foote for “Tender Mercies” (1983), playing a broken-down country singer trying to put his life back together.
In the film, he sings the country tune “If You Hold the Ladder (I’ll Climb to the Top),” and that’s exactly what happened, as Foote held the ladder and Duvall climbed to the top, winning his overdue Oscar.
“When I got the Oscar, it was nice,” Duvall said. “When Dolly Parton said, ‘And the winner is,’ I knew that I had won it because she was into country music. I knew then I was OK. The only other nominees were from Britain, from England, so it was nice to win in something that Horton Foote [wrote].”
That role was followed by Barry Levinson’s supernatural baseball flick “The Natural” (1984).
“Good director, I enjoyed working on that up in Buffalo, New York,” Duvall said. “One of the beautiful Great Lakes up there. I rented a house on the Canadian side that a priest owned and I rented out. All I remember, it was nice living there and good Chinese food on the Canadian side. We loved to eat.”
What was it like working with Robert Redford and his magical Wonderboy bat?
“Good, kind of aloof, unto himself, he had a lot to do. He’s fine to work with … always very amicable,” Duvall said. “I don’t know him that well. We rode horses years ago when they had that film festival up in Utah and I remember riding on the ridge near his farm, his ranch there in the beautiful country there, Sundance. I went to Sundance in the very early years; I haven’t been back a lot since then.”
Riding horses came in handy for Duvall in the acclaimed TV miniseries “Lonesome Dove” (1989), winning a Golden Globe as Gus McCrae in what Duvall considers his favorite role of his career.
Duvall says the four-episode miniseries took 16 weeks to shoot.
“I walked into the commissary one day and I said, ‘Boys? We’re making ‘The Godfather’ of Westerns,” Duvall said. “That’s like The Bible in Texas. People gather once a year with their families to watch it.”
He felt the show’s legacy first hand years later when he was made an honorary Texas Ranger.
“A woman came up to me … and said, ‘Mr. Duvall? I liked your character Gus McCrae in ‘Lonesome Dove.’ I would not allow my daughter’s fiancee to marry into the family until he’d seen ‘Lonesome Dove,'” Duvall said. “Quite a statement, quite a cultural phenomenon in Texas and other places, too.”
While he loves the fame of Gus McCrea, he wishes his lesser roles got more attention.
“Two of the parts I like very much that people never mention were ‘Wrestling Ernest Hemingway,’ where I played a Cuban barber, and one of my favorite parts in a strange way was when we actually filmed in the Kremlin when I played Josef Stalin,” Duvall said. “There was an older gentleman — a Russian guy whose apartment was stacked with books on Stalin, he hated Stalin — when I went back, he said I did it. That was a great compliment coming from this longtime student, hater of Josef Stalin.”
Whether acting in film or television, Duvall says the key is to find “moments” in a performance.
“When actors talk about other actors, they say, ‘Well, he had good moments,’ and I don’t think critics or people on the street know what that is when they see it,” Duvall said. “But other actors see what kind of moments an actor might have and gain the respect of his peers in certain scenes and certain films. I’ve had, I think, quite a few good moments in certain films; other films we’ll forget about.”
Which brings us back to Saturday’s Q&A at Washington West. Which moments might they pick?
“They don’t always pick the ones I want,” Duvall said. “I wish they’d pick Stalin. I wish they’d pick the one where I played the Cuban barber, but they never do. They pick the obvious ones, which are OK.”
Either way, he has plenty of wisdom to share.
“To me, the beginning and end of good acting is to talk and listen, then listen and talk,” Duvall said. “It’s not always that easy. It may look easy, but it’s not easy. So whatever they give you, you give back.”
That’s what Duvall is doing this weekend in Virginia — giving back.
“I’ve been blessed to have a wonderful career in a great, great profession.”
Click here for more info on Washington West. Listen to the full conversation with Robert Duvall below: