Robert Duvall, Still Living 'In The Potential' The venerable, versatile actor takes on another idiosyncratic part in next month's Get Low -- and auctions off an acting lesson this week to benefit the children's foundation he and his wife support. Robert Siegel talks to the man behind many a classic movie character, and learns that he's not likely to stop looking for more anytime soon.
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Robert Duvall, Still Living 'In The Potential'

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Robert Duvall, Still Living 'In The Potential'

Robert Duvall, Still Living 'In The Potential'

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

When I think of Robert Duvall, I think of characters who are southern, rough-hewn, dignified, tormented, like the Texas preacher Sonny Dewey in "The Apostle."

(Soundbite of movie, "The Apostle")

Mr. ROBERT DUVALL (Actor): (as Sonny Dewey) We going to have a Holy Ghost explosion. We going to short-circuit the devil here today, and the Holy Ghost is our power ride to heaven.

SIEGEL: So how is he so convincing playing Tom Hagen, the smooth consigliere to the Corleone crime family in "The Godfather"?

(Soundbite of movie, "The Godfather")

Mr. DUVALL: (as Tom Hagen) I have a special practice. I handle one client.

SIEGEL: Or Frank Hackett, the urbane broadcast executive in "Network."

(Soundbite of movie, "Network)

Mr. DUVALL: (as Frank Hackett) We're not a respectable network. We're a whorehouse network, and we have to take whatever we can get.

SIEGEL: Well, the other day, Robert Duvall explained it to me. It's called acting.

Mr. DUVALL: Well, it's like kids playing house. You play the father. I'll play the mother. I'll play the - you know, you dress up, you play, they pay, you go home. It's a game. Acting is a game.

SIEGEL: And it's a game that Robert Duvall has played as well and as long as anyone. He was Boo Radley in "To Kill a Mockingbird" in 1962. He was Jeff Bridges' bar-owning buddy just last year in "Crazy Heart." He is 79, and next month, his latest movie "Get Low" comes out.

This week, Duvall is auctioning off a prize to benefit The Robert Duvall Children's Fund. The prize is a visit to his heavenly patch of Virginia horse country and a personal acting workshop.

Mr. DUVALL: You know, I demonstrate little exercises to boil it down to the basics of just talking and listening, the way we're doing now. To do that is the beginning and the end of acting for me. And it's not as easy as it looks sometimes - to basically just talk and listen and keep it simple. And whatever way it goes, it goes. But anything that I can, you know, advance to them is great. You know...

SIEGEL: But you spoke of conversing...

Mr. DUVALL: Right.

SIEGEL: ...of learning just how to talk, what you could learn from that.

Mr. DUVALL: Yeah. I talk, you listen. You listen, I talk. It's very simple, but it's not that easy to do always. Everybody says, oh, you're just yourself up there. I say, well, try it. Try it. It's not that easy.

SIEGEL: I watched your new film, "Get Low," and I was struck by the fact that when you're not talking, when you're just listening and reacting to somebody, you're acting incredibly during...

Mr. DUVALL: It's just like we're doing right now.

SIEGEL: Yeah, we're doing right now.

Mr. DUVALL: When you're talking, I'm listening. And you have to treat as if it's the first time you've ever heard it, even though you may have rehearsed it. It's difficult to do sometimes. Sometimes, you can break that by doing an actual improvisation. But with the writing as very good as it was in "Get Low," then you don't need to improvise so much. But you just try to make it like it's the first time. And sometimes, you know, the first take, that's it. We don't have to do it 78 times like Stanley Kubrick did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DUVALL: Which I don't think you get it done.

SIEGEL: So how do you do it? I mean, is there some device you have, some mental process you go through that permits you to have this exchange as if it's completely new and fresh when, in fact, you've been studying those lines?

Mr. DUVALL: Well, I guess actor's faith is a thing to believe in what you're doing and to be relaxed and not have fears. I think - not that I read him that much - but Stanislavski, the great Russian guy said, you know, there's always something in the back of your head approving what you do as opposed to that self-conscious type of self-watchfulness.

So it's that healthy, wonderful sense of something in the back of your mind observing what you're doing that makes it work.

SIEGEL: Somehow, Robert Duvall has made it work, made it believable even when he's played characters who were plainly over the top - from Major Frank Burns in "M*A*S*H" to Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore in "Apocalypse Now."

(Soundbite of movie, "Apocalypse Now)

Mr. DUVALL: (as Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore) I love the smell of napalm in the morning.

SIEGEL: That part earned him one of his six Oscar nominations. He won an Oscar for his 1983 role as Mac Sledge, the has-been country music singer in "Tender Mercies."

(Soundbite of movie, "Tender Mercies")

Mr. DUVALL: (as Mac Sledge) You see, I don't trust happiness. I never did. I never will.

SIEGEL: I asked Robert Duvall, when did the penny drop? When did he decide that he had to become an actor?

Mr. DUVALL: Well, that never was. Actually, I was from a military family and they pushed me into acting.

SIEGEL: They pushed you into acting.

Mr. DUVALL: They pushed and nudged and pushed. I was not doing well academically when I was at a small college in the Midwest. So as an expedient thing, I went into acting to get me through. And it worked out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DUVALL: You know, it was the end of the Korean War. You know, I did go into the Army eventually, but, you know, it was like to get through college, you know, to find something that would give me a sense of worth, where I got my first A. You know, it was my parents I have to thank for that.

SIEGEL: And then you were a young actor in New York. I read that at one point, you were rooming with Dustin Hoffman in New York?

Mr. DUVALL: Yeah, in New York, 107th and Broadway. It was my brother, Maurice Stern, who was a cantor at the Riverdale Temple, Dustin Hoffman and two other actors. And I was introduced to Dustin Hoffman from Gene Hackman, who lived downtown, because he and Dustin had gone to the Pasadena Playhouse together. So we all three, we palled around together and, you know, talked and had our dreams and talked about our dreams and so forth - what we wanted in life and what we wanted out of our profession. And now I never see these guys.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DUVALL: I never see these guys.

SIEGEL: This is 1950s?

Mr. DUVALL: I would say '58, '60, around in there, yeah.

SIEGEL: And were you all confident that the three of you were going to make it?

Mr. DUVALL: There was a certain naive confidence, a sanguine kind of thing. Like, we were going to make it, but we didn't know if we were going to make it. But, you know, we started out in the theater, stage actors. And, yeah, we used to gather at Cromwell's Drugstore at 50th and - oh, I think it's 50th and 6th Avenue. And if we mentioned Brando's name once, we'd mention it 25 times in a day. He was kind of like our guy, you know, that we looked to. And we had our dreams and our aspirations, and I guess we were confident.

SIEGEL: For younger listeners who caught movies with Brando when he was appearing rarely as an older actor, it's hard sometimes for them to figure out what Brando meant to actors and to acting in the 1950s.

Mr. DUVALL: Well, I think he was kind of like a revolutionary example. He presented a certain kind of realism that was very startling. You'd never seen it before. I mean, he was willing to do nothing.

And I've come to - some people say, well, do you have any theories on acting? And I say, well, maybe. I think you could start with zero and end with zero. You don't have to get anywhere. You don't have to go for the result. And I think Brando kind of showed that to people as a young actor.

And then he got jaded and didn't like acting. And, you know, people went after him and criticized him. But when you really looked at his work, he was very startling at what he could do in a realistic way.

SIEGEL: There is a framed letter from Marlon Brando that Robert Duvall says he treasures as much as his Oscar. In the letter, Brando says he saw Duvall die in a Western. He was so impressed he tried dying that way in a part, but he couldn't pull it off.

When I asked Duvall about the roles that would best sum up what he's done, he spoke of the two great American epics that he played in: "The Godfather," parts one and two, and his favorite part...

Mr. DUVALL: "Lonesome Dove."

SIEGEL: "Lonesome Dove."

Mr. DUVALL: Yeah. And I walked into the dressing room one day. I said, boys, we're making the "Godfather" of Westerns, you know?

SIEGEL: So having done just about everything that one could possibly do as an actor, what are your ambitions right now? What do you want to do now?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DUVALL: I don't know. Do it till they wipe the drool. Man, you know, I mean I got a few things I want to do. And there are a few things now that are presented to me that are just as challenging and as exciting or more so than 20 years ago. But it's very difficult to raise money nowadays. Unless you're a big, big star, then you can get anything you want.

SIEGEL: Wait a minute.

Mr. DUVALL: Well, we have a...

SIEGEL: I'm talking to Robert Duvall, and you're saying unless you're a big star?

Mr. DUVALL: No. No. It's very difficult. Right now, there's a wonderful script on the Hatfields and the McCoys, which is really like American Shakespeare. It's a brilliant, brilliant script. The power lies with Brad Pitt, and it's up to him to loose the strings. But I'm working now on a part that's supposed to go - they want me to play Don Quixote de la Mancha.

So there are some interesting projects out there. You know, I mean - I said to Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse way back: I always want to think of myself in the potential. What's next? That I can always grow a little bit and try to do something different. So I'm always looking for what's out there - the potential.

SIEGEL: Well, Robert Duvall, thank you very much...

Mr. DUVALL: Well, thank you. You got enough?

SIEGEL: ...for spending so much time with us.

Mr. DUVALL: You got enough?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: I have.

Mr. DUVALL: I'm enjoying this.

SIEGEL: Robert Duvall, who is auctioning off a weekend near his Virginia estate and a private acting workshop. The bidding on eBay starts at $10,000, and it's open through Thursday.

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