The role he made iconic almost didn’t go to him — and other revelations about Lonesome Dove.

Robert Duvall smiled knowingly, even mischievously, and his eyes sparked with a bemused twinkle because, really, he knew what was coming.

We were seated at a table tucked into a quiet corner of the lobby at a posh Los Angeles hotel, brought together by a dutiful publicist to discuss his then-current project. But it was only a matter of time before the conversation eased into an interlocking chain of questions and recollections about Lonesome Dove, the 1989 miniseries in which he played what has long been recognized as his signature role: the former Texas Ranger, newly minted cattle driver, and irrepressible rapscallion Augustus “Gus” McCrae.

Truth to tell, it was Duvall’s ex-wife who first pegged him for the role shortly after Larry McMurtry’s novel was published in 1985. “She said, ‘Bobby, I just read a book — it’s maybe better than Dostoyevsky,’ ” Duvall recalled. “And she also told me, ‘Whatever you do, don’t let them talk you into playing [Woodrow F. Call, the character eventually played by Tommy Lee Jones]. Gus is the part you should play.’ The funny thing is, to this day, Larry McMurtry says Tommy Lee and I should have switched parts. I’m sorry — I would disagree.”

Back in the day, Duvall recalled, Jones wasn’t his only competitor for the plum role of Gus McCrae. During preproduction for the epic miniseries, another costar — and an equally formidable rival — was considered by the producers. “My agent then was handling James Garner, who was the first one they offered it to. So I told them: ‘If you can get James Garner to change parts with me, then I’ll be interested.’ Well, they came back and said, ‘He’s got health issues. He can’t be on a horse for six to eight weeks.’ So I got the part.”

Duvall paused, took a sip of tea, and then smiled once again as he added: “I never got the chance to thank my ex-wife for that. But she told me to go after Gus. And that’s been my favorite part.”

Lonesome Dove wasn’t Duvall’s first rodeo. Long before he set out on the great adventure with Jones as his traveling companion and Australian-born filmmaker Simon Wincer as his guide, the Oscar-winning actor already had earned his spurs as a cowhand involved in an accidental murder and sought by an obsessed marshal (Burt Lancaster) in Lawman; a wild-eyed, short-fused Jesse James opposite Cliff Robertson’s Cole Younger in The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid; and a smart-mouthed, quick-triggered outlaw who runs afoul of a certain “one-eyed fat man” in True Grit.

“Back when I did Lonesome Dove,” Duvall said, “I was riding everything. Anything and everything.” So he knew enough not to panic — or even break character — while filming a scene in which Gus is pursued by gun-wielding galoots. An explosive squib was set up in front of the horse Duvall was riding, to simulate the look of a bullet hitting the ground. Unfortunately, the horse didn’t realize it was all make-believe. “It got spooked and started bucking,” Duvall said. “I stayed on for, oh, about four or five seconds before I got thrown off.”

Even so, he somehow managed to hold on to the bridle. “And I said to the director, ‘Hey, get a cutaway shot of me on the ground and then getting back on.’ ” Which is why, when you watch the miniseries, you see Gus remaining cool under pressure and jumping back in the saddle to escape.

Speaking of the director: Is it true that Duvall and Wincer were often at odds throughout the on-location filming in Texas and New Mexico? Duvall nodded. But he didn’t apologize.

“Hey, look — I’ve worked with three Australian directors, and, I don’t know, we didn’t always see eye to eye. I don’t know what the deal is. But, you know, sometimes when you have a little turmoil, it can turn out better than if everything is in total harmony.”

(It should be noted that Bruce Beresford, another Australian filmmaker, was the director of the 1983 drama Tender Mercies, which netted Duvall an Academy Award for his memorable performance as a faded country singer. It should also be noted that during the production of that film Duvall reportedly chopped up his director’s chair with an ax — a rumor Duvall denies, albeit not altogether convincingly.)

Lonesome Dove has just gone on and on,” Duvall said. “Wherever I go — from Alberta down to Texas, and even in big cities — people love Lonesome Dove. I hear there’s a gaucho way out in Argentina who has worn out his videotape of Lonesome Dove. And I know cowboys love Lonesome Dove. Whenever I go down to Texas, they want to talk to me about it.”

So does he think Lonesome Dove is the project — and Gus McCrae, the role — for which he’ll always be best known?

“It depends,” Duvall said. “I can be walking down the street here in Los Angeles and some kid can be walking by with a boombox, and he’ll call out, ‘Hey, man! I saw you in Colors!’ And then in certain parts of North Carolina, I run into all these kids who fix their cars and all they want to talk about is Days of Thunder.

“But just about wherever else I go, everyone wants to talk about Lonesome Dove. Everybody wants to talk about Gus McCrae, my favorite part.”


From the February/March 2014 issue.

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