The long-time C&I reader favorite is 92 and still going strong.
Every day is a great day to celebrate the wonder that is Robert Duvall. But on the occasion of his 92nd birthday, it feels all the more fitting to be grateful for the man and his magic. So we’re sharing some memories about the Oscar-winning living legend — and happily noting that he’s still with us and still working.
In Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2002), actor Brian Cox delivers one of the most shattering final lines in movie history when he caps off his hopeful description of an alternative reality for his wayward son by saying: “This life came so close to never happening.” Those words came back to haunt us when Robert Duvall reminded us in 2014 that he almost didn’t get to play what has long been recognized as his signature role: the former Texas Ranger, newly minted cattle driver, and irrepressible rapscallion Augustus “Gus” McCrae, in Lonesome Dove.
During preproduction for the epic 1989 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,” Duvall recalled. “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 has many other classic films and TV productions on his lengthy resume — like, you know, The Godfather. And Apocalypse Now. And Network. And M*A*S*H. “But just about wherever else I go,” he told us, “everyone wants to talk about Lonesome Dove. Everybody wants to talk about Gus McCrae, my favorite part.”
And sometimes that can come in quite handy. When we spoke with him about A Night in Old Mexico for our February/March 2014 cover story, Duvall described such a situation.
“Let me tell you my favorite Texas story,” he said. “My wife and I were driving from Austin to the Perini Ranch Steakhouse in Buffalo Gap. We’ve done it twice. And twice, she made the wrong turn. So now we’re going down the highway, headed toward Waco. And I tell her, ‘You’re going the wrong way.’ And she comes from a family of race car drivers in northern Argentina, so she’s going about 90 miles an hour. It looks like there’s nobody else around. And then, all of a sudden, here comes a state trooper. He pulls us over. And he starts to say, ‘Ma’am, do you know how fast...’ And then he sees me, and he goes: ‘I don’t believe it! Lonesome Dove! Follow me!’
“So we follow him back to where we should have turned. He gets on the phone, calls his wife and kids, and they come out to meet us. We talk, we take pictures, this and that. And then he tells me, ‘OK, this is the way you should go.’ And before we left, I made a joke. I said, ‘If we cross that double line, you’re not going to give me a ticket, are you?’ And without losing a beat, his wife said, ‘Well, if he does, he won’t be allowed in my bed tonight.’”
We celebrated Duvall’s 90th birthday by looking back at seven of his most notable films. Our favorite: Tender Mercies, the 1983 drama propelled by Duvall’s Oscar-winning and profoundly affecting performance as Mac Sledge, a down-and-out country singer who’s redeemed by the love of a good woman (Tess Harper) in rural Texas, then pushed back to the brink by the death of his daughter (Ellen Barkin).
Duvall graced our cover — again — when we spoke with him for our May/June 2020 issue about the lifetime achievement honor he received during the Western Heritage Awards at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. In the course of our conversation, he shared a story about working with director Walter Hill on Geronimo: An American Legend (1993).
“[T]hat was interesting,” Duvall said, “because he called me back to reshoot a scene, to kill me. [Laughs.] I said, ‘Look, I’ve died enough.’ I’d already ridden off into the sunset. But then they decided that the movie needed a death scene, so they brought me back for that, and it worked out OK. In fact, after [Geronimo] came out, I got a letter from [Marlon] Brando. Of course, we all looked up to him so much, so very much. And he wrote in the letter how much he was moved by that death scene. So there you go. You never know.”
Two years ago, Duvall invited CBS talk show host Stephen Colbert to his Virginia home to talk about Lonesome Dove (of course), Network (one of Colbert’s favorite films) — and 12 Mighty Orphans, the then-new film in which he was united, fleetingly, with his Apocalypse Now co-star Martin Sheen. (The fact-based drama, not incidentally, was voted Best Film of 2021 in balloting for the fifth annual C&I Movie Awards.) You can see some highlights from their conversation here.
Retirement just might not be in Duvall’s DNA. When the period thriller The Pale Blue Eye premieres on Netflix this weekend, you’ll see that he makes absolutely every second count in his two scenes with an effortlessly attention-grabbing performance as Jean Pepe, a scholar of the supernatural arts who provides invaluable information to two men investigating a horrible crime at West Point in 1830: Renowned detective Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) and an eccentric cadet the world soon would know as Edgar Alan Poe (Harry Melling). Duvall has admiringly described the film as “mighty.” We would say the same thing about Robert Duvall himself.