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PROFILE : From All-American to All Stalin : Robert Duvall's career has given us characters who have exposed the soul of our nation. Next, the evil of a dictator.

November 15, 1992|LAWRENCE CHRISTON | Lawrence Christon is a Times staff writer

In a recent interview, British actor Daniel Day-Lewis said, "One of the reasons so many actors of my generation have been drawn to actors in America--Brando first, Clift, De Niro, Pesci, Duvall--is the way in which poetry is created out of the life of someone who can't express himself."

Certainly over his 30-year film career Duvall has played plenty of up-tempo redoubtables. His hearty war-lover Colonel Kilgore gave "Apocalypse Now" its tag line when he stood on the beach during an air raid, high on a petroleum buzz, and yelled, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning. . . . It smells like victory."

Frank Hackett, his numbers-crunching hatchet-man in "Network," had the sleek, irritable voracity of a corporate shark. Everyone, of course, remembers the whisper-smooth discretion of his consigliore in "Godfather I and II." And he brought a bemused, garrulous charge to Gus MaCrae in the TV miniseries "Lonesome Dove."

But the arc that connects Duvall's most affecting characters, as Day-Lewis implied, is in the inner life he brings to people who have been sealed off from the ease of congenial everyday facility, whether it's his ghostly recluse Boo Radley in "To Kill a Mockingbird" or his burned-out case, Mac Sledge, in "Tender Mercies."

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"I have a certain confidence," says Robert Duvall of his capacity to turn out the pockets of troubled silence that fill up in his peculiarly American stoics. "But this is an unforgiving milieu. You have to approach it by being unforgiving of yourself. You always start with zero, starting with the simplest things. I talk, you listen. You talk, I listen. With each part, you begin with the basics. How do you judge what's good, better, best? Is Pat Metheny as good a guitarist as Segovia? I don't know. All I know is, a moment's a moment."

Horton Foote, who wrote the screenplays for "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Tender Mercies," says, "He has an enormous affinity for the non-metropolitan type. He has this sensational ear. He's the master of the inner voice."

"He's part of a new breed of actor that came up through that whole 'Godfather' group and after," says film critic Andrew Sarris. "He's a brilliantly realistic actor, and I think the reason he isn't even more prominent in the public eye is that he came along at a time when film construction became so disheveled that a film needed a vaudevillian to hold it together. He won't overplay. De Niro has a fantastic reputation, but he's uneven. Duvall is subtler and better."

Duvall's mastery has been well-earned through 43 films, 19 TV shows and eight stage appearances, to which two Academy Award nominations for best supporting actor and an Oscar for best actor in "Tender Mercies" (as well as a fistful of other awards) will attest.

He's also of that breed of actor who's so exacting in his focus and demanding of himself that he won't put up with overbearing direction or, for that matter, a lesser effort around him. In the modern parlance, he protects his space.

"He doesn't suffer fools," says Foote. "What gets him going is the lack of respect for the craft. I've seen him really go off when he's not treated with dignity or respect."

"I heard he's been tough to work with when it comes to certain directors," says his friend and occasional director, Ulu Grosbard. "But if that's true, you'd have to look at the directors. He's patient, but if provoked, he'll blow."

"Once he was doing a picture and the director said, 'I want you to pause and smile here,' " said actor James Caan, another friend. "Bobby did a 'say what?' 'Just pause here and smile.' Bobby didn't answer. Just walked off the set."

It's just as well then that Duvall had directorial approval for the upcoming "Stalin," and found in Czechoslovakian director Ivan Passer the kind of classical sensibility that could observe, "The scientist is someone who can only testify to things he knows; the artist can only testify to things he doesn't know. Duvall is very reliable, a workaholic, extremely dependable, but he also has a tremendous gift." Because when Duvall began working up to the role of Josef Stalin, he couldn't locate that inner voice with a satellite dish.

"You research as much as you can," Duvall said. "Once shooting starts, you throw it all away and go. This time, I was terrified."

"Stalin," which premieres Saturday on HBO, was filmed in Budapest and the Moscow Kremlin, and is foremost an epic attempt (made by HBO Pictures and budgeted at $9.7 million) to dramatize the history of the Bolshevik Revolution in its metamorphosis from a national liberation movement to a reign of terror that hardened like ice around the lives of the Russian people and virtually everyone else contained in the Soviet bloc.

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