He has converted one of two barns into an enormous party space complete with Western saloon bar (with matching spittoons) and a dance floor suitable for the tango. The other barn is not quite as pristine as the one Duvall visits in "The Godfather" to persuade the film producer to give a part to singer Johnny Fontane -- and which houses the horse that becomes a bloody head in the man's bed -- but it's close. It's where Duvall keeps an 1884 saddle inscribed with the name of Augustus "Gus" McCrae, his Texas ranger character in "Lonesome Dove," the TV miniseries he counts, with his two "Godfather" films, among the most accomplished projects of his career.
Duvall's horses romp in corrals nearby. One is a still-nippy colt Luciana gave him as a surprise gift; the other, Red Man, a saddle horse he bought two summers ago in case he got a green light for "Broken Trail," in which he was not only going to costar, with Thomas Haden Church, but serve as producer. Duvall stopped riding for fun after he busted a few ribs preparing for Kevin Costner's 2003 "Open Range" and was worried that he would be only barely competent in the saddle. "Though we didn't have any financing, I figured we were going to do it sometime," he says, so he got Red Man to get back his form.
Duvall had the same approach a half-century ago, when he was a New York stage actor poised to be "discovered." While he was earning credits in such plays as "Wait Until Dark" and episodes of TV shows such as "Naked City," he kept up his riding at a low-rent stable in Queens, because when he'd watch westerns such as "Gunsmoke" -- still mainstays of prime time -- he found too many actors unconvincing. "All these guys could draw guns" -- \o7that\f7, they practiced -- "but they couldn't sit a horse." He was resolved that, if given the chance, he would not look like some tinhorn whose only experience was as a 4-year-old playing cowboys and Indians with miniature chaps and a stick horse.
True to character
IF transience is one theme of Duvall's life, another is authenticity -- his drive, from Day One, to look real, and sound real, in his roles.
Writer Horton Foote, who helped get him his first film job, at 31 -- as the mute Boo Radley in 1962's "To Kill a Mockingbird" -- recalls first seeing Duvall when he was right out of the Army renting a $7 room and taking classes at the Neighborhood Playhouse, whose natural-style guru, Sanford Meisner, said, "'Get down here to see this boy." Foote goes on, "He played a total alcoholic.... And the interesting thing is he never smokes or drinks. I said, 'How did he do that?' 'He went down to the Bowery and watched people,' " spent days with the derelicts.
Years later, when Duvall was creating "The Apostle" -- which he wrote, directed and starred in -- he'd call Foote while checking out churches around the South. "I could always tell when he'd been with a different preacher," Foote says, "because he'd try out these different voices." Duvall hit the road in Texas to become the itinerant country singer in the Foote-penned "Tender Mercies," which won each an Academy Award.
But Duvall did not have to learn strange skills when, nearing 40, he finally got a marquee western, 1969's "True Grit." He was able to do his own horse work even in the climactic scene in which he and fellow bad guys face off across a field against John Wayne, who won his only Oscar for his portrayal of eye-patched Rooster Cogburn. True, the Duke had to be shot on some close-ups with his saddle on a 2-by-4, in the back of a pickup, and some suggested the award was a gift for past work, but Duvall saw grace in the USC football player who'd become the iconic western hero. "Well, he did OK," Duvall says, "and he rode in other scenes. He was smart enough to know to use a double when it's a little bit touchy, you know?"
Duvall was still relatively unknown -- "MASH" came the next year, "The Godfather" two later -- but was not shy about reaching a different opinion to that of the film's 71-year-old director who had worked on a silent western in 1925, when they were black and white in more ways than one.
"He said to one actor, 'When I say "action," tense up, goddamn it!' I mean, can you imagine saying that to Joe Montana in the Super Bowl? 'Tense up'? "
Duvall's acting credo has always been "Simple reality," to wit: "Just talking and listening. Not going for results.... Even in life in emotional situations ... be offhand. Nothing's precious. Just let it sit there and find its own way."
His critique could apply to other films, of course, but he finds westerns particularly prone to scenery chewing, actors "acting up a storm."
Many people consider John Ford's "The Searchers" one of the greatest westerns, but Duvall got through only 10 minutes the first time he saw it, finding it too stagy and Ford's frontier men unrealistically "up, up, up" and with a superimposed energy, not their own.
To him, a good director says, "Just do nothing. See what happens. Instead of 'Action!' "