Hugh interviews legendary actor Robert Duvall
HH: Robert Duvall, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show.
RD: Thank you, Hugh. Where are you calling from?
HH: Southern California.
RD: Oh, California. Good. Right. Southern Cal, great, great.
HH: Robert Duvall, you won the Oscar in 1983 for portraying this alcoholic country singer, Max Sledge in Tender Mercies.
HH: And now, Jeff Bridges is nominated for best actor for playing Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, who’s another alcoholic country singer. Did you guys compare notes on these two characters, and how to get smart about an addicted drinker?
RD: No, didn’t compare notes at all. No, but he’s going to win, he’ll win the Oscar.
HH: I think he should. It’s a magnificent role. Do those two characters have much in common?
RD: The two best performances this year are him in this, and the kid, the young guy in Hurt Locker. You see Hurt Locker?
HH: Yeah, magnificent movie, yeah. But…
RD: What a movie. But we won’t talk about that one. My movie of the decade, but we won’t talk about it.
HH: Okay. What about Bad Blake and Max Sledge? Are they the same guy? Or are they different people?
RD: Oh, no, no. They’re different. They’re different. Different music, different guys, different actors, you know, different guys. Similar background…I mean, it’s like saying is Merle Haggard the same as Waylon Jennings, or Waylon Jennings the same as Johnny Cash. They sing the same kind of music, but they’re different guys, different individuals, but somewhat similar journeys in life. You know what I’m saying?
RD: Especially from a negative aspect, you know, negative journey. But they’re different characters.
HH: How did you, how did you come by your knowledge of alcoholics? I mean, what, how do you train up to play that, or to play Wayne in this movie?
RD: To play what?
HH: To play Wayne, the friend who’s his sponsor or his buddy?
RD: I just, he said action and cut, I say my lines. I just filled in. I was a producer. They said take this part. I’ll take it. I mean, I didn’t even think about it. I just did it, you know?
HH: How interesting.
RD: I mean, alcoholics, I mean, you know, way back when I was a student at the neighborhood playhouse, I played a drunk, and that’s where I got my first part in To Kill A Mockingbird, because the director was there, and I didn’t like it. I went down and observed drunks on, down on the bowery, but I don’t really drink at all, so you know, it has to come through, you know, it’s like somebody said try acting. So you do acting and try to do it as truthfully as you can by observing these guys. You know what I’m saying?
RD: I mean, I’m not a drunk myself. I don’t have to be a killer to play a killer.
HH: No. You…it’s also a movie about aging and eclipse. I like the Colin Farrell story here. Back when you were playing, you know, Frank Burns in M*A*S*H*, or Tom Hagen in Godfather, did you have a mentor? Did you have anyone like Bad Blake is to Colin Farrell’s character here?
RD: How do you mean? Did I have what? Like an idol, you say?
HH: No, a mentor, someone who kind of brought you up in the business.
RD: Not really. Our mentor was kind of from a distance. We used to meet, Dustin Hoffman, me and Gene Hackman, would meet at Cromwell’s Drug Store three or four times a week on 6th Avenue in New York, and if we mentioned Brando’s name once, we mentioned it 25 times in one afternoon. He was kind of like a distant mentor to all of us, Marlon Brando.
HH: And so…
RD: But as far as hands-on mentor, nobody that I know, no.
HH: When you went to work with him on Godfather, was it intimidating?
RD: No, and I worked with him on The Chase. It was nice, you know. I thought I’m going to get along with this guy, then he didn’t speak to me for eight weeks.
RD: (laughing) I mean, strange guy, he was, but you know, everybody wanted to speak to him. No, we weren’t intimidated, we just had a good sense of reverence, you know, Jimmy Caan, myself, Al Pacino. And you know, he was like the Godfather in the movie, and the Godfather in life, really. So we weren’t intimidated, it was, you know, when I had a scene where I had to tell him that Sonny had been assassinated, you know, I wasn’t intimidated. I knew I had to come up with something, and he had to come up with something. And so we both had to come up with something, you know. It wasn’t really intimidation. It was like, it became like equal when they said action and cut, you know.
HH: Okay, are you writing a memoir?
HH: Why not?
RD: Somebody wrote a book on me once. I never read it, but maybe I’ll write something. Maybe I’ll write a book someday called The Rushes Are Great. You know, when they show the dailies, the rushes, nobody ever say they stink, you know? They’re always great. (laughing) So maybe I’ll write a book someday.
HH: You’ve got all these great roles. You’ve got, you know, Bull Meechum in The Great Santini, Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, Sonny Dewey in The Apostle. Have any of these had an impact on you? I don’t mean career-wise, professionally, getting you a good salary or anything like that. I mean, just individually, do they stick with you?
RD: I guess. My favorite part, you didn’t mention, though, is…I like doing, I don’t mind doing television. Some people don’t do it, but Lonesome Dove was my favorite part ever.
HH: I’m coming to Gus McCrae in a moment. But did he influence, did that character influence you personally? Or was it just fun?
HH: Did it influence you personally? Or was it just fun?
RD: No, it was fun. You know, it was fun. My ex-wife said don’t let them, they were trying to talk me into playing the other part, and I wanted this part, you know, because it was more like certain aspects of me that people didn’t know. But it was just fun to play, and when I look back on it, it makes me feel good. It gives me a sense of accomplishment. You know, it’s like let the English play Hamlet and King Lear. I’ll play Augustus McCrae.
HH: Was it the most physically demanding role you had?
RD: No, no. Stalin was.
RD: I played Josef Stalin in Russia, in the Kremlin.
HH: And so why was that harder than Gus McCrae or any of these other cowboy movies?
RD: Much harder, much harder, because you go over there into a different culture, you know, the remnants of the Communist regime were left over, where they’re anti-American. It was just very difficult to do. Working for HBO was not easy. The guy who’s the head of it, you know, it was a difficult thing. But strangely rewarding, strangely rewarding.
RD: Nikita Mikhalkov’s father, who knew Stalin, eight times he worked with him, said I’d touched the soul of Stalin. So I don’t, that’s the best review I ever got in my life by anybody. So I don’t have to read reviews, because I got it from the guy who was Stalin’s close associate.
HH: How evil, how evil was Stalin. When you done playing that and studying up, do the American people…
RD: Pretty evil. Pretty evil. Pretty evil. But you know, you had to find the other side, you have to find a human side to the guy as well, that he loved his wife, that he loved some of his children. You know, you have to, you can’t, you have to find the contradictions. You can’t play all one thing.
RD: He didn’t think of himself as evil.
HH: That’s interesting. What’s the most beautiful place in which you’ve worked? You mentioned the Kremlin, but I would assume it’s someplace out West.
RD: The most beautiful place I’ve worked?
RD: Wow. The most fun is working, is in Argentina.
RD: I love working down there, but beautiful places, you know, well, when we did, I don’t know if you saw the other mini-series that was really well done, I thought, called Broken Trail?
HH: Absolutely. Loved it.
RD: Well, there’s no more beautiful country in the world than those Canadian Rockies.
HH: Okay. I want to talk to you about the westerns.
RD: I traveled with a guy who is retired, I met a guy on a boat, an old guy. I said what’s the most beautiful place in the world? He’d been all over the world. He said the Canadian Rockies first, the fjords of Norway second. So where we worked in the Canadian Rockies, they were really, really beautiful. But also, you know, in South America, the Andes are quite beautiful, although I haven’t worked in them. But as far as a place I’ve worked, I would have to say the Canadian Rockies near Calgary is the prettiest, most beautiful spot I’ve worked.
HH: Up near Bamff and up near Lake Louise.
RD: Santa Fe, around there’s very nice, too.
HH: I want to talk to you about the western for a moment. I heard a lecture by a Naval Academy professor named David Allen White once, and I know your dad was an admiral, so maybe that’ll get you some purchase.
HH: But he argued that America will never get an epic like the Iliad or the Odyssey, except the westerns of John Ford, and that the westerns are what…
RD: Well, I’m not a big John Ford fan.
HH: And why not?
RD: Well, I don’t know, I saw five minutes of, what was that one, who is it, the Navy captain, maybe that’s why he was in the Navy, you know, (laughing), you know, John Ford had a big reputation, and he did some good stuff. But The Searchers, I saw five minutes of The Searchers and turned it off, it was so corny.
HH: (laughing) Well, what about working…
RD: I know Scorsese(?) is a big thing, but Scorsese(?) doesn’t know what goes on beyond the South Jersey shore, so no.
HH: (laughing) Talk about corny, though, True Grit, you were working with John Wayne. You’re Ned Pepper. Isn’t that corny?
RD: Is that what?
HH: Was that corny, too? Because I love the movie.
RD: No, that was okay. They’re doing it again, you know.
HH: Oh, I didn’t know that.
RD: Jeff Bridges is going to play John Wayne’s part.
HH: Oh, I didn’t know that. Are you going to be in that one, too?
RD: Yeah, they’re going to…why they’re doing a remake, I’ll never know. But the Cohen Brothers, maybe they ran out of ideas.
HH: Is, what I was getting to, is there anyone who’s coming along who loves the western in the way that John Wayne and John Ford and Robert Duvall has? I mean, you’ve done Lonesome Dove, Open Range, Broken Trail, all these other, True Grit. Anyone else out there?
RD: Oh, and we’ve got some more we’re going to do. But you know, if we can ever get the money, we’re going to do some more of them. But you know, when you look at John Wayne in True Grit, but when you see what he did in The Shootist, his final performance, he was brilliant. He was brilliant, you know.
RD: People tend to write him off sometimes, but just, those who write John Wayne off, go see The Shootist.
HH: You’ve played a lot of these historical people, including Joseph Pulitzer, Josef Stalin, people like that. You’re a judge of historical character then.
HH: What do you make of George W. Bush?
RD: George W?
RD: The ex-president?
RD: Why, why, what…
HH: Well, he gave you the American Medal of Freedom, he’s much criticized. I’m just curious what your assessment of his character is.
RD: I voted for him, but he knew nothing about the border.
RD: The border sheriffs are totally down on him, because he wouldn’t meet with them. But you know, in other aspects, he did, you know, I mean, everybody criticized him for the war, but I noticed all the Democrats and everybody supported him to go into the war, and now they say oh, we didn’t do this, we didn’t do that. But you know, he’d take a stand for right and wrong. But I don’t think he understood the border, or does understand the border.
HH: What do you make of his successor, President Obama?
RD: Well, we’ll see. We’ll see.
HH: Jury’s still out?
RD: We’ll see. Yeah.
HH: When you were on Charlie Rose a few years ago, you got to talking about Cuba and about the need for Americans to understand that. Was that because of the work on Stalin?
RD: Say that again now?
HH: When you were on with Charlie Rose, you were talking about Cuba…
HH: …and how, you know, Fidel Castro was a pretty bad guy, and that Hollywood didn’t get that. Were you sensitive to that because of the work on Stalin?
RD: Well no. The whole thing with Charlie Rose, they deleted what the guy said, but they wouldn’t delete what I said. They hung me out to dry.
HH: Oh, how so?
RD: Well, they just did. You know, there was a misunderstanding in the words and a combination of things back and forth. So you know, it was a misunderstanding with Spielberg. He’s a wonderful, top filmmaker and so forth. And it was a misunderstanding.
HH: Now I want to conclude by talking to you about The Apostle, which may be my favorite…my wife, who’s a Marine Corps brat, loves The Great Santini and cries every time she sees it…
HH: …but I like The Apostle. Gosh, you got that. You nailed him. But The Apostle, do you think Hollywood ever got that, what you were trying to do? Or…
RD: No, no. I could never get the money. If they’d have paid me to play a part like that, I could have made a lot of money. And if they’d have done it themselves, they would have patronized these people between the two coasts. They would have never gotten it. To me, Elmore Gantry was a big patronization of what I saw. But they would have never gotten it. But by doing it myself, I had to finance it. When I sold it, I made six cents.
RD: A dime is all I made. I mean, I got my money back, but you know, so, but I did it the way I wanted to do it. If I had done it out here, as I say, I would have made a lot of money, and it would have been done incorrectly anyway.
HH: And was it worth the effort and the time?
RD: I got a wonderful letter from Marlon Brando, liked what I did in it, and I heard that Billy Graham like it, so I got it from the secular and the religious.
RD: Both sides.
HH: Is there any role you haven’t been able to play that you still want to play, Robert Duvall?
RD: Well, you never know. Sometimes, things jump at you from around the corner. I’m supposed to play, Terry Gilliam approached me to play Don Quixote de la Mancha.
RD: Which I will do when he gets the money. He saw me play the part of a small Cuban barber in a movie I did with Richard Harris. I don’t know if you saw it, I played a Cuban barber.
RD: And it was one of the best parts, I really, really did my homework on it. Had he never seen that, he would have never offered me the part of Don Quixote. We’re supposed to do that in the fall, or thereabouts.
HH: I look forward to that. Now really last question…
RD: And I would like to play Devil Anse in the Hatfields and the McCoys, too, because that’s like American Shakespeare, that feuding between those two clans at the end of the other century.
HH: Is that getting made yet?
RD: Well, they’ve got a great script by Eric Roth, a brilliant script. We’ll see what happens.
HH: All right, last question. When you were making…
RD: And there are also parts that come at you from around the corner that surprise you that are great, like the thing with Terry Gilliam. That wasn’t planned by my company. That wasn’t done by any research of people that work with me. It just came out of the blue. So you never know what comes from around the corner that surprise you.
HH: Did Crazy Heart come from around the corner?
RD: Well, Scott Cooper, you’ve got to give him a lot of credit. He did a wonderful job directing. He never even directed a high school play. This guy made the adaptation from the novel, and got it. Together, we went out and helped raise the money, and he did it. So it was a nice surprise. Yeah, it was. It really was.
HH: Were you aware when it was being made that Jeff Bridges was hitting just every ball out of the park?
RD: Yeah, no…well yeah, I didn’t watch the dailies, but yeah, you could sense that, definitely. Definitely, yeah.
HH: Robert Duvall, in terms of people still working right now with you out there, Brando’s gone, of course, is there anyone who you just stand back and say that person defines the art of making movies?
RD: You mean acting or directing or what?
RD: Oh, there are a lot of good young actors now, a lot of good, young actors. People disagree with me, but there are a lot of good, young actors worldwide, better than ever. The blacks get a chance to act now, the Latins, I mean, there’s wonderful young actors worldwide now, more than ever. The bar has been raised.
HH: On that note, I thank you for your time. I want to respect it, and thanks for joining us.
RD: Thank you, sir. Thank you very much. Bye bye.
End of interview.