Malibu, Calif. — "I spoke to him on the phone yesterday and told him about coming to see you. He said to be sure and tell you that you're a lousy tennis player," said a visitor to Robert Duvall about a mutual friend.
"Oh, yeah!" said Duvall, laughing as he pulled a can of ginger ale out of the refrigerator and popped the top. "He said that? Well, did he also tell you that I beat him the last time we played? I whipped him."
This is a man who takes his tennis, and not much else, seriously. Duvall started the game about 14 years ago, and approached it maniacally, spending six hours a day at it. During our visit he was dressed in his blue warm-up suit. His metal Head tennis racket had been tossed carelessly on the living room couch.
For a time, he was No. 1 in his class -- a class that says a lot about the man, for he belongs to that exclusive sports bunch known on TV as the "celebrity superstars." That brings up the other subject that Robert Duvall takes seriously: acting. Next to that, tennis pulls down the consolation prize.
Duvall is what they call in the movie business "an actor's actor," and after 25 years he is becoming recognized as one of the finest talents in film. He consumes parts, gobbles them up, filling out every nook and cranny of a role so that when it shows on the screen it consists of equal parts of talent and skill.
He seldom incurs a bad review, but by the same token he falls short of being a star, in the Hollywood sense of the word. Not many people line up at the box office just to see the latest Robert Duvall movie -- the way they would for a Burt Reynolds or Clint Eastwood flick. Most people would probably be hard put to recall the last one he made.
What they do remember, however, is Col. William Kilgore, the enthusiastic and slightly crazed air cavalry (helicopter) commander in "Apocalypse Now."
They remember his Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in the TV miniseries "Ike," and the ruthless and utterly despicable company man in the movie "Network." Then there was Luck Ned Pepper, the 100 percent bad guy who played opposite John Wayne in the latter's Oscar-winning role in "True Grit," and the distinctly warped Dr. Frank Burns in the original "M*A*S*H" and lawyer Tom Hagen in "The Godfather I" and its sequel.
Duvall has been plying his trade on the screen for the last 20 years and as a stage actor for several years before that. Other actors and members of the film community have long- recognized talents, but he has only just begun to receive popular recognition.
But now his role as Col. Bull Meechum in "The Great Santini" is a heavy favorite to win him a nomination for the Best Actor Academy Award. And recently Vincent Canby, film critic of the New York Times, referred to him as "one of the most resourceful, most technically proficient, most remarkable actors in America today . . . . He may well be the best we have, the American Olivier." Not bad for a guy who's never made a Hollywood fan magazine.
In the living room of his rented Malibu house -- home for a two-month stay in Los Angeles -- he talked about his career.
He rarely gives interviews and, when he does, not all of them are sparkling performances. The glamour quotient in his life style would rattle in a thimble, and his conversation is low-key, his words clipped with a trace of New York accent. He will, however, talk for hours about acting and anything that produces good acting.
In that respect, he regards his role as Bull Meechum in "The Great Santini" as one of his best and favorite roles. "It was a lot more flamboyant than most of the roles I play and more dimensional. I get roles like that on the stage, but in film I generally get more muted parts . . . . Yeah, I get a lot of bad-guy roles, but I think a lot of the interesting parts are kind of weird. They're the more complex ones."
His first role was that a Boo Radley, the retarded man in "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962, starring Gregory Peck), who does not appear until the very end of the film and has no lines. After that break, doors began to open slowly (very slowly, at times; this reporter, who has followed Duvall's career closely, recalls a part in the early 1960s as a sea monster in the TV series "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea"). The next real break came when he was cast as Tom Hagen , the non-Italian foster son and lawyer to Marlon Brando's Vito Corleone in the two "Godfather" movies.
In between, there has been a healthy sprinkling of definitely "B" movies ("Badge 373" in 1973, "The Outfit" in 1974, "Breakout" in 1975. And he is not especially fond of a film he recently made for Polygram Pictures called Pursuit"). Bull Meechum could well be a landmark in his career, bringing him more varied roles. Already he has a part he is enthusiastic about -- in the movie "True Confessions." Directed by Ulu Grosbard and starring Robert de Niro and Duvall, the film takes up the story of two brothers, one a priest (De Niro) and the other (Duvall) a detective. (It will not be released until 1981, in order not to conflict with De Niro's shot at Best Actor in "Raging Bull," produced by the company that produced "True Confessions." Ah, Hollywood.)
"His parts are usually one-dimensional," says Lewis John Carlino, director of "The Great Santini" and a chum from the leaner years Off Broadway. "He hasn't really had a chance to take the whole stage in films. This part gave him a lot of depth, and he played it for all it was worth, wonderfully. He has never had the opportunity to do comedy, although everybody knows he is capable of it, and this role has some of that."
His career opened in 1955, the year he left the Army, graduated from college, and took up residence in New York City. He studied for two years at the Neighborhood Playhouse under Sanford Meisner and counted among his friends in those days Robert de Niro, Gene Hackman, Mr. Carlino, and Dustin Hoffman. Work on the stage landed him some leads in the "Naked City" TV series, and playwright Horton Foote was impressed enough with one stage performance to offer him the part of Boo Radley in "To Kill a Mockingbird," for which Foote was writing the screenplay.
He has worked with Foote on several occasions since then -- in fact he considers that his finest performance was in a Foote screenplay of the William Faulkner short story "Tomorrow." Ironically, what he considers his second best -- in "Santini" -- almost did not make it to theaters because the production company neglected to give it strong distribution.
"Tomorrow" was very well reviewed by the few critics who did see it, and Duvall was singled out for a stunning performance as Fentry , as semiretarded Southern dirt farmer who takes in a pregnant girl, sees her through the birth, and then, when the mother dies, raises the child only to have it taken away.
"It was done in black and white, and the part was kind of a continuation of Boo Radley . . . . It's behavior I really go for. To me, the beginning and end of acting is behavior, structured behavior. You make it as pure as you can to life. That's the quest of an actor."
He tends to regard reviews with less than total reverence, comparing them to "you or me going down to Cape Kennedy and telling the scientists there 'this missile should go to the moon.' Even Vincent Canby's raves failed to produce more than a shrug of the shoulders, and Duvall as yet has not seen any reason to save the reviews from his 25-year career.
"I'd much rather hear something from someone I know. You know, if De Niro says I did a good job or George Scott were to singe out even a really minor performance, that would be worth more to me than raves from the critics."
Directors sometimes have a hard time with Duvall, and his disagreements with them, politely termed, are well known in the film industry. Duvall is not considered temperamental, but "he simply does not respond to direction," one director comments.
"He puts all this work into a part -- which is certainly admirable and contributes to his brilliance as an actor -- but it tends to make him think [ that] the way he sees the part is the only way to see it. A director has to look at the picture as a whole and figure out how all the parts and actors fit into it. If you suggest that perhaps he should play his part a bit differently, he disagrees, strongly."
Duvall says that he "really good directors don't say I'm hard to work with. You talk to [George] Lucas or [Francis Ford] Coppola or Ulu Grosbard, they won't say I'm hard to work with. It's the second-rate directors that I give problems to. If a director doesn't come up to my standards, then I'm hard to work with.
"The older I get, the more secure I am in my acting ability, and the more confidence I have in my own ideas."
A "good director," in Duvall's estimation, "wants to see what you bring [to the role]," men like Coppola, who has used Duvall in four films ("The Rain People," The "Godfathers," and "Apocalypse Now")."
What Duvall invariably brings to a part is a mental library packed with research. For his part as a police detective in the forthcoming "True Confessions," starring him and De Niro, he spent hours with detectives on the New York City police force. He monitored their progress on a particular murder case and just hung around, listening and talking.
For the role of Col. William Kilgore, of the 1st Battalion of the 9th Air Cavalry, "I hung around people in the air cavalry, just talking to people and remembering the Special Services officers from when I was in the Army. Those guys are really something. You know the officers in the cavalry wore spurs? They did that! They wore a special kind of shoes, and they wore cavalry hats with crossed sabers on them. All the air cavalry officers can trace the lineage back through the great cavalries . . . ."
Duvall did not find his acting niche until midway through college, close to flunking out. "He didn't do too well in academics," Charles Hosmer, a former classmate and Army buddy, says. The acting talent simmered not too far below the surface, but Duvall was somewhat nervous about the "image" -- real or imagined -- of actors as well as his parents' reaction. His father, Rear Adm. Howard Duvall, was a career Navy man, and acting was not the sort of profession promoted by a military upbringing.
"As a kid," though, one of his two brother says, "Bodge [his family nickname] was a natural mimic." He has fascinated by people and would file their characteristics in his memory.
An English teacher suggested he take up drama, and his parents, who were beginning to wonder if their son would ever amount to much, agreed. Duvall consumed the college drama course with the vigor of a hungry man sitting down to a steak dinner.
Dr. Hosmer says: "He didn't make fun of people, but he would laugh at them or imitate them if they struck him as different . . . . I don't think Bodge ever thought of anybody as weird, just interesting . . . . He had a field day with the Army, because it was so full of characters."
Unlike most actors who play so many leading roles, Duvall does not employ a reader to decide which scripts are worth the star's consideration or a publicity (press) agent, or a lawyer to draw up the contracts.
Duvall's brother Jack runs all his business affairs from an Alexandria, Va., law office, drawing up contracts and reading some of the scripts that come Bob's way.
It is his fascination with the unusual in people that has led him to the current stage in his career -- directing, shooting, financing his own film about a gypsy boy called Angelo.
"The first time I heard him," Bob said, "was on a street corner near 31st and Columbus [in New York]. He was seven years old and was saying to this woman who was 28, 'Patricia, if you don't love me more I'm going to move to Cincinnati.'
"As soon as he opened his mouth, I said, 'This kid has got to be the lead in a movie.'"
Duvall convinced Angelo and his family that he was right, and for the last three years since then he has been absorbed in making "Angelo, My Love."
"I'd say it was the most exciting thing I ever did in my life, just doing it, directing it. I'd say on a one-shot deal that the kid's as good an actor as any I've ever worked with. That includes Brando, De Niro, anybody. Just on a one-shot basis."
Angelo's family and other gypsies act in the film with Angelo, and since most gypsies are illiterate, most of the dialogue is improvised.
"I told everybody I didn't want any acting. I said, 'Don't try to be like Hollywood.' I just said to roll the camera and we'll redo anything we need to. They came up with great stuff, some wonderful acting, much better than the real actors who are in the film."
He financed the $750,000 project himself -- something one never does in the movie industry.
Duvall finished shooting the film last summer and now lugs a film editing machine and a film editor, plus the latter's wife and her six-month-old baby, around the country, paring 150,000 feet of celluloid down to 3,000 feet. He hopes to have "Angelo, My Love" ready by summer, and he has a distribution deal with Avco -Embassy.