AUSTIN, Texas — Robert Duvall first came to Texas when he was 10, a San Diego military brat on a visit to his mother's family. It would be his first time on a horse, and his first encounter with the people he would later come to know so well.
"These aunts would back up to the fire and lift their skirts to warm their behinds, and I never saw that before," says Duvall, now 83, sitting with a bowl of soup at this city's old Driskill Hotel. "The name of the family was Hart, so we said 'They warmed their hearts.'"
He's never lived in the Lone Star State, but he was embraced as a cultural icon here after his acclaimed performance as Capt. Gus McCrae of the Texas Rangers in "Lonesome Dove," the 1989 TV miniseries based on the epic Larry McMurtry novel. It remains Duvall's favorite role, and in 2011, he was made an honorary ranger.
"'Lonesome Dove' is a big thing down here," Duvall says, looking fit in a puffy black vest over a long-sleeved shirt, a painting of the Texas star and the word "Friendship" hanging nearby. He draws a comparison to a 1972 classic from his career: "I remember walking into the mess hall one day on 'Lonesome Dove.' I said, 'Boys, we're making a "Godfather" of westerns.'"
As the aging, ill-tempered modern rancher Red Bovie, Duvall returns to Texas in "A Night in Old Mexico," which had its North American premiere earlier this month at the
His plans suddenly change when he meets Gally (Jeremy Irvine), an adult grandson he never knew he had. "It's the ultimate surprise: The day you lose your ranch, this kid shows up — the product of a son that ran off and left you, from a wife that ran off and left you," says Duvall.
Together, the duo cross into Mexico in search of good times and escape in a journey through bars and bordellos and scenes of abrupt violence and possible romance. "A Night in Old Mexico" was written by William D. Wittliff, who also scripted "Lonesome Dove," and is directed by Emilio Aragón. It opens in May.
Since Duvall's beginnings as an actor in the 1950s, his roles have taken a varied path through the urban and the rural — from director George Lucas' dystopian debut, "THX 1138," to the mysterious hermit in 2009's "Get Low." For
Westerns have been part of his repertoire since appearing in TV cowboy dramas early in his career, but his first major role on horseback was in 1969's
"He was a good guy, and maybe underrated. When you see 'The Shootist' [from 1976], he was wonderful," says Duvall, recalling Wayne's final role as a gunman diagnosed with cancer. "He really had an ailment — cancer, whether he consciously or unconsciously used it [in his performance]."
Another lasting memory from "True Grit" is of director
It was a culture clash between old Hollywood and a new generation of actors under the brooding sway of Marlon Brando, a topic of discussion on many afternoons at Cromwell's Drugstore in
He first worked with Brando on 1966's "The Chase," and he remembers watching the actor talk and mumble in character before, during and after a take, all in one seamless action. "There was never a beginning. It was all the same," Duvall says. "I always remembered that. I probably learned from that."
They famously worked together again in 1972's "
They were only occasionally in contact after completing "The Godfather," but in 1997, he got a letter from Brando warmly praising "The Apostle," the story of a preacher's profound fall from grace that Duvall wrote, directed and starred in. "The letter is maybe more important than my Oscar," Duvall says with a smile.
In his next film, Duvall is back to an urban setting as the title character in "The Judge," with
"Enough things come along now, but not a great amount, which is fine. Who knows how many more I'll do before they wipe the drool," says Duvall, who needs only a great script to begin building a character.
"I call it from ink to behavior. It begins with the written word, but what does that mean? It's different to make it into behavior. It's a journey."