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.

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.

Josef Stalin was chief architect of that reign, and presents a monstrous task for any actor (or dramatist, for that matter) to portray. As one of the most powerful dictators of the 20th Century, he camouflaged himself within a stupendous bureaucracy and affected the entire political and historical climate of the West. Tens of millions perished under his regime. How do you play not just evil, but Evil?

"It's the most difficult thing I've ever had to do," Duvall said. "You can't play evil, you can only play behavior. It wasn't Shakespeare. I had to play this gray quality. Stalin would stand in front of the mirror practicing that, studying to make himself more and more inscrutable. Where do you find pace and energy there? In newsreels, you see that Stalin wasn't the obvious thing, like Mussolini or Castro. You never saw home movies of him, like Hitler and Eva Braun. You never saw his friends. He was a hermetic guy. He wasn't flamboyant. But he had a hypnotic face, like Rasputin. I guess I had a lot of insecurity. I didn't know it at first, but I was fighting for my life."

Duvall's Stalin, as we see, can sing and dance and joke at the table with his cronies. But his mirth erupts in whiffs of dead air; there isn't a spontaneous bone in his body. Even when flirting with the girl who would become his wife, his voice sounds canned. Makeup, false hair and a prosthetic nose have done a lot to bring up Stalin's portentous image, but the recessed lizard's gaze, in which impressions are taken in icy little calibrations, are Duvall's. The tiny flicker of light in his shrewd eyes completes the illusion of menace.

Duvall knew he had resurrected the Stalin mystique when he stepped out of his dressing room and none of the Russian crew and bystanders could bring themselves to look at him.

"He had the courage to go in front of the camera not knowing what exactly he was going to do," said Ivan Passer. "You have to go with your gut and suppress your intellect. He'd walk onto the set and whisper to me, 'I don't know what's gonna happen.' When he said that to me, I knew something tremendous was going to happen. He played at not being terrifying, which made him more terrifying. Everyone felt it, the actors, the crew--everyone."

Normally, once one job is done, Duvall is on to the next. "As soon as a film is finished, you get this ghostly feeling," he says. "Five minutes after the wrap, I'm outta there."

Duvall shot "Falling Down" with Michael Douglas in Los Angeles earlier this year, and in mid-November will begin filming Randa Haines' "Wrestling Ernest Hemingway"--in which he plays a lonely 75-year-old Cuban emigre--in Miami. But "Stalin" keeps calling him back, possibly because, until a popular and critical consensus settles in, the role remains unfinished business.

And possibly as well because the movie and real historical event in what is now the Commonwealth of Independent States rub up against each other in novel and unexpected ways. To have gained access to one level of the Kremlin while Mikhail Gorbachev was working upstairs was unprecedented enough--as a point of comparison, imagine a group of Russians filming in the White House while a sitting president is in the Oval Office.

Too, the August, 1991, coup attempt happened while Passer and producer Mark Carliner were scouting Moscow locations. With tanks and infantry taking up positions around the Kremlin, they made their getaway to Budapest. Three days later, the film company was invited back by Boris Yeltsin who, it appears, had recognized the enormous propaganda value of using "Stalin" to fend off the resistance of hard-liners to his reforms (Yeltsin arranged to screen "Stalin" for 1,100 of the Commonwealth's leadership in Moscow on Nov. 7, before broadcasting the movie nationwide).

Finally, the film's last shot was made in the living room of Stalin's dacha on the anniversary of the day he collapsed from a stroke. Four hours earlier, the Soviet Union had been formally dissolved; after champagne-fueled revelry, some of the company stepped out in the December chill to watch the new Commonwealth flag go up over Red Square.

With so much in the air, Duvall has made a greater-than-usual effort to meet with the press (he also flew to Moscow for the Yeltsin screening), a task he views with hearty dutifulness but not much else.

"I'm not good at letting people in," he said in a Beverly Hills Hotel bungalow, in which discussion of "Stalin" segued into discussion of his acting career. "But I am focused. Doing 'Stalin,' there wasn't a lot of time to operate. I knew that if it was going to come out of me, it'd have to come from an emotional source. On the set the first day, it was 'Help!' but that's better than working out of a big bag of preconceptions."

Duvall wore a silky maroon short-sleeve pullover and tan slacks. At 62, he has a light, buoyant tap-dancer's frame with slender arms and quick, sensitive-looking hands. His shoulders are somewhat narrow and his back is military straight. He looked like someone who had come in from a brisk walk through a pleasurable summer rain and had just shaken himself out and dried off. He has a prominent forehead--brown hair slicked back at the sides topped off by a wide empty runway of scalp--and a halfback's strong jaw.

The rest of his physical deportment suggests a mild, pleasant man, but the truth is that his ordinary demeanor is closer to his jumpy, volatile characters than his recessive ones. His conversation is punched up in short, explosive bursts.

Duvall talked about Stalin for a short time more before he introduced the subject of the tango. At any given time in his life he's consumed by two or three obsessions. Once it was tennis (he took it up late and rose to become a celebrity tournament champion); more of late it's been equestrian jumping and now, the tango. He'll find any excuse to bring these topics up, even to the point of mentioning them with no excuse at all.

"It's a whole world, full of great artists and characters. I've been down to Buenos Aires six times to learn more about it. You can go to clubs where they'll discuss it-- discuss it --for three hours. I can't put my finger on why I love it so much. It's an actor's dance. On a good night I could do it well enough, but there are still guys I look to for inspiration and support. In everything you have to find your level beyond the neophyte level."

Duvall fielded some biographical queries for a few moments. He was born in San Diego in 1931, the middle son of a U.S. Navy rear admiral. His older brother, William, studied opera and teaches music at the University of Wisconsin. His younger brother, Jack, is an attorney who practices in Alexandria, Va. The family moved to Annapolis when World War II broke out.

"I was a late bloomer in a lot of things," he said. "I had a lot of blocks. We spent eight years in Annapolis during the war, then I went to several different high schools. I never was a great student, but I was good enough until the eighth grade, when I got a little overwhelmed. It was adolescence; you never know what you're gonna do. My parents kind of pushed me into acting. I wasn't doing well in school. My brothers and I kind of went our separate ways. I was a loner somewhat."

Duvall's manner remained up-tempo and polite, but a growing succinctness in his answers suggested that the past was one country he didn't care to revisit.

In a short time it became apparent that the theory he holds about acting, living for the moment, is an expression of his everyday life as well. The constant mercurial shifting of his moods and thoughts seems to roil just below his skin surface. He perked up at the suggestion of going out for a walk.

"Let's go see my friend Alex Olmedo," he said, referring to the hotel's tennis pro. "He won Wimbledon in '59. Helluva player.

"I took up tennis after I broke my pelvis in a riding accident and needed something to do for exercise," he continued, stepping lightly along the narrow concrete path to the tennis court. "There was this guy who kept telling me, 'I could beat you any time.' It drove me crazy"--crazy enough that at one point Duvall practiced up to six hours a day. Age has slowed him somewhat.

"When you get older, your true character comes out. You see these old guys who get so bitter, so mean." He stopped on the walkway and instantly froze into a gargoyle of twisted senescent rage, his hands gnarled and bent, his head lowering, his underjaw and teeth thrust out like a fearsome piranha. The transformation was startling, and comic.

Olmedo, a tall, powerfully built Peruvian, offered Duvall a hearty greeting, but he was busy giving a lesson to a high school player, so Duvall took up a courtside conversation with the boy's father, a physician. "Where you from?" Duvall asked. ("I'm always interested in people's genealogy, I don't know why," he said later. "It helps me place them; we're all from somewhere." Duvall traces his lineage on his father's side back to the first French Huguenot settlers in Virginia. His mother's family is from East Texas.)

Soon he was regaling the doctor with tales of the tango and its prideful, cocksure practitioners. He told of one bantamweight Argentine dancer in Las Vegas who hurled a beefy man into a Coke machine. Duvall relishes the masculine rough-and-tumble, and collects stories like this one of a Texas patriarch:

"He's 72 years old, this guy, named Davis. He was a tough man champion. Had a 22-year-old on his land gave him some lip, he took this kid and stomped him in a hole. Just stomped him. The kid went home and told his daddy, who said, 'Shee! The both of us couldn't whip that old man.' " He laughed exuberantly.

"Bobby, he's a lunatic and I love him for it," says Caan, who's made several films with Duvall, including "Countdown," "The Rain People," "The Killer Elite" and "The Godfather" (where, on weekends, Duvall invited Caan out to his house in Tuxedo Park, N.Y., and taught him bird calls and country songs). "He makes his presence felt. There's never a peg in the meter with him, it's always on 10. There's always a life going on."

Duvall's two-story post-colonial farmhouse is perched on one of a seemingly endless series of rolling hills in Philemont, Va., about 20 minutes off Route 50, which connects Washington to Middleburgh and points west (his 37 acres include a guest house and a stable). A couple of weeks after his Beverly Hills stay, he sat down to a lunch of Maryland crab cakes (his mother's recipe) and a bowl of salad, prepared by his wife.

Sharon Brophy is the only American to make the cut for the "Tango Argentino" Broadway company. She's a rather petite, small-waisted woman whose cutaway jeans revealed the powerful thighs she's built up over the years as a professional dancer. They've been married (his third) for less than two years.

Her domestic entourage consists of a big sleepy retriever named Boo, two Jack Russell terriers named Sister and Gus (they resemble a set of irritable little concierges), and a small black-and-white Vietnamese pig named Bubber, who taps along anxiously on tiny pink feet that look like high heels. The dogs don't know what to make of the pig, a communal hanger-on, and frequently snap at it, provoking grunts and squeals of fearful indignation.

Though cordial, Duvall was fighting discomfiture. A couple of days earlier he'd taken a spill when he mistimed a jump on his horse, Fino, a powerfully built young stallion that strongly resembles the late Secretariat, and he couldn't help wincing whenever he had to move his shoulder.

The question came up as to why he didn't make "Godfather III," which a lot of people thought suffered from his absence.

"It was the money," he said. "Francis (Ford Coppola) came here to discuss it, but when he left he was more worried about getting the recipe for my mother's crab cakes my than he was about the movie. My theory was that if someone like Pacino would get twice as much as I did, maybe that's OK. But three times as much was unacceptable. If we were all doing this for money, I should have got a bigger piece of the pie. I was willing to take less, but not that much less."

Duvall dispatched lunch with gusto, then moved into the living room with its commanding view of emerald-colored fields and, in the hazy distance, the Blue Ridge Mountains. He talked about his mother and father.

"He was a working-class Republican, very muted, very covered. Good or bad, he distanced himself from us with his officer's mentality. We didn't have too much of a connection until the end. Maybe they sensed a restlessness in me. She was always in control. One time he said, 'You kind of keep the boys from me,' but she kept the family together. She was hard to gauge. It's a package deal. During the war years, I was very young; she was very nervous. The day World War II broke out my father commissioned a new destroyer. She worried a lot.

"It's such a caste system he came through, then the war was over and he came home to my mother, who was very strong. There wasn't that transition of power when the father comes home. I don't know if he was ever fulfilled after that.

"We all have a journey from the cradle to the grave--that's my philosophy. My mother was expressive, a mimic, very extroverted. Whatever goes into the pot, she gave me what I have. We were middle class, not a lot of money. She had a cooking service and ran a cotillion. A government handout was a no-no. We moved around. I wasn't privy to the neighborhood concept, like in New York. It seems that people who have been in transit wind up in the arts. I guess that's how it happened for me. But I'm convinced that someday I'll be together with them again. I really feel that."

Duvall went to Principia College in Illinois as a government major until he ran into a diseur and former dancer (who appeared with Pavlova) named Frank Parker, who turned on Duvall to the theater. Says his brother, Jack, "When the acting thing occurred, it was like a light switch turned on. Then he knew where he was going. You could see the talent then."

After school and an Army stint, Duvall went up to New York and enrolled in Sanford Meisner's Neighborhood Playhouse which, like the Actor's Studio, was a mecca for some of the best young actors in America at the time (he and Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman became close friends). In 1957 he went out to Gateway Playhouse in Bellport, Long Island, to do a single performance as Eddie Carbone in "View From the Bridge" (Hackman ran the lights) under the direction of another young Army vet from Yale, Ulu Grosbard.

Says Grosbard: "Even then he had the thing you go for as an actor and director, perfect control but the feeling of total unpredictability. A lot of good actors will give you technique, precision and a character's arc, and that's important. But not that many give you the sense that this is actually what's transpiring at the moment in front of your eyes."

The strength of that performance put out the word-of-mouth on Duvall as a comer. (Grosbard directed him again in an Off-Broadway production of "View" in 1965, and also directed "American Buffalo" and the 1981 film "True Confessions.") Horton Foote remembered him from a Neighborhood Playhouse performance of Foote's "The Midnight Caller" (later done on TV's Philco Playhouse) and recommended him for "To Kill a Mockingbird." Duvall has been working steadily ever since. "I've made it, but what does that mean?" he said.

A sudden aggrieved squeal from Bubber echoed through the hall. Duvall glanced back to see that his wife wasn't around and whispered, "I'm gonna eat that pig."

Then, after a pause: "A famous writer--British, I won't tell you his name--called me dumb. Not direct. But it got back to me. That hurt my feelings. It was a long time ago--30 years. I've been careful ever since. When 'The Godfather' came along, I didn't know if 10 years down the line I'd be better than other guys. But I thought it'd take that long. Now there's nobody I'd put ahead of myself, as long as I try to stay open in my work."

"He's curious about everything and never settles for a quick answer," said Brophy. "He gets frustrated easily, but he doesn't give up. I think he never got over that cutting remark. I think it's one of the things that's driven him to do everything to the best of his ability."

Duvall is suspicious of his incapacity toward glibness, not realizing perhaps that his power of self-transformation as an expressive instrument has grown so much more complete.

"I saw him a couple of weeks ago in Los Angeles," Ivan Passer said. "He'd lost 25 pounds. He had this pencil-thin mustache. He moved differently. He was so-- Cuban .

"I felt as if I'd lost a friend."

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