Leonard Maltin-Robert Duvall-SXSW-680-

Robert Duvall likes barbecue. What’s more, he knows the best places for brisket in and around Austin, Texas. I learned this while chatting up the celebrated actor just before going onstage for an hour-long conversation at South by Southwest on Tuesday. My daughter Jessie asked if he could teach her the tango, another of his passions. He said he could show her some moves on the spot, but it would take ten years just to learn how to walk properly. Duvall speaks knowledgeably and enthusiastically about a number of things, but once we were in front of an audience we focused on his remarkably rich career.

He was at SXSW to present his latest film, A Night in Old Mexico. This likable, low-budget outing is a labor of love, written with the actor in mind by William Wittliff; he scripted the unforgettable Lonesome Dove miniseries, which gave Duvall his all-time favorite role. Wittliff had the idea some thirty-five years ago, but it’s taken all this time to come to fruition—and for the actor to grow into the role of an aged rancher who’s just lost his property. Duvall is very fond of Texas, where he’s made a handful of films, and enjoyed the brisk 23-day shoot in Brownsville. When I asked if he saw the character as an extension of Gus McCrae from Lonesome Dove, he had no hesitation in saying yes.
In our wide-ranging interview he spoke about his hero, Marlon Brando, more than once, and sprinkled his anecdotes with an amusing imitation of the acting icon. And while he’s proud of the Oscar he won for Tender Mercies, he says in some way the letter from Brando that’s framed on the wall nearby means even more to him.

He recalled the prankster atmosphere on the set of The Godfather and spoke of costar James Caan with particular fondness, as they are still close friends. They met not on that legendary movie but on a nearly-forgotten film about astronauts called Countdown, directed by Robert Altman just before he cast Duvall as Major Frank Burns in MASH. He enjoyed working with Altman, who expected his actors to contribute ideas to the process of moviemaking—unlike Hollywood veteran Henry Hathaway, who directed him in True Grit and said that when he called “action” he expected his performers to tense up! Duvall has much fonder memories of that film’s star, John Wayne (“Duke was great to work with,” he said) and feels that he was underrated as an actor.

As in any career, there are many recurring figures, none more significant for Duvall than author and playwright Horton Foote. They met in New York when the young actor was working in theater and live television, and it was Foote who recommended him for the pivotal role of Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. Duvall later starred in an underappreciated film called Tomorrow, which is about to be reissued on Blu-ray, and, of course, Tender Mercies. An audience member asked if he ever thought of becoming a country singer like his character in that film, and while he said no, he later mentioned that he did record an album years ago for an unnamed producer who then stonewalled him—and never released the disc.

Another attendee wondered if he saw greatness in George Lucas when he starred in the director’s debut feature THX1138. Duvall explained that he first met Lucas on the set of Francis Coppola’s The Rain People, when he was hired to shoot behind-the-scenes footage of its production. By the time they met up again for THX Duvall was duly impressed with the wunderkind’s obvious talent.

I asked about some of the imposing real-life people he’s played on cable TV in recent years, including General Robert E. Lee., Adolph Eichmann and Joseph Stalin. He said that picking up accents was not a problem. The toughest accent he ever tackled: a Scottish brogue.

Our packed audience hung on every word, and most of the people who approached the microphones to ask questions were clearly awed to be in the presence of a man who has given us so many indelible memories. He clearly enjoyed the attention and affection.

He was candid in admitting that good roles are hard to come by nowadays, although he’s enthusiastic about a picture he recently shot with Robert Downey, Jr. called The Judge. He’s got an idea he’d love to develop for his wife (who starred with him in Assassination Tango) about a female Texas Ranger; in real life, there are only three. But, as many others have learned, it’s difficult to raise money for an indie film. As he put it, “It’s easier to get a hundred million than five.” 

What matters most is that he still enjoys acting. He’s fit and trim, and looks at least ten years younger than his age; you’d never guess him for an octogenarian. It was a pleasure to spend time with him, on and off stage. He carries himself lightly but let’s face it: he’s one of the best actors alive.