Robert Duvall’s version of Robert E. Lee ought to pass muster with the most scrupulous of Civil War buffs. Costumed in Confederate regalia, with technical help from the same makeup artist flown in from Italy who helped create Duvall’s hardened look as Augustus McCrae in the 1989 television miniseries Lonesome Dove, the 72-year-old Duvall bears a strong resemblance to Lee. Both actor and general also share a northern Virginia ancestry, and the powerful influence of fathers who were prominent military men.
Duvall’s father, William Howard Duvall, was a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy during World War II. “Bobby” grew up in military towns such as San Diego and Annapolis, graduated from Principia College in Illinois, then spent two years in the Army. More recently, he has been traveling in the upper echelon of the film world, starring in movies like M*A*S*H, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and The Great Santini. He has been called “the best we have, the American Olivier” by New York Times critic Vincent Canby.
Duvall, however, is dismissive of nearly all Hollywood trappings. He abhors the vast sums of money studios commit to disposable pictures, saying “You should see the stuff they waste money on.” And he will tell you time and again that filmmakers have either caricatured or ignored heartland America — which he tries to rectify with the projects he personally champions. “The average workingman has dignity that the Hollywood establishment has overlooked,” says Duvall with real passion. “These Village Voices, these provincial rags of New York City,” he laughs. “You’ve got to get out and travel — you’ve got to get out and look. The center of this country, and the South especially, have been patronized and made fun of. If I can do anything at all in my work to show what dignity is in the common person, then that’s what my life is really about.”
Duvall insists that even rednecks, for whom Hollywood reserves its most severe venom, should have their fair shake. In his 1997 film A Family Thing, which Duvall produced himself, he plays a bigoted Arkansas hardware store owner who discovers that his mother was black. When he travels to Chicago in his red pick-up to find the African-American brother he’s never met (played by James Earl Jones), a powerfully sincere and touching portrayal unfolds. Likewise, in The Apostle — which he wrote, directed, starred in, and edited in an annex to his house — Duvall asked Billy Bob Thornton “to play this guy who objects to integrated worship services, without judging him. I wanted to avoid condescending to these people.”
“We need to have real people up there on the screen,” says Duvall. These days he cares not a whit for Hollywood acclaim. “I got into acting because I wanted to act, not become a star.” Most films, Duvall complains,”patronize and put quotation marks around everything. You want something real. It’s either real life, or it’s phony. There isn’t anything bigger than actual life.”
One of the most memorable characters in The Apostle, a radio station owner/announcer named Elmo, was played by a man from Arkansas called Rick Dial whom Duvall recruited from a furniture store. “I had to have him,” says Duvall. “We needed to work around his job, and our costume guy would put Rick’s arms out and fit him for clothes while he was selling a dining room set. He’s a natural actor, a good citizen, you know — a church-going man. Someone sent him a script with bad language and Rick said, ‘I can’t do that. What are all those little ladies who come in to buy furniture from me going to think about me in a movie with four letter words?’ I love this guy.”
One thing that keeps Duvall close to reality is spending time on his 250-yearold northern Virginia farm. His little hamlet of The Plains is a long way geographically, politically, and spiritually from what Duvall calls the “mink-coat liberals” who live in Beverly Hills and Brentwood. But the split-rail fences and rolling meadows are also a long distance from where Robert Duvall himself stood 25 years ago. He was then an impetuous up-and-comer who fancied himself a Manhattan urbanite while starring on Broadway in David Mamet’s, American Buffalo. “I thought I was on the Upper West Side’s side,” he says, laughing. His journey since then has taken him a long way. Among other things, “Virginia became so special to me — historically speaking .And beauty-wise, as well.”
The recent project that seems to resonate most with Duvall’s affection for Virginia is Gods and Generals, the new Civil War saga from filmmaker Ron Maxwell, which was filmed in the Shenandoah Valley and nearby Maryland. Maxwell had wanted Duvall to play Robert E. Lee in his earlier masterpiece Gettysburg, and Duvall had agreed in concept. “But when we finally went forward with it in the winter and spring of 1992, Bobby wasn’t available,” says Maxwell. He ended up casting Martin Sheen for the part instead. With Sheen now committed to his NBC drama The West Wing, “we went back to Duvall. It was full circle,” states Maxwell.
The role seems to have come easily for Duvall. “I didn’t have to read a hundred and fifty books on the guy, that’s for sure,” he says. “He was from northern Virginia, and that’s exactly where my father was from, and they were both professional military men. My father was definitely a Virginia gentleman, so I just spoke with the accent of my dad.”
Duvall didn’t have total freedom to develop his character. He had read that Lee went to Gettysburg in a horse-drawn hospital cart because his hands were maimed by being bucked off his horse, Traveller. “I said to Ron, ‘Why can’t I be soaking my hands in a bowl of warm water and epsom salts in order to make it much more human and just let the scene develop?’ The guy flatly refused. I didn’t have as much carte blanche as I thought I might.” Nevertheless, both actor and director seem pleased with the result. “Bobby gave an outstanding performance,” Maxwell says.
Ironically, Duvall’s family on his father’s side, though Virginians, all had pro-Northern sympathies. “We grew up knowing that Lee was a revered figure. After all, my father’s people were Southerners. But they were pro-Union behind enemy lines.” Duvall’s grandfather was actually named Abraham Lincoln Duvall.
In many ways, Duvall’s personal situation epitomizes America’s Civil War: mixed loyalties, love torn between different sides, a situation as mixed and complex as human feeling. And that’s the way Duvall decided to portray Lee. “He was a revered guy. But you’ve still got to present the character the same way you would any other one. You’ve got to play him as a human being.”
— John Meroney is associate editor of The American Enterprise. This piece originally appeared in The American Enterprise and is reprinted with permission.