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Robert Duvall: Read All About the Accomplished Actor — From ‘The Godfather’ to ‘Lonesome Dove’

Check out his impressive resume!


Before he became mob lawyer Tom Hagen in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and The Godfather II, Robert Duvall was expected to attend the United States Naval Academy, following in his father’s footsteps. However, school wasn’t exactly for him, and to add insult to injury, Duvall defied his father by serving in the United States Army instead of the Navy.

It was while stationed at Camp Gordon in Georgia that Duvall acted in an amateur production of the comedy Room Service in nearby Augusta, and that set things in motion.

Robert Duvall, 1981
Robert Duvall, 1981Chuck Fishman/Getty Images

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The man, the myth, the legend: Robert Duvall

Now almost 70 years after he made his amateur stage debut, the veteran actor and director is still going strong at age 93. Born Robert Selden Duvall in San Diego, California, he began attending the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York City on the G.I. Bill in 1955, studying alongside Dustin Hoffman, with whom he shared an apartment.

The duo befriended another struggling actor, Gene Hackman, who also became Duvall’s roommate. He took on odd jobs to help pay the bills such as a Macy’s clerk, sorter at the post office and truck driver.

Robert Duvall, 1981
Robert Duvall, 1981Chuck Fishman/Getty Images

Throughout the 50s, Duvall concentrated on theater, including performances in Dial M for Murder, The Crucible, Picnic and many others. It was the 1957 summer season at Gateway Playhouse on Long Island that Duvall appeared as Mr. Mayher in Witness for the Prosecution, as well as the role which he once described as the catalyst of his career, Eddie Carbone in Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge.

Acting teacher Sanford Meisner cast Duvall in a play, The Midnight Caller by Horton Foote. It was ultimately a fortuitous casting, as it was Foote who recommended Duvall to play the mentally disabled Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962. This was Duvall’s first major film role.

Robert Duvall jumps from stage to screen

The actor in 'Network,' 1976
Robert Duvall, Network, 1976Frank Edwards/Fotos International//Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Duvall appeared in many off-Broadway and Broadway productions throughout his career, always offering up notable performances. Episodic character work followed along with barely mentioned billing in films such as The Chase with Marlon Brando, Countdown and The Rain People with James Caan in 1969.

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Also in 1969, Duvall played bad guy Lucky Ned Pepper in True Grit, where he engaged in a climatic shootout with John Wayne’s Rooster Cogsburn on horseback. Duvall has said the only good thing about making this movie was working with The Duke.

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Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, The Godfather, 1972
Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, The Godfather, 1972Paramount Pictures/Getty Images

Duvall is credited with creating the first Major Frank Burns in the feature film, MASH (1970). Then came his big breakthrough when Coppola reunited Duvall with Brando and Caan in The Godfather, where he received his first of six Oscar nominations for the role of Tom Hagan.

Solidifying his place in Hollywood, Duvall’s appearance as Kilgore in Apocalypse Now (1979) ushered in a second Oscar nomination and he was named by the Guinness Book of World Records the most versatile actor in the world.

Robert Duvall, Apocalypse Now, 1979
Robert Duvall, Apocalypse Now, 1979Zoetrope Studios/United Artist/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Proving he was an established character actor who could segue from supporting to leading roles, Duvall was Oscar nominated for The Great Santini (1979) and Tender Mercies (1983). In the latter film, he showed the world he could sing. In fact, he insisted that he do his own singing and had it written into his contract.

Perhaps due to his rising star, Duvall demanded the studio give in to his assertion for a salary hike commensurate with that of Al Pacino’s $5 million for The Godfather III. The studio said no and so did Duvall.

Tom Hagen and Michael V. Gazzo, The Godfather: Part II, 1974
Tom Hagen and Michael V. Gazzo, The Godfather: Part II, 1974John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

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The actor visits the wild, wild west

Along came an American TV Western, Lonesome Dove, a 1989 miniseries that had a profound effect on the filmmakers and actors alike. Duvall came to the project already a bonafide star, famous for his Tom Hagen role.

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Coming onto this project meant a 20-year hiatus from the TV cameras was broken. Deep down, Duvall knew this miniseries and his role as Gus McCrea was something different and career altering.

The 'Lonesome Dove' actor posing with a horse, 1989
Robert Duvall, 1989Joan Adlen/Getty Images

The consummate actor thought McCrea was one of his best roles ever. “There are other parts I liked,” he told True West Magazine in 2016. “I played a Cuban barber in Wrestling Ernest Hemingway with Richard Harris, which was one of my favorite parts. But I would say Lonesome Dove was like my Hamlet or my Henry V, so to speak. When it was over, I felt like I could retire. I felt I’d done something fully and completely. He was a very complex guy. It was a fine character to be able to play.”

It was surprising that the TV role of Gus McCrea had a profound effect on such an established career. “It’s a lot like when I got an Oscar; a lot more recognition in airports,” he continued. “Wherever I go, people refer to that. When I was made an honorary Texas Ranger, a woman came up to me. ‘Mr. Duvall, we watch this once a year. I wouldn’t let my daughter’s fiancé marry into the family until he’d seen Lonesome Dove.’ In other places I go, too, but especially in Texas, it’s kind of a landmark for people.”

Robert Duvall, 1989
Robert Duvall, 1989 Ralph Dominguez/MediaPunch via Getty Images

Duvall has stated that he is most proud of his role as the former Texas Ranger Augustus McCrae. While other films and projects have followed in Duvall’s illustrious career, Lonesome Dove stands out for both the actor and the audience. “The English have Shakespeare; the French have Moliere, the Russians have Chekov. But the Western is ours,” he told True West.

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