Completely by accident, I’ve gotten a heavy dose of Robert Duvall lately. I wasn’t specifically seeking out his work. It happened to find me naturally. And that’s not a surprise. Duvall is one of the best actors around. He does fantastic work in amazing films, the kind of movies (and mini-series) that any right-thinking cinephile would want to see. He has an uncanny knack for taking relatively minor roles and turning them into something magical. Frankly, he’s one of my very favorite actors. Here are nine of his most memorable performances:
Felix Bush, Get Low (2009)
It seems only right to start with Duvall’s most recent memorable role. His work as the irascible Felix Bush is nothing short of amazing. He takes the role of the whiskey-swilling Tennessee hermit and makes it his own. Because of Duvall, Get Low went from “great concept” to “great execution”, one of the most underrated movies in years.
Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore, Apocalypse Now (1979)
This is some of the most quotable dialogue in one of the most striking scenes you’ll ever find:
You smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for twelve hours. When it was all over I walked up. We didn’t find one of ’em, not one stinkin’ dink body. But the smell! You know – that gasoline smell… the whole hill! Smelled like… victory.
Boo Radley, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
As Boo, Duvall held a pivotal role- as guardian angel for Scout and Jem Finch.
Tom Hagen, The Godfather: Parts I and II (1972 and 1974)
In the Godfather universe (including Mario Puzo’s novelization), Tom Hagen was an Irish runt that big-hearted Sonny brought into the family because he felt bad for him. Before it was over, he had risen to consigliere. Because of Duvall, we know what the word “consigliere” means. We know that Tom Hagen was not a wartime consigliere. We know that a lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns. We know that a good consigliere keeps his head, even when he knows that a horse might not.
Major Frank Burns, MASH (1970)
Duvall worked as the perfect foil to the highjinx of “Hawkeye” Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and “Trapper John” McIntyre (Elliot Gould). Without Burns, the antics of Pierce and McIntyre fall flat and the movie does as well.
Augustus “Gus” McRae, Lonesome Dove (1989)
The role of McRae allowed Duvall to break out a bit from his more stoic performances. As McRae, he enjoyed a good “poke” and employed an interesting, fun-yet-disciplined code of conduct that fit the Western like a glove. He’s also the mini-series’ perfect, albeit flawed, hero.
“Lucky” Ned Pepper, True Grit (1969)
The fact that praise for Barry Pepper’s work in the 2010 version of True Grit universally revolved around comparisons to the 1969 character counterpart speaks volumes about how effective Duvall was. It being a secondary role makes it even more impressive.
The Apostle E.F., The Apostle (1997)
If you have ever been around devout Pentecostals in the American south or midwest, then you realize just how effective Duvall was in channeling the energy for the performance. It’s nothing short of breathtaking.
Karl’s Father, Sling Blade (1996)
Admittedly, it was a tiny part in the movie. And yet, the way Duvall played it seemed to give us loads of insight into how and why Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton) had turned out the way he did.