Robert Duvall on his farm in The Plains, Va.(Coburn Dukehart/NPR)
Robert Duvall is happy out here among the softly rolling hills of Northern Virginia’s Fauquier County. In spirit if not in distance, this is about as far as a guy can get from the bang and clatter of the film business. For more than 25 years the Academy Award-winning actor has visited New York and Los Angeles only when necessity demands. “I like a good Hollywood party,” he says. “I have a lot of friends there. But I like living here.”
Mr. Duvall, 86, and his Argentina-born wife, Luciana, live in a 270-year-old Georgian farmhouse nestled among wood-fenced horse paddocks, picturesque grazing pastures and turtle ponds on the 360 acres of Byrnley Farm. Still as trim and squared away as he was 45 years ago when he played Tom Hagen in “The Godfather,” Mr. Duvall greets visitors in his elegantly appointed foyer looking fit enough to run a mile.
Of average height and modest build, Mr. Duvall has never been what you’d call movie-star handsome, yet he’s played the lead as often as supporting roles. His hairline has been in retreat since his debut as the mysterious Boo Radley in Robert Mulligan’s 1962 adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but he’s never resorted to toupees, wigs or transplants, except when the character required it.
From rhapsodizing about “the smell of napalm in the morning” as the surf-loving Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam epic “Apocalypse Now” to calling forth the healing power of the Holy Ghost as a foot-stomping Pentecostal preacher in his 1997 directorial effort “The Apostle,” Mr. Duvall has cemented his legacy as a versatile film star. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1984 for his note-perfect performance as the washed-out Nashville singer Mac Sledge in Bruce Beresford’s “Tender Mercies.” He has earned six other Oscar nominations. Yet Mr. Duvall says his favorite role was for the small screen: Augustus “Gus” McCrae, the grizzled Texas Ranger he played in the 1989 TV miniseries adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove.”
Like most actors of his generation, Mr. Duvall idolized Marlon Brando : “When I first saw him I said, ‘What is this? What’s he even doing?’ ” Unlike most of his peers, Mr. Duvall had multiple opportunities to act alongside Brando, beginning in Arthur Penn’s largely forgotten 1966 film, “The Chase.” In Brando’s dressing room, master and apprentice broke the ice with a friendly conversation. Then things shifted. “For like eight weeks he wouldn’t even look at you,” recalls Mr. Duvall. “You thought, ‘Ooh, boy, we’re going to be friends now.’ But he knew you wanted that. He’d just walk by. You’d say ‘Good morning.’ He’d just keep walking.” Brando, he is quick to add, loosened up a bit during the filming of “The Godfather.”
The son of a naval officer, Mr. Duvall spent most of his childhood in Annapolis, Md. His family tree, however, has deep roots in Northern Virginia. They were Union sympathizers who had to survive the chaos of the Civil War while somewhat stranded behind enemy lines. The actor’s paternal grandfather, born in 1861, was christened Abraham Lincoln Duvall.
Twenty feet from Mr. Duvall’s front door stands a shagbark hickory with a trunk as wide as a train car. He doesn’t know exactly how old the tree is, but it “goes back to the 19th century, easy.” It almost certainly gave shade to the Union and Confederate soldiers who passed through en route to successive bloody battles at nearby Manassas Junction. “We thought it would come down during the last hurricane,” Mr. Duvall says, “but it didn’t.”
With Confederate monuments and memorials being toppled across the South, a Northerner like me can’t help but note that the street names in this pleasant village are heavy with historical freight—Lee, Pickett, Stuart, Forrest. “Stonewall Jackson marched right through,” says Mr. Duvall. “Bull Run is just down the road.”
Today the Old Dominion is a different kind of battleground. Hillary Clinton carried Virginia with 49.9% of the vote in 2016, but Fauquier County went 59.6% for her opponent. This is Trump country, not the kind of place you might expect to find Hollywood royalty.
The mention of the president’s name causes Mr. Duvall to stiffen. Ask him about football, showjumping or Brando, and he lights up. Ask him about politics, and his eyes narrow: “I’m not interested in making any statements.”
Mr. Duvall’s reticence is understandable. As one of the more famous Republicans in the motion-picture business, he is aware that certain political opinions can crimp a film career. Being an outspoken conservative “can be a very limiting thing,” he admits. That’s why he’s always careful around the topic—especially, it appears, with strangers from New York City.
“Nothing has hurt my career,” he insists. “I don’t talk politics, but nothing has hurt my career.”
In 2008 Mr. Duvall campaigned for John McCain and narrated a video for the GOP convention. In 2012 he hosted a party at Byrnley Farm that reportedly raised $800,000 for Mitt Romney. Lately he has shied away from candidates and campaigns, but he agrees that actors who cling to the coasts may have trouble appreciating that there are two sides—at least—to every political argument.
If you scratch beneath the surface in liberal Hollywood, “you can find some hypocrisy,” he says. Such as the tendency of highly paid actors to sound off at award shows? “Yeah. I mean, how informed are they? How informed is anybody, really?” he asks, his face turning hard. Have Hollywood liberals read Thomas Sowell ? Mr. Duvall has. Have they read Ayaan Hirsi Ali? “I’ve got a lot of respect for that woman,” he says.
When movie stars pontificate about politics, “I get a little like this,” he says, cringing. “I want to tell them to take it easy.” Heeding his own advice, that’s as much as he’ll say on the record. He hasn’t survived a half-century in the film business by speaking freely with journalists.
Mr. Duvall used his own Oscar acceptance speech in 1984 to thank the country-music superstars who inspired his “Tender Mercies” performance. The validation of his friends Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver and Willie Nelson, he says now, meant more to him than any review—though some of the criticism still stings: “There were people who really loved that movie, but there was a strain of people in Washington and New York who hated it.” Anyone in particular? “Yeah,” he says without hesitation. “ Pauline Kael. ”
Kael, the New Yorker’s longtime movie critic, penned a review dripping with condescension of the sort lately called elitism. “The film is said to be honest and about real people,” she wrote. “Mostly the picture consists of silences; long shots of bleak, flat land, showing the horizon line (it gives the film integrity); and Duvall’s determination to make you see that he’s keeping his emotions to himself.”
Thirty-four years later, Mr. Duvall doesn’t hold anything back when it comes to Kael, who died in 1991. “She was a fraud,” he says, in a way that suggests he didn’t mourn her passing—or the passing of the time when a big-name critic at a major magazine could make or break a film on opening weekend.
What else did Kael get wrong? “She put ‘Raging Bull’ down, which was a beautiful movie—De Niro and Scorsese were at their height—but then she lauded ‘Bonnie and Clyde.’ ” Though the latter movie is considered a counterculture classic, Mr. Duvall wasn’t a fan. “My friends in the Texas Rangers said it was not accurate at all.”
In the twilight of his long career, Mr. Duvall’s regrets are few—and specific. “They offered me the lead in ‘Jaws,’ but I wanted to play the other part, the fisherman played by Robert Shaw, ” Mr. Duvall says. Steven Spielberg told him he was too young. Mr. Duvall took one or two jobs solely for the money. “I did a lot of crap,” he admits. “Television stuff. But I had to make a living. And like my wife said, ‘It’s amazing how you survived all these years.’ ”
Mr. Duvall may be secluded here beneath the shagbark hickory, but he knows what’s going on in the wider world. He reads history and is eager to discuss topics ranging from Ireland’s neutrality during World War II to the relative horsemanship of the Boers vis-à-vis the Comanche. He watches cable news sometimes—Mika and Joe.
And he’s still acting and developing projects. If he can get it off the ground, Mr. Duvall will star in the film version of Western novelist Elizabeth Crook’s forthcoming book, “The Which Way Tree.” He recently noticed that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had pledged $100 million to a World Bank fund backed by the president’s daughter Ivanka. “I thought to myself, ‘Please give us $25 [million] to do this movie.’ ”
Let’s say a Saudi prince called with an offer along those lines. Would he entertain it? “Maybe,” he says. “I don’t gravitate toward those guys.”
Mr. Duvall visited the kingdom once—with Wilford Brimley to watch falconry. “It was strange—strangest place I’ve ever been. We were there four days and no one came to get us,” he says. The trip was sponsored by “American Sportsman,” an ABC program. “It was weird. You’d drive through [the desert] to go to the camel races and they’d give you the wrong directions. You’d see cars upside down with the wheels still going. You’d come back and it’d be the same, two hours later—wrecked cars all over the highway.” He and Mr. Brimley high-tailed it to London lest they, too, find themselves upside down in the desert.
Mr. Duvall knows where he doesn’t belong—and where he does. Byrnley Farm is undeniably charming, “choice land,” as a satisfied Mr. Duvall calls it. The air is clean, which he appreciates. Mostly what he likes about it, though, is that it’s not the city. “The great Texas playwright Horton Foote once said a lot of people in New York don’t know what goes on beyond the south Jersey Shore, which is true,” Mr. Duvall says. “I mean, New York is a wonderful place. But it’s not the beginning and end of America. Nor is L.A.”
At Byrnley Farm, the problems of the world can seem very far away. Does he worry at all about the country’s future? “No,” he says. “We’ll survive.”
Mr. Hennessey is an associate editorial features editor at the Journal.