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Robert Duvall: I've been so lucky to work with my heroes

Robert Duvall may be a screen idol himself, but as he releases his latest movie, he tells Geoffrey MacNab how he was humbled to act with the likes of Brando, Peck and Sinatra.

Robert Duvall gives a typically grandstanding performance opposite Robert Downey Jnr in The Judge - one for which he has just received his seventh Oscar nomination. Duvall, whose film credits range from To Kill a Mocking Bird and The Godfather to Apocalypse Now and Tender Mercies, plays a small-town judge. The judge's absolute certainty in his own righteousness is undermined when his memory begins to fail. He is involved in a hit-and-run case - and it seems he may have taken the law into his own hands.

"It was hard work," the 84-year-old Duvall says of the role, for which he also received a Golden Globe nomination. "You get 23 days on an independent movie. You get 60 days on a big movie but the 60 days seems like 23 because you are working intensely each day."

In one scene, we see the judge in a state of panicked incontinence - a once mighty figure who can no longer even look after himself. Ask Duvall how he prepared for such a harrowing scene and he simply says that he "followed" the writing.

Following the writing has been Duvall's policy right since the start of his career. In the late 1950s, playwright Arthur Miller came to see him play Italian-American longshoreman Eddie Carbone in an off-Broadway production of Miller's A View from the Bridge.

"He (Miller) visited the rehearsal once or twice. Some friends of mine from East Harlem, where they have organised crime, they said Arthur Miller reminded them of a 'made man.' When you become successful in a (crime) syndicate, you're a 'made man'. He had that New York accent and he was dressed so neatly. He reminded my friends from that area of a 'made man' although he was a very educated guy."

It's an intriguing observation and can't help but make you think that his memories of Miller fed into the well-dressed but understated lawyer Tom Hagen, Don Corleone's adopted son, Duvall played so memorably in The Godfather (picking up his first Oscar nomination in the process way back in 1973.)

Duvall's big movie break came when writer Horton Foote recommended him for the role of the reclusive Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Duvall points to Foote and to Francis Ford Coppola (who cast him in The Rain People, The Godfather and Apocalypse Now) as being "somewhat instrumental in helping me in my beginning years as an actor".

Having started as a Method-style stage actor, Duvall has now all but given up theatre. "I haven't done theatre in many years. The great Eleonora Duse said she refused to do (a performance) eight times a week. I think eight times a week is a bit of a burden. If I had to go back to the theatre right now, I could do it but I prefer film because you get to travel and to meet people."

Duvall is hoping to be back in the saddle again soon. He is planning a new film, The Day the Cowboys Quit, adapted from a book by Elmer Kelton. "It's about some cowboys who went on strike against some big ranch owners who would not let them have their own band of horses and small herd of cattle." James Caan (a friend from Godfather days) has agreed to appear in it and Peter Berg is in talks to direct. The hitch now is finding the financing. Westerns aren't exactly a popular genre even if Duvall sees them as the quintessential American form of storytelling. "You [in the UK] have Shakespeare, and we [in the US] have certain things and the Western is one of them!" he declares.

One of the most incongruous credits in Duvall's very lengthy filmography is Scottish football drama A Shot at Glory, in which he co-starred with the Scotland international Ally McCoist. The film was shot in the East Neuk of Fife, not a location often visited by Hollywood stars.

What brought Duvall to Scotland to play dour Scottish football coach Gordon McCloud in a lowish-budget sports movie?

"It happened to be about Scottish football. I do like soccer, football, a lot. The Scottish are good at it but not great," Duvall states. "Somebody said that when they (the Scots) play Brazil, there is one team that thinks they're the greatest and the other team that knows they're the greatest."

Duvall has appeared with many screen greats over the last 50 years: Wayne, Gregory Peck, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Laurence Olivier and Peter Finch. He singles out Brando as the one who influenced him most: "He was kind of like the godfather of young actors."

Even now, in his eighties, he isn't embarrassed to acknowledge his childlike admiration for such peers. "It's always good to have heroes. If you don't have heroes, at one point in your life, you don't grow. Nobody has all the answers … it is healthy and legitimate to have heroes."

  • The Judge will be released on DVD in March

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