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Robert Duvall

movie actor known for playing an amazing range of characters

Robert Duvall

Robert Selden Duvall was born in San Diego, California, on January 5, 1931, the son of a career Navy man, but was raised in Fairfax County, Virginia. His mother was a talented amateur actress, and Robert and both of his brothers enjoyed limited success as professional singers. He also demonstrated a natural ability for mimicry at a young age. In spite of his various vocal endowments, however, his most serious aspirations were athletic, and he spent much of his youth as a member of various sports teams. It wasn't until he had flunked out of several classes at Principia College in Illinois that he first gave much thought to a career in acting, and he eventually left Principia with a drama degree.

After spending two years in Korea, Duvall moved to New York to study acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse. In New York, Duvall shared an apartment with his older brother and four other aspiring actors, including Dustin Hoffman. Like most other aspiring actors, he had to work a variety of jobs to keep afloat, including truck driver, dishwasher, and graveyard-shift postal clerk. He earned the first raves of his career for his portrayal of a longshoreman in a Broadway production of A View From the Bridge.

After four years of summer stock and numerous off-Broadway and television assignments, Duvall made his feature-film debut in the small role of Boo Radley, the silent, enigmatic neighbor of lawyer Atticus Finch (played by Gregory Peck) in the classic 1962 adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill A Mockingbird.

Duvall has since appeared in more than 60 movies over the course of his career, playing an amazing range of characters. Highlights from that career include:

True Grit (1969), in which he played John Wayne's nemesis Ned Pepper, first introduced him to a wide American audience.

The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather, Part II (1974), in which he played the Corleone family consigliere, Tom Hagen.

Apocalypse Now (1979), in which he played the surf-happy Colonel Kilgore. It was in this film that he delivered what may be the most famous line of his career -- "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." He won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture Actor in a Supporting Role for this effort.

Duvall in Apocalypse Now, uttering his famous 'napalm line'

The Great Santini (1979), in which he played a career Marine estranged from his wife and children, earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

Tender Mercies (1983), in which he played has-been country singer Mac Sledge, was the one for which he won the Best Actor Oscar and the Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture--Drama. Duvall wrote and performed his own songs for this role.

The Apostle (1997), a penetrating observation on Southern evangelism, earned him another Best Actor nomination. Duvall was also the producer, director, and screenwriter of this movie.

A Civil Action (1998), in which he played Jerome Facher, earned him an Oscar nomination for Best-Supporting Actor (alongside John Travolta).

Other notable movie appearances include:
M*A*S*H (1970) -- Major Frank Burns
Network (1976) -- Frank Hackett
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976) -- Dr. John H. Watson
Days of Thunder (1990) -- Harry Hogge
Rambling Rose (1991) -- Daddy
Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (1993) -- Walter
Sling Blade (1996) -- Mr. Childers
The Gingerbread Man (1998) -- Dixon Doss
Deep Impact (1998) -- Spurgeon "Fish" Tanner

In addition to his work on the silver screen, Duvall has also worked in television, including on such well-known and classic series as The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and The Fugitive. His performance in the 1989 mini-series Lonesome Dove earned him an Emmy nomination and the Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for TV; he won another Golden Globe in the same category for his performance in the 1993 mini-series Stalin.

When not working in front of a camera, Robert Duvall likes to spend time breeding and riding horses on a farm he owns in Virginia.

Duvall has been married and divorced three times -- to Barbara Benjamin (1964-1975), Gail Youngs (1982-1986), and Sharon Brophy (1991-1996) -- but has no children.


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The Robinson Library >> Dramatic Arts >> Biography: United States

This page was last updated on 01/22/2019.