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Legends of Duvall

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Just how painstakingly acute and gut-grippingly honest are the characters Robert Duvall brings to life on screen? Take his personal favorite, Lonesome Dove‘s crusty Gus McCrae. ”When I was down in Texas, I told [then] Governor Ann Richards I could run against her and beat her,” the 65-year-old actor says, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. ”And she said, ‘You’re right.”’

Duvall’s latest exercise is liable to attract more Nazi hunters than voters, as he convincingly becomes infamous SS officer Adolf Eichmann for the TNT movie The Man Who Captured Eichmann. The creepy role seems a fitting task for the Oscar-winning actor, whose resume of 50-plus film roles includes everything from a washed-up country singer (Tender Mercies) to a devoted Mafia consigliere (The Godfather) to Joseph Stalin (Stalin). ”He has an extraordinary ability to find the truth in a character with a minimum of Sturm und Drang,” raves Lionel Chetwynd, who wrote the Eichmann teleplay. ”You’d be standing there talking about politics or football when the assistant director would say, ‘Ready for you, Mr. Duvall,’ and in the time it took him to walk 100 feet to the set, he became Eichmann.”

That transformation actually began about four years ago when Duvall picked up Peter Malkin’s Eichmann in My Hands, a detailed account of the Israeli secret agent’s 1960 intercontinental journey to bring the Nazi fugitive to justice. Duvall, who also executive-produced the TNT adaptation (shot on location in Argentina), found himself enthralled with the deceptively gentle portrait of Eichmann. ”I still can’t figure out why the guy had a certain crystallization of self-righteousness that made him continue to obey the law of the land,” Duvall says, shaking his head. In one of the film’s most ironic scenes, the man who masterminded millions of executions asks his Jewish captor for ”permission to wipe” after using the toilet. ”Was he a psychopath?” asks Duvall. ”Does the Everyman have it in him? I don’t know.”

These days, with Eichmann safely behind him, Duvall is directing and starring in The Apostle E.F., a big-screen drama about a Texas Pentecostal preacher who flees to Louisiana after accidentally killing his wife’s lover. (After 15 years of seeking studio backing, Duvall — thrice divorced and living in rural Virginia — is financing the film himself.) Then he’ll focus his attention on a suspense script he’s written, a tale about a New York hitman caught up in the Buenos Aires underworld of Duvall’s ongoing obsession — the tango. In other words, don’t expect him to stroll into the Geritol-sponsored sunset any time soon. ”I’ve mellowed some, but I haven’t slowed down,” Duvall says. ”I got a lot I wanna do.”

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