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20 great quotes about the 'American Olivier,' Robert Duvall

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Robert Duvall
Everett Collection

The Judge did not come close to winning its opening weekend. Nor did the critics swoon over the pairing of Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall, playing a hot-shot, big-city attorney and his ornery father, a prominent small-town judge accused of murder. But even if the script is Grisham-light and the prodigal-son bit overly familiar, there’s at least one reason to keep it on your must-see list: Duvall.

“Now it’s about time to recognize Robert Duvall as one of the most resourceful, most technically proficient, most remarkable actors in America today,” wrote the New York Times. “When I say ‘one of…’ I don’t mean to weasel out of anything. … I think he may well be the best we have, the American Olivier…”

Vincent Canby wrote those words in 1980 after seeing Duvall in The Great Santini. Before Duvall starred as country singer, Mac Sledge, in Tender Mercies, the role that earned him his Oscar. Before Lonesome Dove. Before directing and starring in The Apostle.

Robert Duvall is now 83 years old, and he is still spitting fire. On the screen, he is still a mesmerizing force who can turn a throwaway line of dialog into something unforgettable. He’s famously butted heads with a few directors, but he remains a screenwriter’s best friend. Off screen, he’s exactly the guy you think and hope he is, bits and pieces of all his most indelible characters—a chunk of Gus McRae, a slice of Bull Meechum, a punch of surfing Col. Kilgore, maybe even a smudge of Maj. Frank Burns.

Over the years, lots of writers have profiled Duvall, who’s been nominated for six Oscars—three for lead actor, three for supporting—but some of the best insights have come from the people who worked with him. Here are 20 great quotes about our Olivier, Robert Duvall.

“For me, the iconic moment is ‘Hey, Boo.’ That’s probably my favorite movie of all time, and that moment is so incredible! And that’s something where he never says a word. He’s so eloquent in that one, tiny reveal. To me, that is the essence of Duvall: He breaks your heart, and he’s a hero at the same time in his total silence. Not many people could have done that.” —Glenn Close (Paste, 2014)

“Bobby has a deep desire to capture what’s real about people. He doesn’t exaggerate or sentimentalize his characters. He’s always searching for the truth.” —Horton Foote, writer, To Kill a Mockingbird, et al (Los Angeles Times, 1988)

“Bob Duvall is a great actor because each time out, he creates a whole, complete character. You have the feeling that you’re not seeing an actor at all, but a fully realized human being. Think of how he was in The Godfather. If you didn’t know Bobby, you’d think that he really was Tom, the consigliere. Then you see him in Santini, and he’s completely different. He’s not only a personality, he’s a consummate actor.” —Ellen Burstyn (Rolling Stone, 1983)

Tender Mercies was also a seminal movie for me, as was The Great Santini. And he totally chews up the scenery in that one. It’s brilliant! And those moments with Michael O’Keefe where he’s playing basketball with him, and he’s smashing his head with a basketball… he’s terrifying, and yet we loved him. How did we love that character? You should hate that character, and somehow we love that character!” —Kyra Sedgwick (Paste, 2014)

”It is very accurate to say that Bob becomes the people he plays. I found it uncannny—even creepy the first time. He is the character—he’s not Duvall at all. You need only look into his eyes. It’s unnerving, the change. A lot of actors impersonate people, adopt mannerisms, have technical tricks, but Bob becomes what he’s doing. I think Olivier is much more technically aware in his roles, no matter how brilliant.” —Bruce Beresford, director, Tender Mercies (New York Times, 1989)

”He’s beautifully prepared. He does a tremendous amount of digging around, trying to get a handle on a character. He’ll read books, find an ex-Texas Ranger or an old sheriff and get them to talk of their experiences, fly people he’s studying up to his Virginia place. Anything he takes on, he does to perfection. He’s a good horseman, but he became an almost Olympic-class rider during the shooting of Lonesome Dove. He doesn’t just turn up and do the part. He’s thought about it a lot beforehand. He keeps to himself on the set. He’s very quiet, very disciplined. He sits quietly to one side, he doesn’t socialize. He has enormous concentration. Outside of working hours, though, he’s one of the lads.” —Simon Wincer, director, Lonesome Dove (New York Times, 1989)

“He’s listened to his own inner voice. He never was part of a Hollywood crowd—he’s always gone his own way.” — Ulu Grosbard, director, True Confessions (GQ, 2006)

“If you tell Bob Duvall what to do, of course you’re going to have trouble. He’ll tell people, ‘I’m gonna do it my way and if you don’t like it, you can kiss my ass.'” —Billy Bob Thornton (Los Angeles Times, 1998)

“Bobby, he’s a lunatic and I love him for it. He makes his presence felt. There’s never a peg in the meter with him, it’s always on 10. There’s always a life going on.” —James Caan (Los Angeles Times, 1992)

“I’d get lucky and have a girl sleep over, and we’d be in the shower the next morning, and Bobby’d take his clothes off and just jump in the f–king shower—’Hey, I’m Bobby Duvall, I’m his roommate. I’m an actor. What do you do?” —Dustin Hoffman (Vanity Fair, 2004)

“I assembled the whole cast for a dinner at Pearl’s restaurant in New York. There they all were—Brando eating everything in sight, and Pacino looking tragic, and Duvall doing his Brando imitations every time Marlon turned his back. It was like the Corleone family having dinner. It was that night I knew the picture would work.” —Francis Ford Coppola (Chicago Sun-Times, 1983)

“I love his Tom Hagen in The Godfather. It’s my favorite part. ‘Can’t do it, Sally.’ I just love the s— he does in that movie. I’ve always liked his stuff. I think he’s incredibly real and a certain kind of actor that all actors go, ‘Okay, I give. That guy, he’s better than I am.’ You can’t really pass up that opportunity to work with someone who has more stuff than you, because it’s part of your education. It was amazing to see how accessible all his emotions are and how he was able to touch all these things in an instant. You realize you have a long ways to go.” —Bill Murray (Entertainment Weekly, 2010)

“In the script, that scene with Duvall by the campfire was all musings about the Apocalypse and the End and about being the last man, and there were great ideas and black humor in that dialogue. And yet, when we watched the scene, it felt a bit contrived—too literary almost. And I asked Duvall if he could somehow make it much more personal—that he’s obviously gone through something unbelievable. And in one take, Duvall came up with this back story about having his own kid and not being able to talk about what happened to him. And the tears. Everyone’s jaw dropped, and just as soon as the scene ended, we all started cheering. That’s a testament to an amazing actor.” —John Hillcoat, The Road (Vanity Fair, 2009)

“Bob is an exciting and accessible actor. You don’t have to go through a thesaurus to figure out what he’s talking about or doing. He makes people feel things.” —Gil Cates (New York Daily News, 2003)

“Robert Duvall is a very specific actor, and a natural actor. I wasn’t looking for someone who would play Boss [in Open Range] as a character, but someone who would give me a hold-the-screen type Boss. It’s an important performance. Not just a retooling of Lonesome Dove. There’s a key scene in the cafe which I think is an AFI moment for Bob. I stand behind him and don’t say a word.” —Kevin Costner (Chicago Sun-Times, 2003)

“The best moments on set for me were every moment where I was in his good graces. Much more than my own dad or any judge I ever stood in front of, you have that kind of ongoing deep-seated respect for him that makes you never want to misstep.” —Robert Downey Jr. (Sydney Morning Herald, 2014)

“He’s a great guy who listens as hard to you as you do to him. And I think it’s that ability to listen and learn from anyone that makes him so special. He also does a mean Texas Two-Step.” —Ellen Barkin, (Rolling Stone, 1983)

“I was more interested in talking about his experience on The Apostle, which I thought was one of his best performances—and obviously a wonderful job directing it. But he tends to shift the conversation into Westerns and food. He likes to talk about food a lot, so if you mention a good brisket or something, he’ll stay on one subject for a while.” —Mark Wahlberg, (About.com, 2007)

“I guess I feel like sometimes I struggle with things, to give them some weight or some truth and Duvall… they’re like, ‘Rolling, speed,’ and he’ll lean over and tell you a joke, or his biggest thing is to talk about food for some reason. He literally is like, ‘Have you been to…’. I’d say ‘No.’ ‘Great steak.’  ‘I’m a vegetarian.’ He’s amazing. He was immediately that character. We kind of fell into that dynamic almost immediately.” —Joaquin Phoenix (Collider, 2007)

“Robert Duvall has never hit a false beat in his life.” —Tom Hanks (George, 1999)