01/04/2012 03:29 pm ET Updated May 10, 2013

Actor's Actor: A Birthday Salute to Robert Duvall

Robert Duvall, one of our finest living screen actors, turns 81 tomorrow.

Born to a career military officer from Virginia and his wife, an amateur actress and descendant of General Robert E. Lee, Duvall's childhood was peripatetic, as his father was transferred frequently to various bases around the country.

(The military bearing Duvall absorbed from his father would later come in handy as he played officers several times in his career, notably in 1979's "The Great Santini" and "Apocalypse Now". He'd even portray his own ancestor, Robert E. Lee, in 2003's "Gods and Generals".)

In the mid-fifties, after a stint in the Army, young Duvall ended up in New York City, studying acting under the legendary Sanford Meisner.

In those uncertain salad days, Duvall roomed with fellow actor Dustin Hoffman, and counted another struggling thespian named Gene Hackman among his good friends.

One day Meisner decided Duvall might be just right for a play written by a young dramatist from Texas named Horton Foote. That idea would change Duvall's life, as it would be Foote who suggested casting him in his first important screen role several years later.

The film was "To Kill A Mockingbird" (1962), which Foote adapted from Harper Lee's bestselling book. This would not be the last collaboration between the two men.

Balding, fairly short and lacking traditional leading man looks, it would take Duvall several more years to really break through in the movies (for instance, he has just a minute or two of screen time as a cabbie in 1968's "Bullitt"). Still, all the while he was making a name for himself, both on stage and television.

It was that all-too-brief golden age of Hollywood film in the early- mid 1970s that finally put him over-the-top in feature films.

Little-known fact: Duvall has appeared in more films ranked in the AFI's top 100 list than any other actor: six to be exact, five of them made in the seventies. (James Stewart and Robert De Niro are close runners-up, with five films apiece).

Duvall counts himself a staunch Republican, and owns a large spread in Virginia. Three times divorced, he is now married to a woman half his age. He also maintains a home in Buenos Aires, which makes sense, since he's fluent in Spanish, and loves the tango.

A consummate character actor, Duvall has not only stayed busy but maintained the quality of films he's done over the years. Professionally, he's proven himself to be as savvy and disciplined as he is talented.

He can look back with pride on a rich and colorful life, and his contributions to film should never be underestimated, as the following ten titles demonstrate.

M*A*S*H (1970)- Robert Altman's black comedy details the shenanigans of Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland), Trapper John McIntyre (Elliott Gould), and Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt), three rogue surgeons assigned to a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War. Their various hijinks, infractions, and practical jokes cause havoc wherever they go, but also serve to distract them from the bloody horror they face in the operating room each day. This groundbreaking anti-war entry was director Altman's breakthrough, and in our view still stands as his finest, purest work: an uproarious, razor-sharp satire that feels as fresh and irreverent today as when first released. (Note the extensive use of overlapping dialogue, which was considered quite an innovation at the time). The film features top-notch performances, with Gould and Kellerman standouts as, respectively, Trapper John and "Hot Lips" Houlihan. Also look for Duvall playing stuck-up surgeon Frank Burns. Ring Lardner Jr.'s script took home an Oscar- and no wonder. Remember: "Suicide is painless"!

The Godfather (1972)- This stunning, often brutal film portrays the last days in the reign of aging Mafia patriarch Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), and the gradual transformation of his youngest (and favorite) son, Michael (Al Pacino), a decorated war veteran in 1940s New York who at first has no intention of joining the family business. But after Don Vito is shot by a rival who wants to move heroin through his turf, Michael elects to seek vengeance, and is then forced to hide out in Sicily. It's only a matter of time before Michael returns to inherit the mantle from his beloved father, who has recuperated somewhat but is permanently weakened and ready to retire. Long before "The Sopranos," a young Francis Ford Coppola transformed our understanding of the relationship between organized crime and corporate American profiteering with this operatic ode based on Mario Puzo's acclaimed novel. Moody and violent, "Godfather" combines a bullets-blazing mobster film with a gripping family saga. And what a cast: Pacino, Duvall, James Caan, and Diane Keaton are all superlative. Brando, of course, reaffirmed his own exalted place in cinema with his stunning portrayal of the title character. Coppola fought with Paramount to achieve his personal vision, but ultimately triumphed, winning the 1972 Oscar for Best Picture.

Tomorrow (1972)- In early twentieth century Mississippi, solitary, soft-spoken cotton farmer Jackson Fentry (Duvall) takes a job working as the winter custodian of a broken-down sawmill. When he finds a pregnant woman named Sarah Eubanks (Olga Bellin) wandering the property, he soon learns that her husband and family have abandoned her. Fentry takes her in, becoming her caretaker. Eventually, a tender bond develops between them. But just as the two finally marry and Fentry vows to raise her child as his adopted son, tragedy strikes. This spare, sad tale of two lonely souls finding each other all too briefly was based on a William Faulkner short story that was then adapted by frequent Duvall collaborator Horton Foote. Director Joseph Anthony handles the material with restraint and sensitivity, opening the film with a tense courtroom scene that triggers a flashback revealing Fentry's tale of woe. Quiet but intensely watchable, and sporting a thick accent that seems to have inspired Billy Bob Thornton's "Sling Blade" character, Duvall solidly anchors this heartbreaking film, which deserves a wider audience.

The Godfather, Part II
(1974)-Director Coppola continues the rich saga of the Corleone crime family both by looking back and forward: the film at one traces the early life of Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro), from his arrival in America as a boy, to his ruthless ascent to power in the underworld of the early twentieth century. It also charts the life and career of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) as his father's successor nearly half a century later, ruling his family in turbulent times. Michael becomes increasingly isolated in the process, losing the love of wife Kay (Diane Keaton), and the steadying influence of his father's consigliere, Tom Hayden (Duvall). One of the rare sequels that equals if not exceeds its distinguished predecessor, "The Godfather- Part 2" stands as a work of enduring cinematic brilliance. Coppola skillfully interweaves two fascinating periods in history: the actual birth of organized crime as immigrants swelled our shores in the early 1900s, and the challenging period of the 1950s, when the Mafia became too big and prosperous not to be noticed. Both these periods are evoked superbly via first-rate cinematography, costumes and set design. Script and performances excel- in short, everything works. The film won six Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Supporting Actor for De Niro (Pacino was also nominated). A triumph for the ages.

Network (1976)- Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) is a type A network television executive who rides the wave of an unfolding ratings sensation broadcasting deranged televangelist Howard Beale (Peter Finch, in his final performance). Unexpectedly, Beale has hit a chord with disillusioned Americans, urging them to chant his mantra: "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore." But the Beale phenomenon may not last, as Howard's ever more bizarre rants signal an emotional breakdown in the offering. Sidney Lumet's devastating, disturbing satire of the modern broadcast age (written by Paddy Chayefsky) still has a lot to say thirty-five years after release. Beyond portraying a business that bypasses quality in single-minded pursuit of the dollar, television serves as metaphor for a society mired in sensationalism and greed. Dunaway is commanding in a caffeinated performance as ruthless Diana, William Holden unusually affecting as a washed-up veteran of TV's glory days, and Finch a revelation as the unbalanced Beale, winning a posthumous Oscar for his work. Duvall holds his own in very good company as Diana's network boss, who's trying hard not to go crazy himself. A must-see film.

Apocalypse Now Redux
(1979)- During the Vietnam War, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is given the unusual assignment of tracking down and eliminating rogue Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a decorated career officer who has broken the chain of command and is presumed insane. Willard and his team venture into remote territory to find the enigmatic Kurtz. Symbolically, they're all traveling to the very core of man's bestial instincts. Will the young Captain succeed in his mission, or go mad in the attempt? Director Francis Ford Coppola's re-edited "Redux" version includes new scenes that help clarify some loose ends in the original cut of this acknowledged masterpiece. "Apocalypse" stands as a wildly ambitious, mesmerizing acid-trip of a war movie that melds together the savage themes of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" (on which it's based) with the inherent waste of Vietnam. The final result is grand spectacle, augmented by a brilliant use of music. The key performances-from Sheen, an Oscar-nominated Duvall, and a gonzo Dennis Hopper in particular-achieve a rare intensity, and even Brando- bald, bloated, and incoherent- manages to fascinate. Once seen, never forgotten. Suggestion: for the ideal double feature, follow this with (Francis's wife) Eleanor Coppola's revealing documentary on the jinxed production of this film, "Hearts Of Darkness" (1991).

Tender Mercies (1983)- Mac Sledge (Duvall), once a successful country music balladeer, has a severe drinking problem that has caused him to hit bottom. Mac quickly realizes that when there is nowhere deeper to sink, you either die or climb back up into the world. With the help of gentle widow Rosa Lee (Tess Harper) and her young boy, Sonny (Alan Hubbard), Mac gradually finds the strength to reclaim his life. This unadorned gem, beautifully realized by Australian director Bruce Beresford from Horton Foote's brilliant, Academy Award winning script, represents a career peak for Duvall. His bravura performance won him that year's Best Actor Oscar- and he even got to sing in this film. Also look for fine supporting turns from Wilford Brimley, Betty Buckley, and a young Ellen Barkin. (Trivia note: coincidentally, screenwriter Foote had also won the Screenplay Oscar for Duvall's first film twenty years earlier, "To Kill A Mockingbird").

The Apostle (1997)- After discovering that his wife Jessie (Farrah Fawcett) is having an affair with younger minister Horace (Todd Allen), devout Pentecostal preacher Sonny Dewey (Duvall), a father of two young children, loses his wits and attacks the man with a bat, sending him into a coma. Fleeing Texas, Sonny assumes a new identity in Louisiana, opens a church, and revitalizes the faith of mostly black locals with his spirited, inspirational sermons. But Sonny's past sins aren't so easily washed away. Duvall wrote, directed, and starred in this stirring evangelical drama about faith, personal passion, and moral responsibility, a pet project he spent over a decade bringing to the big screen. The actor is nothing less than sensational in an Oscar-nominated turn as Dewey, a pious yet deeply conflicted man whose belief in salvation is never in question. Excellent performances by Fawcett, Miranda Richardson, and Billy Bob Thornton as a bayou racist tweak the picture, but Duvall throws himself into the marquee role heart and soul. "The Apostle" will make a believer out of you.

A Civil Action (1998)- This fact-based film tells the story of Jan Schlictmann (John Travolta), a personal-injury attorney who pursues a negligence suit against corporate titans W.R Grace and Beatrice Foods. The companies have a joint interest in a leather-production facility in Woburn, Massachusetts, whose illegal dumping of toxic waste may have led to the deaths of several local children. Anne Anderson (Kathleen Quinlan), the mother of one victim, decides to sue. As Jan immerses himself in this high-stakes battle, he wagers everything he has on a positive outcome, but his opposing counsel, Jerome Facher (Duvall), is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant, ruthless legal minds around. Is Jan in over his head? Produced by Robert Redford and based on the best-selling book by Jonathan Harr, this gripping, literate enviro-action legal drama is the classic David and Goliath story - the little people versus big industry - told with gusto and in a decidedly unpredictable fashion. "Action" features a stellar cast, notably John Lithgow as the trial judge, and an Oscar-nominated Duvall as Facher. William H. Macy also distinguishes himself playing Jan's understandably anxious accountant. It may sound dry as paper, but this absorbing courtroom drama grabs you by the throat and never lets go.

Crazy Heart
(2009)- Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) is a country singer/songwriter well past his prime and with a drinking problem, reduced to eking out a living playing small venues. Then a tentative romance with female reporter Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and an unexpected reunion with country music megastar Tommy Sweet (Farrell), who was coming up when Bad was still riding high, inspire the older man both to write again and address his personal demons. Will Bad make a comeback-and find love in the process? First and foremost, "Crazy Heart" serves as a fabulous showcase for star Bridges, who snagged a well-deserved Oscar for his portrayal of a broken-down man who suddenly finds reason to seek redemption. Gyllenhaal is also appealing as the love interest, but it's the mellowing Duvall who gives the film extra ballast and seasoning playing Wayne, the true-blue friend who helps Bad get clean and sober. (Duvall also produced this film, which is reminiscent of his own "Tender Mercies" twenty-five years earlier). Both Bridges and Duvall also get to sing, and Bridges's number, "The Weary Kind", won an Oscar.

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