best film:  Robert Duvall does far more than just appear in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 war nightmare epic Apocalypse Now – he lights the screen on fire as Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore. Duvall delivers his “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” monologue before the swirling helicopters and madness behind him. Duvall plays Kilgore coldly – delivering his lines with clean dissociation of the hell going on behind him (the point here is how far gone Kilgore is not to be effected). Duvall plays Tom Hagen in both Godfather films of course in 1972 and 1974 respectively – both with Coppola as well. To make it a clean four for four during this stretch during the 1970s – Duvall is also in The Conversation (same year as The Godfather Part II – 1974) – a minor, but important little role. Outside of the Coppola sphere of influence – there are others to consider at least including Bullitt (1968), M*A*S*H (1970), THX 1138 (1971), Network (1976).  The best film Duvall was involved with post 1979 and Apocalypse Now is actually Widows from Steve McQueen way down the road in 2018.


best performance:  Apocalypse Now wins again here – stealing scenes in perhaps the greatest film of all time is tough to top – but there should be room here to praise Robert Duvall’s work in Lonesome Dove. Dove is six and a half hours long and Duvall is probably on screen for two or three of those hours. In contrast, he is on screen for less than fifteen (15) minutes in Apocalypse Now. Both are unforgettable characters. Duvall himself thinks his Augustus ‘Gus’ McCrae in Lonesome Dove is his finest work.


a prime example of a large performance in a limited amount of screen time – Duvall as Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now (1979)


stylistic innovations/traits:  Robert Duvall’s career is made of four distinct categories or periods. In the 1960s he was earning his way as a supporting character, but he created a name for himself as Boo Radley opposite Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird and then steals a few lines and scenes away from Steve McQueen (Bullitt) and even John Wayne (True Grit). The 1970s are largely marked by sublime supporting turns in some of the art form’s best films. These six films include four (4) with Francis Ford Coppola (the two Godfather films, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now) and then Robert Altman (M*A*S*H) and Sidney Lumet (Network). Duvall does not give the best performance in any of these films (not even the second-best performance) but he is absolutely vital to these films. Duvall’s next period starts with The Great Santini in 1979 (same year as Apocalypse Now but it was shot after – Coppola’s film had a lengthy post production process). This third period is Duvall as the leading man (and he shows he has the chops to do it) but, unfortunately, he does not really hook up with overly talented directors during this section of his career. This covers Santini, Tender Mercies (his Oscar win) and eventually The Apostle in the 1990s (which he directs himself – and he is no Clint Eastwood behind the camera). The last stage in his career is supporting work (often one key scene) in films that most often fall off the top ten of their respective years. The best of these films prior to Steve McQueen’s Widows in 2018 is James Gray’s We Own the Night in 2007 (Gray is a Francis Ford Coppola acolyte so the casting here is no surprise at all). This period covers all of Duvall’s 21st century work. All in all, Duvall has thirty (30) archiveable films, seven (7) Oscar nominations, and is noted for his southern accent and charm but he has a range as well (his Tom Hagen New York lawyer is far different from Gus McCrae’s Texas Ranger). This is all very impressive. The knock on Duvall would be that the only film in the “best film” section above where is the lead actor is THX 1138, and he does not knock that performance out of the park.


Duvall in 1989’s Lonesome Dove – Duvall brilliantly fleshes out the weighty character written by Larry McMurtry


directors worked with:  Francis Ford Coppola (5), Robert Altman (2), Scott Cooper (2), Arthur Penn (1), George Lucas (1), Sidney Lumet (1), James Gray (1), Steve McQueen (1)


from The Godfather (1972) – the devastating scene of Duvall with Marlon Brando. Duvall’s Tom Hagen tells Don Corleone the James Caan character Sonny has died. This is a proud example of fine acting.


top five performances:

  1. Apocalypse Now
  2. Lonesome Dove
  3. The Godfather
  4. Tender Mercies
  5. The Apostle


archiveable films:

1962- To Kill A Mockingbird
1966- The Chase
1967- Countdown
1968- Bullitt
1969- Rain People
1969- True Grit
1970- MASH
1971- THX 1138
1972- The Godfather
1974- The Conversation
1974- The Godfather Part II
1976- Network
1976- The Seven-Per-Cent Solution
1978- Invasion of Body Snatchers
1979- Apocalypse Now
1979- The Great Santini
1983- Tender Mercies
1984- The Natural
1988- Colors
1989- Lonesome Dove
1991- Rambling Rose
1994- The Paper
1996-Sling Blade
1997- The Apostle
2007- We Own the Night
2009- Crazy Heart
2009- Get Low
2009- The Road
2018- Widows
2022- The Pale Blue Eye