Nine Memorable Performances by Robert Duvall

Completely by accident, I’ve gotten a heavy dose of Robert Duvall lately. I wasn’t specifically seeking out his work. It happened to find me naturally. And that’s not a surprise. Duvall is one of the best actors around. He does fantastic work in amazing films, the kind of movies (and mini-series) that any right-thinking cinephile would want to see. He has an uncanny knack for taking relatively minor roles and turning them into something magical. Frankly, he’s one of my very favorite actors. Here are nine of his most memorable performances:

Felix Bush, Get Low (2009)
It seems only right to start with Duvall’s most recent memorable role. His work as the irascible Felix Bush is nothing short of amazing. He takes the role of the whiskey-swilling Tennessee hermit and makes it his own. Because of Duvall, Get Low went from “great concept” to “great execution”, one of the most underrated movies in years.

Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore, Apocalypse Now (1979)
This is some of the most quotable dialogue in one of the most striking scenes you’ll ever find:

You smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for twelve hours. When it was all over I walked up. We didn’t find one of ’em, not one stinkin’ dink body. But the smell! You know – that gasoline smell… the whole hill! Smelled like… victory.

Boo Radley, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
As Boo, Duvall held a pivotal role- as guardian angel for Scout and Jem Finch.

Tom Hagen, The Godfather: Parts I and II (1972 and 1974)
In the Godfather universe (including Mario Puzo’s novelization), Tom Hagen was an Irish runt that big-hearted Sonny brought into the family because he felt bad for him. Before it was over, he had risen to consigliere. Because of Duvall, we know what the word “consigliere” means. We know that Tom Hagen was not a wartime consigliere. We know that a lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns. We know that a good consigliere keeps his head, even when he knows that a horse might not.

Major Frank Burns, MASH (1970)
Duvall worked as the perfect foil to the highjinx of “Hawkeye” Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and “Trapper John” McIntyre (Elliot Gould). Without Burns, the antics of Pierce and McIntyre fall flat and the movie does as well.

Augustus “Gus” McRae, Lonesome Dove (1989)
The role of McRae allowed Duvall to break out a bit from his more stoic performances. As McRae, he enjoyed a good “poke” and employed an interesting, fun-yet-disciplined code of conduct that fit the Western like a glove. He’s also the mini-series’ perfect, albeit flawed, hero.

“Lucky” Ned Pepper, True Grit (1969)
The fact that praise for Barry Pepper’s work in the 2010 version of True Grit universally revolved around comparisons to the 1969 character counterpart speaks volumes about how effective Duvall was. It being a secondary role makes it even more impressive.

The Apostle E.F., The Apostle (1997)
If you have ever been around devout Pentecostals in the American south or midwest, then you realize just how effective Duvall was in channeling the energy for the performance. It’s nothing short of breathtaking.

Karl’s Father, Sling Blade (1996)
Admittedly, it was a tiny part in the movie. And yet, the way Duvall played it seemed to give us loads of insight into how and why Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton) had turned out the way he did.  


Filed under Movies

21 responses to “Nine Memorable Performances by Robert Duvall

  1. Haven’t seen many of this films, but Kilgore and Hagen are absolutely mindblowing performances. When I think of Apocalypse Now and Duvall, rather than thinking of the napalm line, I think of something like: “I will not hurt you. All I want is my surf board. I love that board.”

  2. Have seen him in some movies, but not as many as you have. He was very good in Get Low, but the first role I thought of when reading his name is his part in Falling Down and that’s just because I really love that movie.

  3. I have got one performance in my head but I can’t think what film it was…he was a cop in LA, Colours? I am not sure. Anyway I liked it!!


  4. No love for his Oscar-winning role in Tender Mercies?

  5. Phil

    Yes, his only Academy Award is for ‘Tender Mercies’.
    Also, you have to see ‘The Great Santini’ if you haven’t already. Don’t forget about ‘Network’.

  6. Duvall is awesome! I can’t think of a single film where he gives a bad performance. He was also great in True Confessions with Robert DeNiro. I’m glad to see that someone mentioned The Great Santini. While I’m not a huge fan of the film, his performance is stellar.

  7. My favorite Duvall performance is him in a supporting role as Detective Penderghast in Falling Down. Great movie, his character though not large in dialogue is very complex and vulnerable.

  8. What a legendary actor. Robert Duvall is always a joy to watch. Kilgore and his roles in the Godfather movies are my favorite of his.

    • He’s good enough that I’m tempted to watch all of those westerns he’s made in the last 10 years, which seem mediocre on the surface. But since it’s him, I’m a ton more inclined to check them out.

  9. The guy who met Kevin Meany

    Duvall can take a potentially small role and turn it into an iconic role. Lt. Col. Kilgore might have been considered just another character in Apocalypse Now if put in the hands of a lesser actor. He took that supporting role and made it one of the most memorable characters in one of my all-time favorite movies. Tom Hagen was the polar opposite of Lt. Col. Kilgore. He oozes calmness, clarity, and composure. Duvall mastered the role of the ultimate consigliere. He knew his role. Oscars often go to those who cry the hardest, yell the loudest, and play retarded people or gay people the best. Duvall never had to go that route. Although Duvall was often a leading man, I see him as one of the 3 or 4 best supporting actors of all time.

  10. Duvall is such a prolific actor, unfortunately I’m not too familiar w/ his work. I remember him in supporting roles such as Deep Impact and Something to Talk About. I even forgot he was in The Godfather. He’s such a handsome fellow in his younger days.

    • I’m not sure, but I’d bet that he was in the most AFI Top 100 films of any actor. Network; Apocalypse Now; Godfather 1 and 2; To Kill a Mockingbird; and MASH. I’m not sure if True Grit made the list (I don’t think it did) but even without it, that’s six of the AFI Top 100.

  11. @da_Rhettster

    Here is his 10th best performance. Guesting on SNL opposite Garth Brooks and Norm MacDonald in the sketch “Who’s More Grizzled?”

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