Next year will mark a half-century since Robert Duvall’s first major film role; he played the kind but mentally disabled Boo Radley in 1962’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He won the lead actor Oscar for 1983’s “Tender Mercies” and earned nominations for such classics as 1972’s “The Godfather,” 1979’s “Apocalypse Now” and “The Great Santini,” 1997’s “The Apostle” and 1998’s “A Civil Action.”
It’s always a joy to watch Duvall on screen, even if the vehicle in which he’s appearing doesn’t win over the critics. His latest film, the faith-based golf drama “Seven Days in Utopia,” based on David Cook’s “Golf’s Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia,” hit a bogey with critics when it opened Friday. The negative reviews far outweighed the positive, and the four-day box office results also were sub-par with the indie film making $1.7 million on 561 screens.
In “Seven Days in Utopia” he plays Johnny Crawford, an eccentric rancher in the small town of Utopia, Texas, where he mentors a troubled young pro golfer (Lucas Black), teaching him spiritual lessons as well as life and golf lessons during a week.
Duvall was all vim and good humor on the phone Friday from New York -- he probably hadn’t read the reviews yet -- when he called to talk about “Seven Days.”
Q: You’ve worked with Lucas Black in 1996’s “Sling Blade,” last year’s “Get Low” and now “Seven Days in Utopia.” Did you both decide after “Get Low” to make another picture together?
A: No. It just happened that way. I like working with him, he’s one of the best young actors around anywhere. Besides, he’s a scratch golfer. He plays in pro-ams. This is the first golf movie ever where the lead actor can hit the ball.
Q: Are you a golfer too?
A: Way, way, way back I played a little bit, but I am definitely not a golfer. You know, it just takes too much time anyway during the course of the day.
Q: “Seven Days in Utopia” is a low-budget, faith-based drama with a first-time director. What was it about the project that connected with you?
A: It was low-budget but they paid me well! The overall package was excellent and it was working with Lucas again, which was attractive, and it was a nice story -- different. It was faith-based but I think “Get Low” was more spiritual. I hadn’t worked in a while and this sprung out of nowhere and I got to go to Texas to work. I love working in Texas anywhere.
Q: Your character in “Road to Utopia” is a mentor to Black’s character of Luke, but he’s walked on the dark side -- battling alcohol and the loss of his wife.
A: You see, when I first read the script it was too white-bread. There was none of that in there. I said, if you want me to play this part, give me some faults -- there is only one Jesus Christ. So give me some obstacles. To have real drama you have to have obstacles. Initially in the first script those things weren’t in there. So I asked that they put them in.
Q: James Caan told me earlier this year that you two are the best of friends, having worked together with Francis Ford Coppola not only on 1972’s “The Godfather” but the underrated 1969 movie “The Rain People.”
A: He and Bill Murray are the two funniest guys I’ve worked with. He is one of my few friends in show business.
Q: You don’t have a lot of friends in the biz?
A: No. I have some. It is a very fickle business anyway. You work with people for eight weeks and after the eight weeks expire you never see the people. It’s a strange thing.
Q: Did you know when you did “The Rain People” with Coppola that he would become such an acclaimed, innovative director?
A: Who knew? He never said much. When we did “Godfather,” they had a stand-by director on the set in case they had to fire Coppola during the first two weeks. I gained a lot of respect for him. The studio wasn’t doing him any favors. Eventually, it was his vision.
Q: What was it like working with Marlon Brando?
A: Well, he was really -- for young actors -- like our godfather. I remember Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman -- we used to meet at a drugstore a couple of times a week in New York years ago, and if we mentioned Brando’s name once we mentioned it 25 times, because he was like "the guy." But I think there are more good young actors now than ever. It’s a medium that everyone wants to be connected with -- it is such a hip medium going into the 21st century.
Q: When you went to New York in the 1950s you studied with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse.
A: Yeah, I went to the Neighborhood Playhouse on the GI Bill. I had a friend who had gone there. Sanford Meisner, what he had to offer, was good for me at the time. Sydney Pollack was there as well -- he was one of the teachers there. That’s where I met Horton Foote, the great Texas playwright, who gave me the first part in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Q: Had you worked with him on stage?
A: We did a theater piece [of his] called "The Midnight Caller" and I did a part that he seemed to like. So when they went to cast a couple of years later "To Kill a Mockingbird," his wife, Lillian, said, "What about that young man we saw in your play? He might be good for the part of Boo Radley." That is how that happened. I did four or five films with Horton and four or five films with Coppola. So those two guys… If I had a mini-career with what they offered me, that would have been wonderful too.
Q: You turned 80 this year. You don’t plan to retire, do you?
A: Not yet. I am getting some good offers still. Some nice things are coming my way just as they always have, so unless I lose my inspiration or there is too much drool to wipe, I will keep going.
-- Susan King
Photo: Lucas Black and Robert Duvall in "Seven Days in Utopia." Credit: Van Redin / Visio Entertainment