There’s a great comfort in being a Robert Duvall fan in the 21st century. You know you’ll never have to watch him joke about his prostate with Morgan Freeman in a movie about old guys vacationing in Las Vegas. He’s never going to be a retired black-ops agent with something to prove, or a terminally ill guy with something to prove. When he stars in a movie, it’ll be like A Night in Old Mexico — opening everywhere today — in which he plays a nasty, cantankerous, God-sassing old coot on the verge of suicide who loves booze and whores. It may not be among the “important classics” of Duvall’s film canon, like Apocalypse Now, Lonesome Dove, Network, Godfather parts one and two, etc. But it has its moments. I promise that you won’t watch anything as joyful this year as an 83-year-old Duvall, his belly full of beer, taking an aging hooker by the hand and saying, “Come on, gally, let’s boogie-woogie.”
Talking to Robert Duvall is everything you could want or hope for from the former Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore. There are tales of asshole directors, stolen cop cars, how Dancing with the Stars messes up the tango, and at least one story involving Marlon Brando’s balls.
After all these years, does acting ever get tiring to you? Do you ever wake up in the morning and go, “Ugh. This again? I just want to stay in bed and binge some Game of Thrones“?
No, no. The only thing that might make me stay in bed that day would be fear. Once I get rest, then I can overcome the fear of a given day and then I’m ready. I’m ready to go. You know what I’m saying? Not that I always have that fear, but sometimes that’s the only thing that would keep me in bed more than just the laziness.
Is it fear of failure? A fear of something bad happening?
Yeah, all of that. But it’s mostly the fear of “What do we have to do now?” You can’t be totally over-confident about anything, I don’t think.
Not if you’re smart.
Right, right. [Laughs.] Smart people are always on the edge a little bit. I’ve become more confident in some ways as I’ve gotten older, but you never can take anything for granted. You always have a little bit of doubt, if you have any sense.
A film set can be a brutal place, especially on smaller, indie movies like you prefer. Does it get more punishing to do a film as you get older?
Yes, somewhat. I need my rest. I need my rest.
Have you ever felt like you were in actual danger?
Well, sure. Especially when there have been stunts. People have been killed. You have to be very, very careful and plan things out, you know? When I did Lonesome Dove, I did all my own horsemanship, and I trained for a number of months to get ready. No movie is worth dying over.
You had an amazing duel with John Wayne in True Grit.
Yeah. Somebody said today to me, “I heard you and Wayne didn’t get along.” That’s totally false!
You were buddies?
I got along great with him. I didn’t get along with the director [Henry Hathaway]. That guy, I saw him say to an actor, “Now when I say action, tense up goddamn it!”
Can you imagine saying that to Joe Montana or somebody in the Super Bowl? “Tense up goddamn it!” You know?
You like a gentler approach?
I need them not to be an asshole. The new directors today, they want to see if it comes from you. They turn it around and let it come from you. They don’t say, “Do this, do that,” like the old-school guys. You know?
They trust you.
That’s exactly it! I feel like I know what I’m doing. Don’t yell at me.
Every time I watch Apocalypse Now, I’m amazed that you don’t even flinch with all those helicopters flying too close and the planes and explosions.
Well, you know, I knew they weren’t going to hit me, so — [Loud laughter.] I played a guy that didn’t flinch, so I didn’t flinch. You know what I mean? I played that kind of guy.
A non-flinching guy.
A non-flinching guy. If you flinch when the script says not to flinch, you should be fired.
You should teach all acting workshops ever.
Right, right. [Laughs.] I’d been in the service and I remember watching those special service officers, the way they stood and the way they related to other guys in the service.
Yeah, I think it was in one. Because the helicopters, with all that stuff going crazy in the background, all the bombs going off, we only had one shot at that. They had a pretty good budget, but you couldn’t keep doing those scenes over and over again.
You haven’t had anything as intense in recent years. I think Night in Old Mexico is pretty calm by comparison.
Definitely no helicopters. Not any big stunts or anything. They said the Spanish director was ready to bring in a stuntman if I stumbled here or there, but I said, “No, I’ll do all of that. Let me find it. We won’t know what it is until we do it anyway.”
I heard something about the film crew stealing a cop car from the set.
And they started arresting people out in town. That’s all true?
All true. They were creeps. Good thing they didn’t go into Mexico. Oh my God. Good thing they didn’t. But they got arrested. They got bored and tried to pull some pranks and, you know, they ended up in jail. And then another thing happened. The guy that does craft service — which is sometimes better food than you’ll get at a fancy restaurant — he checked into a hotel and tried to use my credit card.
What? No. Seriously?
He said he knew me. [Laughs.] And he got a pretty good deal. They got rid of him quick, you know. But overall, the crew was pretty darn good.
Except for the identity theft. And impersonating police officers.
Yeah, other than that, excellent to work with. Excellent, yeah — excellent.
Were you ever involved in film set shenanigans like that when you were younger?
Nah, not so much. Not so much. Just quick pranks. Quick pranks that actually relaxed the set. Mooning each other on The Godfather.
Here we go.
I remember one time Brando went for his belt, and I went for my belt, and Francis [Ford Coppola] says, “No! There are women and children! You can’t moon — you can’t.” And we did it anyway, and there was some woman standing there — this was in Staten Island — and she turned to her friend and looked at me and said, “Mr. Duvall, you were great,” but she turned to her friend and said, “But did you catch the balls on that Brando?”
[Lots of laughing.]
Oh my God.
It was just fun pranks that end up, you know, relaxing people, which is good. You need a relaxed set.
In the early ’60s, you shared an apartment in New York with Dustin Hoffman. That sounds like an urban legend.
No, it happened. We lived together. It was 107th and Broadway, a three-bedroom place on the sixth floor, one of those long railroad apartments. It was Dusty, me, my brother, Maurice Stern, who was a cantor in the synagogue, and two other actors.
Are there wild tales, or was it mostly just “Yeah, sometimes Dustin wouldn’t clean the bathroom when it was his turn”?
Oh no, we had some wild times. Lots of parties and dancing and music and drinking. Dusty —
Dusty? You called Dustin Hoffman Dusty?
Yeah. He got more women than anybody, that guy. More than Joe Namath. I don’t know how it worked with him, but he read poetry. He was always getting girls up to our apartment. I wasn’t so lucky. I was just the worst. My pickup lines, they were terrible. I’d see some Puerto Rican girls out in the street, and I’d run up to them, say something like, “Why don’t you come up to our apartment? We got some nice new linoleum on the floor.” [Laughs.]
That didn’t work?
Nothing. They just kept walking. I remember another time, I came home and there’s a girl standing on the kitchen table, and she’s completely nude. Not a stitch on her. And Dusty’s pretending to draw her. He told her he’s a painter. [Laughs.] I couldn’t believe that. I mean, it worked! How does that work?
You’re something of a tango master, I understand.
No, no, I’m not. No, no, no. I like to dance the tango, but I’m not a master at all. Even the so-called masters in Argentina, they rip the shit out of each other. They criticize the daylights out of each other.
But you can tango? You know what to do?
I like to social tango. Not that fancy stuff — just for parties and our own pleasure. I have to be careful, because I’m bow-legged and they make fun of me. They call mechueco. Chueco means bow-legged. When I do the walk, I have to make sure that my bowlegs don’t come into being, because it takes ten years to walk correctly in tango. You can learn the fancy feet in five minutes. But the beginning and the end of the tango is the walk.
You and your wife still hit the tango clubs down in Buenos Aires?
We go down. We haven’t gone in a while. But I like Buenos. When I met Giuliani, I said, “You keep New York, I’ll take Buenos Aires.” [Laughs.] I do like going to Buenos Aires. Although to do business there, you have to be careful. It can be very corrupt.
You once said that to be a great tango dancer, you needed to have a dark side. You needed to be a pimp or a thief.
Oh, yeah. An old-school tango dancer told me that. He said you dance better if you come from a street mentality. There’s some truth in that. For some guys, guys that lived a dodgy life, dance was their outlet. Frankie G. — I used him in my tango movie [Assassination Tango] — he was a jitterbug dancer, an amateur boxer, a little professional, and a tough guy from the Bronx. And he said, “In the ’50s, the Italians could jitterbug and the Jews could mambo.” [Laughs.] That’s the way it was.
If they ever asked you to do Dancing with the Stars, would you?
No, no. I could never do that.
Wouldn’t even consider it?
That’s too much work. They have to train to get in shape. Some of those people move really well. I never saw them do the tango the way I like to see it done. At all.
They get the tango wrong?
They overdo it always. The tango is a very interior dance. It’s not an exterior — it’s not flashy and all over the floor. It’s a very interior dance when you see the old guys dance in the clubs. I learned everything from the old guys in the clubs. They’re dying off now. There are not many left.
A lot of your acting peers from the ’70s have done comedies: Hackman with Royal Tenenbaums, De Niro with Meet the Parents. Have you ever been tempted to do a comedy?
Never. I did Four Christmases, which was kind of a funny movie.
And I guess M.A.S.H. counts as a comedy, although you were the straight man.
Yeah. To me, real comedy comes out of behavior. It’s the choices you make as an actor. It’s never about, “I want to do a comedy script.” I can’t think of it that way. And besides, some of those movies, those comedy movies, I can’t even watch them.
They don’t do anything for you?
I don’t know what they are. I guess they’re okay to see. I don’t know. I watch some of them, and five minutes in, I’m just frustrated. I don’t know what they are.
One more quick question before I let you go. You played a character who likes the smell of napalm in the morning. But what do you, Robert Duvall, personally like to smell in the morning?
In the morning?
I like the smell of toast. Coffee is okay, but I don’t drink much coffee. But toast is a nice smell. You smell some toast coming from your kitchen in the morning, you know that you’re involved in a domestic situation and the operation that’s going on is pleasant.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Esquire.com.)