Robert Duvall Interview
I am developing a film story-event project that’s piecing together what happened when a confluence of remarkable talents came together to make a low budget road movie in the late 1960s and their production journey brought them to western Nebraska. The road pic was Francis Ford Coppola’s art house special, The Rain People, starring Shirley Knight. That production cemented a relationship between Coppola and a young protege, George Lucas, who was along as a production associate and to document the making of the film. The project also connected Coppola with two actors who would go on to play prominent roles in his future pics: James Caan and Robert Duvall. That’s not all. The Rain People additionally led to Duvall starring in Lucas’ first feature, THX-1138, and to the actor directing his first film, the documentary We’re Not the Jet Set, which profiles an Ogallala, Neb. area ranch-rodeo family, the Petersons, whom Duvall became very close to. As I make progress on the story I will be posting interviews I’ve conducted with many of the principles involved in the films. What follows is an interview I did with Robert Duvall. I recently posted an interview from this project I did with James Caan. Look for upcoming interviews I did with Francis Ford Coppola, cinematographers Bill Butler (Rain People) and Joseph Friedman (Jet Set) and editor Stephen Mack.
Robert Duvall Interview: From My Film Connections Project (An In-Progress Film Story-Event Project)
©by Leo Adam Biga
LAB: Thanks for agreeing to speak with me about The Rain People and We’re Not the Jet Set.
RD: “I’m glad you called, man. I’m driving along in my car. I’ve got this little mobile phone but hopefully it’ll hold out OK. How ya’ doin’, good?”
LAB: Just fine. And how about yourself?
RD: “I’m all right. We’ve been traveling, but we like Virginia here, my wife and I. So we’re trying to settle in for a little while, and see what’s next. Life is full of what’s next, you know.”
LAB: And I’m speaking to you from Nebraska.
RD: “A nice state up there. A lot going on up in Nebraska. When are you going to do coach what’s his name from way back? Your teams aren’t like they used to be there at the university. The parity in college football. I bumped into Joe Theisman, that quearterback for the Redskins. And probably everybody would disagree with him and me, but I told him, ‘I think some of these college teams could beat some of the pros from about 30 years ago.’ And he said, ‘I’ll tell you, some of the college teams could beat some of the pro teams of today’ It’s possible. I think USC would play the Detroit Lions at 0-15 very well.
“Alright man, whatver you want to ask me I’ll see what I can answer.”
LAB: Well, before we begin I wanted to let you know that I’ve spoken with members of the Peterson family you got to know so well when you came to Nebraska to act in Coppola’s The Rain People and then when you profile them in your documentary We’re Not the Jet Set.
RD: “Where was Casey (Peterson) at? Is he back in Nebraska?”
LAB: Yes, I believe he is.
RD: “But he lives in Calif., too, right?”
LAB: That I’m not sure about.
RD: “Oh, he’s a character that kid. He’s grown up now. What a character, my God.”
LAB: I’d like to begin with your experience on The Rain People.
RD: “Oh, yeah, with Jimmy Caan.”
LAB: Do I understand that you were not originally attached to that production in the role of the motorcycle cop?
RD: “I think another actor was scheduled to play the part and…he left or something and I came in, and I knew Jimmy, and I hadn’t known Francis (Coppola) yet when I came in to do that. He (Caan) kind of coordinated it. Jimmy Caan came out first and then I went out there.”
NOTE (Rain People cinematographer Bill Butler told me in a separate interview that Rip Torn was originally cast in the cop part but quit the project when he learned he wouldn’t be given the motorcycle he would be riding in the picture.)
LAB: The Nebraska part of the shoot mostly centered around the Ogallala area in the far southwest region of the state.
RD: “It was pleasant working there, I enjoyed working there and that’s how we met the Petersons because Jimmy wanted to go down…we liked horses. He said, ‘I’m going to a branding, you wanna go?’ I used to do that on my uncle’s ranch. It’s a lot of work. So I said, ‘No, Jimmy you can go do that.’ But we met them, the Petersons, because of the movie,.”
LAB: Denny Peterson remembers the initial meeting between you , Jimmy and his family as going something like this: you and Jimmy spotted Denny working with some horses in the family’s outdoor arena and you sidled up and asked if you could ride and he told you, ‘Hell, no, I make a living with these horses…’
RD: “No, I don’t think so, I think that’s a romantic aspect on Dennys’ part. Maybe Denny said that to somebody. I don’t remember that at all. I’ll tell you the exact thing that happened. We went to their front yard, which was on the highway, the alternate road to Calif., and Shelley (Peterson) was riding a horse called Rock Red, which was a world champion cutting horse, and we started talking with the dad, B.A., and he said, ‘Are you boys from the movie?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘You can come on down any time you want and ride some horses-You been getting any pussy?’ All in one breath. It was so funny. And we kept going down there and we formed a nice friendship.”
LAB: Horses and riding have been a big part of your life.
RD: “Not on his (Denny Peterson) level, but I’ve ridden a lot horses. But Denny was like a champion trick rider and everything like that.”
LAB: Did you know right away you’d come upon some authentic Western characters you could mine for inspiration?
RD: “Oh, boy, very unique, a very unique family, a rodeo circus mentality, you know. They were kind of an identity unto themselves even in that small community I think.”
LAB: In a sense the Petersons were following a bit in the tradition of William F. Cody and the Wild West Show troupe.
RD: “There were some pretty rough and tumble people back then. Like the Petersons. Lots of fist fights.”
LAB: For a lot of people HBO’s Deadwood became the definitive vision of the West come to life.
RD: “But I didn’t hear that kind of language from them. I think it was a different take on what the West was like, but I think there’s a definite connection maybe to the Petersons. I was talking to Denny and he said, ‘When my dad died I didn’t get the full impact of it till Walt ‘Waldo’ Haythorn died.’ He was the other rancher out there we met. That guy and B.A. were really good friends. He (Waldo) was probably like a surrogate uncle or something to Denny. Denny felt close to him. So he felt the full impact of his dad’s death when Waldo died a few years later. Because Waldo was a character, Jesus he was a character, too.
“So we’ve been involved with some good cowboys here and there.”
LAB: Didn’t the Haythorns’ real life early adventures on the Great Plains inform your mini-series Broken Trail?
RD: “Absolutely, the story of one of their grandfathers driving horses east from Oregon.”
LAB: You also grew close to the Haythorns, visiting their ranch a number of times.
RD: “They wanted me to be in the rodeo in North Platte. I hadn’t been on a horse in a couple years when I went up to do rope and trail up there. I bought a horse a year in advance to get ready because I busted some ribs on another project. The best horse I’ve ever been on in my life. He was three times a national bronc riding champion. They’re (the Haythorns) a wonderful family too. Not quite as wild (as the Petersons), but they have their wild side, too. Waldo, he let me use his personal horse and what a horse, my God, that horse was just…the best I’ve ever been on.
“And the Haythorns are out there still…They’ve gone down in Texas and won that (national ranch horse championship). You know the son, Craig, he’s getting old, too.
“When I was down in Argentina and I talked with the greatest polo player that ever lived, Adolfo Cambiaso..They own that, nobody can touch them in polo. He said he does like the American quarter horses as a breed a lot, although the thoroughbred’s better for polo because a little more endurance.”
LAB: Is it fair to say you’ve always had a fascination with the West?
RD: “Well, to a point, yeah. Ever since I was 12-13 I went and spent two summers on my uncle’s ranch in northern Montana and that gave me whatever wisdom, whatever knowledge, whatever enthusiasm I had for that, and respect for that to play those characters. I don’t know if I could have ever done Augustus McCrae in Lonesome Dove if i hadn’t maybe been introduced to that way of life as a young guy. I would say that’s true. Of course, they say the hardest part of that life way back then was to get a good night’s sleep on the ground, so it wasn’t as romantic as sometimes the movies portray.”
LAB: It seems like you’re drawn to down-to-earth, grassroots stories and settings and characters.
RD: “I like certain aspects of America, not just the two coasts.”
LAB: In B.A. Peterson you met a rough-hewn, bigger-than-life figure.
RD: “In that same place he was building a shed one time, and I wasn’t there, but the building inspector came down and said, ‘You don’t have a permit to build that,’ and B.A. said, ‘You keep staring at it and watch it go up.’ That was B.A., he didn’t back up from anybody.”
LAB: How did someone like Francis Coppola respond to the Petersons?
RD: “Coppola said about the Petersons, ‘Oh, they kind of scare me.’ Well, then he goes and makes a movie on the mafia (laughing).”
LAB: What was your experience like working on Rain People?
RD: “You know, it was a nice movie to work on. That’s when Coppola was doing those smaller films, before he did The Godfather and everything. It was a stepping stone to other things.”
LAB: What did you make of the young Francis Coppola?
RD: “He was a very serious guy, very preoccupied.”
LAB: Did you have a sense for how this road picture of a project was coming together?
RD: “It was hard to tell because it was a small film and they’d been working on it for a while. I came into it at the last minute.”
LAB: And what was Coppola like so far removed from his comfort zone?
RD: “I don’t think he felt he fit in there. He said the Petersons are dangerous. He wanted to go back to New York. I was more into Coppola on The Godfather I when the studio was against him. I gained a lot of respect for Coppola on Godfather I. It was Coppoola’s picture. He was the one who made that film work. He had a lot on his plate.”
LAB: It was only in doing research for my project that I discovered George Lucas was part of The Rain People company and his main job was to shoot and edit the documentary, The Making of The Rain People.
RD: “I met George Lucas on that. He’s a nice guy, quiet kind of private guy. I did his (USC) thesis film (THX-1138). When we did The Rain People he was like 115 pounds and he had a camera and sound equipment strapped on himeself, this little thin guy, and the documentary is as interesting as the movie.”
LAB: You and Jimmy Caan became fast friends on projects like that one and Robert Altman’s Countdown before working together more famously on The Godfather.
RD: “We had a lot fun between me and Jimmy Caan and his brother (who doubled for Duvall on the motorcycle in Rain People), who’s nuts, riding along on that motorcycle. and they didn’t have motorcycle police in Nebraska then. We got stopped and got a ticket. I had to learn how to drive that thing. One night I came in and parked the thing. It took ten takes, and then it fell over. Oh, man, we laughed so hard. But we had a good time out there. It was a memorable time working there for those weeks there in Nebraska. It was great.
“Jimmy’s great to work with. He gets restless though.”
LAB: I must tell you that I consider We’re Not the Jet Set a superb piece of filmmaking. It’s one of the better documentaries of that era.
RD: “Well, you know who else liked it a lot, unsolicited…I knew Peter Falk and he took it and showed it to John Cassavetes and Cassavetes loved that film.. Also, I wouldn’t call it a pure documentary because there were certain scenes we set up and then they could do them in a pure way like a documentary, you know what I’m saying? The bathing scene where B.A. hoses his little boy and then puts him in the bath tub, that was kind of set up, but it’s what they do and so it comes out a pretty pure behavior.”
LAB: There’s no way you could have portrayed the family as intimately asy you did had you not become like an adopted family member immersed into the family scene.
RD: “Exactly, that’s what happened. When I worked with the gypsies (for his Angelo, My Love), the same way. I mean, you really gotta become part of something without trying to patronize, but tell it like it is. Do you know what I’m saying? Because so many films in Hollywood they do patronize the interior aspects of the United States between the two coast lines. But you gotta turn it around and let it come from them.”
LAB: It’s somewhat surprising to me that B.A. would have approved exposing himself and his family so starkly.
RD: “The first time we got out there he said, ‘What if I wouldn’t let you do this?’ I said, ‘Well, what are you going to do, we figured you would.’ Before they signed any releases or anything, there was no money exchanged because you know I didn’t have any money to do this. I think we went out six times in like two years or something like that.”
LAB: So you financed the project yourself?
RD: “Oh yeah, it was myself. I told Brando about it when I was doing Godfather I. He went for the truth. You know he used to watch Candid Camera to study to be an actor. He was that interested in real behavior, which I am and was.”
LAB: I like how Jet Set and your other films as a director are infused with little moments, gestures, asides, glimpses of authentic, truthful behavior, all of it unadorned, and much of it provided by nonprofessionals.
RD: “Yeah, I think so because once again we turned the camera around and let it come from them. It’s their life. I can’t tell them, ‘Do this, do that.’ And I think more feature film directors should do that – they should see what the nonactor comes up with. When you mix the nonactors with the actors sometimes they’ll put the professional actor on notice because they don’t have any bad habits. So I do try to go after reality, like lifelike behavior within the discipline of movie time.”
LAB: In addition to the colorful characters in Jet Set you captured the expressive Sandhills.
RD: “Oh yeah, the Sandhills country.”
LAB: It’s like another character unto itself in.
RD: “Oh totally, absolutely. There was one scene, we lost the footage. I wanted to start the film with it, where Casey was bathing his pony in like a big rain puddle. But we could never find it, it was unaccountable, so we started instead with some truck with Jake and B.J. I believe it was.”
LAB: The way B.A. comes off in the film and the way you describe him he was just savvy and ambitious and vain enough that the idea of a documentary obviously appealed to him. Besides, he was a showman and he probably saw promotional possibilities in agreeing to be featured in a way that anticipated Reality TV.
RD: “Our troubles were more internal. Our troubles were with a certain cameramen and certain guys that wanted to do it this way. That’s where the problems were, the problems weren’t with the Petersons. The problems were on our side of the camera, the egos there.
“It was tough to do. Usually the actors are prima donnas but the freaking cameraman was the prima donnas on that one.”
LAB: I’m curious to know if Jimmy ever accompanied you on your visits back to Neb. to shoot Jet Set?
RD: “No, he never did. Wilford Brimley did once. No, but they (the Petersons) liked Jimmy a lot and Jimmy’s the kind of guy I always say – ‘You change your telephone number every three months when you don’t have to.”
LAB: A bit mercurial is he?
RD: “Yeah, and also paranoid, I don’t know. He got out there and they were out there branding, and one of them said, ‘Hey there Hollywood, Caan – sounds Jewish.’ He said, ‘My grandparents were Dutch. I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell them you’re Jewish?’ He said, ‘Well , I don’t know, the way they were, I didn’t know what was going to happen.’ But they loved Jimmy, Jewish or whatever he was, they loved him. He and Waldo gave each other their hats.
“No, we had good times together. (Laughs). You’d tell him a joke and B.A. would laugh for five minutes. He had a great sense of humor that guy.”
LAB: Caan got so into the whole branding and herding scene that he ended up becoming a professional rodeo competitor.
RD: “He claims he was a professional rodeo guy. He was a header and heeler in team roping. He did quite a bit of that for a while.”
RD: “I talk to Jimmy all the time. He’s a good guy – one of the few actors I keep in contact with. We stayed friends. We’re trying to get a project off the ground. We may be going to Cuba. A guy’s going to write a script for me, Jimmy and Pacino. It’s a story about life there before the revolution.”
LAB: Is it fair to say then that Jet Set was a labor of love for you?
RD: “Yes, sir, absolutely and that helped me to play Westerns from then on out, being around those people, the real thing, that helped me when I went on to do things like…especially Lonesome Dove. That was my favorite part. Also that Broken Trail, that’s right up there with that. I loved doing that.”
LAB: It sounds like you’ve maintained ties with the Petersons all thruugh the years.
RD: “Yeah, but we’re not as close. I hadn’t seen Casey in a few years and then when I saw him (on the movie Geronimo, An American Legend) he was almost 40 years old. He was working on that. It was like 20 years or so (since they’d last seen each other). They (the Petersons) got into movies, not because of me, I wasn’t instrumental. I’d like that to be known up front. They totally got that on their own. Shelley, the older daughter, her first husband was a rodeo clown and then she married another guy that was in the movies, and she still does that. And then Rex went off and he’s really done well. He worked under Corky Randall (famed animal wrangler). He’s done a lot of movies. He worked on The Horse Whisperer and a lot of other stuff. So they’ve done well.
“Back then (on Jet Set), everybody was young. Denny was the guy on horseback, and then Casey, athletically, he refined many things. Rex became kind of the star of the family without anybody having predicted that within the family, I think.”
LAB: The Petersons said they got close to your family and even visited you on the set of The Godfather.
RD: “My sterpdaughters at the time got on well with them. They came to the set of The Godfather.”
LAB: What about your Jet Set crew? For instance, your editor on that, Stephen Mack, has gone on to edit all of your films as a director.
RD: Steve Mack? Did a good job editing. He was a good editor for that.”
LAB: Were you nervous showing the finished film to the Petersons because of how close you’d become to them and of how unvarnished a portrait of them you made?
RD: “Yeah, because sometimes you get with the real deal and they want to see the artificial. I’m not saying that’s true in this case. Sometimes a cowboy or somebody else will want to see a Hollywood presentation more than they do the every day stuff they live and see, which is boring to them. You know what I mean? So, yeah, I wondered. I wasn’t sure because it’s a revealing thing. I think Denny was a little shy about it more than the others because he’s the oldest. I think it took him a while to accept it –that I’m not trying to make fun of them but that I do want to participate and enjoy the idiosyncrasies and the humor without condescending to it. Just show it, flat out, and I think that’s why a guy like John Cassavetes responded so strongly to the film. I mean, he really liked that film. I didn’t know him that well.”
LAB: In case you didn’t already know it, the Petersons all regard the film as a great gift you gave the family.
RD: “Well, I’m glad, it’s very moving to hear that because you never know if they’re going to accept something real. Like I took one guy out to help me film. It was the night of the graduation, and he said, ‘You’re invading these people’s privacy, how can you film?’ That was the point. I wasn’t invading to make fun, I was invading to show it as it is. And if you can’t get in there then you’re going to miss things, so we had to get in there and really rub elbows with them as we filmed.”
LAB: What would say to anyone who has a problem with the film and its subjects’ lack of political correctness?
RD: “If anybody would say anything I would say, ‘There’s the exit.’ My wife’s from Argentina, she’s very perceptive, she loved the film when she saw it.”
LAB: Before starting Jet Set did you consult with Coppola or any other established filmmaker?
RD: “No. just kind of plunged in.”
LAB: But you had a style in mind and it was patterned to a point on the work of some filmmakers you admired.
RD: “Kenneth Loach. Everybody says, ‘Your directorial comes from Cassavettes.’ I say, ‘Not really.’ The real influences were people like Kenneth Loach.”
LAB: Your projects as a director are so personal and idiosyncratic that it’s as if only you could have made them.
RD: “Maybe. The films I’ve directed have come from only stuff I could find from the ground up and devleop fom the ground up. It had to be from my point of view. I’ve had a few offers (to direct Hollywood films). I couldnt have done it before. I could probably do it now. But it’d have to be stuff from the ground up.”
LAB: What kind of release, exposure did Jet Set get upon its completion?
RD: “I was going through a breakup with my wife then. It showed at Deauville, France and it did well. People enjoyed it, accepted it.”
LAB: Did it ever got a theatrical release?
RD: “Uh, just to a point. I didn’t get any money out of it. Some of my projects I’ve never made money off of them. The Apostle, I sold it. But the gypsy film, I never made money, I lost money.”
LAB: You didn’t get wide distribution of that.
RD: “No…it happened with my gypsy film. Some of it’s my fault – not working with the right people.But what are you going to do? You do it for the love of it. You gotta do certain things for the love of it and you make money on other projects you aren’t totally committed to but then it helps you pay for those that you want to do.
“It’s a strange and fickle business.”
NOTE (Jet Set enjoyed runs at New York and other big city art houses and it also played on national public television.)
RD: “I do care about it. I haven’t seen it in a long time. I do care about that one. Years ago it had been accepted at a film festival in Argentina. My wife saw it and she loved it. She’s very perceptive.”
LAB: After its initial release though Jet Set has pretty much been unseen. But the manager of your defunct production company Butcher’s Run was nice enough to send me a DVD of it.
RD: “We had to get a print to refurbish it so to speak. I’m terrible at keeping track of things. I want to sit down and watch it again one of these days. George Jones and Tammy Wynette, they gave us that song (the title track the film gets its name from). They waived the $10,000 fee. They gave us the title and song. She was a wonderful lady, Tammy Wynette. I showed it to Merle Haggard way back then. He liked it. I always thought Merle would make a good actor. I always meant to put him in a film. It just never happened.”
LAB: Speaking of actors, you’ve worked with some greats. You mentioned Marlon Brando before and youe good buddy Jimmy Caan. What about John Wayne?
RD: “John Wayne was a far better actor than a lot of people gave him credit for. The Shootist is a brilliant performance.”
LAB: The movies have been very good to you and to some of your acting contemporaries like Caan, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight….
RD: “Cinema’s become like the in medium going into the 21st century. Young people instead of becoming writers they want to become directors or this and that.”
LAB: An actor with strong Omaha ties is our own John Beasley, who played opposite you in The Apostle.
RD: “Oh, yeah, a good guy, a good actor that guy. He’s a fine actor. They said, ‘Where’d you find that nonreactor?’ I said, ‘Well, that nonactor played Othello and King Lear up in Omaha.’ Oh, give him my regards, he’s a wonderful guy. When we were doing The ApostleI said to him, ‘I want to talk Johnny Rodgers,’ one of the greatest college football players, and he said, ‘No, I want to talk theater.’ I loved Johnny Rodgers, God almighty. I was talking football and he said, ‘I don’t want to talk football.’”
LAB: Well, since you brought him up, I think Rodgers one of the most underappreciated greats of all time.
RD: “Well, that’s because he went up to Canada I think rather than the NFL. He came from the same area as Gale Sayers.”
LAB: You’re still very busy as an actor.
RD: ”I just did a film down in Georgia, Get Low, based loosley on fact. Bill Murray. Sissy Spacek. I did that other thing, The Road. I’ve got two things coming out this year that are as good as anything I’ve done in my life.”
LAB: “Actors of a certain age often find good parts are scarce, but you seem to be the exception to that rule.
RD: “It’s true, but you’ve got to find yours.”
LAB: Do you still ride much?
RD: “I started back three weeks ago after not riding for two-three years. My wife rides well. Once a year we have the oldest horse show in america (in Virginia). It’s a good hobby.”
LAB: And then there’s you love for the tango.
RD: “It’s all connected. It’s a hobby. I go down to Argentina. Buenos Aires. I love that city.”
- James Caan Interview: From My Film Connections Project (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)