Robert Duvall: The grand old dude

At 72, Robert Duvall could spend his entire year collecting lifetime-achievement awards. But, as he explains to Neil Young, the film offers just keep coming, and, like his characters, he's no quitter
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A mask of silent concentration, bracketed by a pair of outsized headphones... The face once described as being fit for Mount Rushmore would today look at home on Mr & Mrs. This is the San Sebastian Film Festival official press conference for Kevin Costner's new Western Open Range, and Robert Duvall is sharing the stage - just as he shares the screen in the movie - with Costner and the young Mexican star, Diego Luna (of Y tu Mama Tambien fame).

The assembled Spanish press, however, seem oblivious to everyone except Costner, resplendent in white cowboy hat, black shades ("I've got an eye injury, I'm not trying to look cool, honestly!"), and those outsized translation headphones. Eventually, even the genial Mr C starts to get a little embarrassed. "Look, guys, I'm sure some of you have some questions for the guys up here with me - Mr Luna and Mr Duvall, who, I don't have to tell you, is a living legend." Duvall continues to squint impassively into the middle-distance, until the next journalist raises his hand and blithely begins: "Señor Cost-nair..." Everyone cracks up, and the Rushmore granite cracks into a broad, wry grin.

A few hours later, Duvall finds himself in the more relaxed, intimate and opulent setting of a suite in the Hotel Maria Cristina, the fanciest address in this bijou Basque resort, and where, everyone in town never tires of repeating, the Spanish royal family used to stay during their summer vacations. These days, the place is more associated with Hollywood royalty, as the film festival regularly lures the biggest names with its "Premio Donostia" lifetime-achievement award.

Duvall, who only the week before had been honoured with a gold star on the Hollywood "Walk of Fame", could probably spend the whole year away from his Virginia base, shuttling between film festivals to receive such plaudits. "Yeah," he says, "I was supposed to go to Sweden, and Belgium, too, but it all conflicts. It's hard, you know. But I'm gonna be around for a few years, I hope. I'm not gonna quit for a while..."

Like most movie stars, Duvall is shorter and slighter than you'd expect from his screen appearances. He doesn't get up from his chair throughout the interview - he did, after all, reportedly break six ribs when thrown from a horse during rehearsals for Open Range - but he's a surprisingly compact, slightly hunched figure with a potbelly beneath his grey short-sleeved shirt: not so much a "grand old man" of the movies as a "grand old granddad".

It's as hard to imagine Duvall looking young as it is to imagine him with a full thatch of hair, but he looks every minute of his 72 years - he'd make a much more plausible movie OAP than his seniors Sean Connery and Clint Eastwood. Then again, Duvall's private life reinforces the old adage about books and covers: the thrice-married star's girlfriend Luciana Pedraza (co-star of his next directorial effort, Assassination Tango) is 31, the pair coincidentally (and romantically) sharing their birthday of 5 January.

And Duvall's eyes are still the same intense, cobalt blue (they remind me of the Ted Hughes line about "hard circles of animal clarity") - the man in real life is very much the calm, watchful, alert presence familiar from roles like The Godfather's Irish consigliere Tom Hagen. Talking about a subject - or, rather, a person - that interests him, however, he's suddenly "on". As when I happen to mention that I'm from Sunderland, for whose football team Ally McCoist - Duvall's co-star in the little-seen 2001 tartan-soccer drama A Shot at Glory - once played.

"Where is he! Where is that guy?!" yelps Duvall, pretending to scour the room in search of the man he described as "80 times better for this part than [original choice] Russell Crowe, and more charismatic... Olivier could never kick a ball, but McCoist is a very natural actor". The film's lack of success hasn't changed Duvall's opinion one jot: "McCoisty - what a character! I said to Albert Finney, 'I'm working with this guy McCoist, the footballer, I'm gonna make an actor out of him', and Finney said [puts on gravelly posh Finney accent], 'Shahp as a tack!'. He was right.

"McCoist was a good footballer, of course, but not as good as Michael Owen - I love Michael Owen, he's great." Alive with enthusiasm, Duvall recalls: "He almost beat Argentina single-handed - I got on the phone to people, I was saying, 'You should see this kid - he's brilliant'. I looked into his record, and I found that in your version of 'little league', when he was 12 years old, he scored 13 goals in 18 minutes in one game. Incredible!"

Duvall's praise of Owen is entirely in character with a man who seems to delight in embodying the "frontier spirit" that prizes individual effort - tellingly, the only bad word he has to say for anyone during the whole interview is reserved for a union representative with whom he crossed swords on the set of his self-directed 1997 Deep South drama The Apostle: "Some arrogant guy came down with loafers and no socks from Baltimore, from the cameramen's union." Duvall, neatly turned out in black jeans and brown suede cowboy boots, is dismissive: "He wasn't gonna give an inch, and eventually I made peace with this guy, even though he was very arrogant."

With a career studded with authority figures, and having been, since his arrival in town, notably keen to distance himself politically from fellow-Donostia recipient Sean Penn (his co-star in Colors in 1988), it's clear that Duvall is a long way from the caricature of the Hollywood actor as bleeding-heart liberal. Born in San Diego - the capital of the US Navy - into what he calls "a military family" (he's a direct descendant of General Robert E Lee, no less), Duvall moved around "all different parts of the country", according to his father's postings.

While himself a decorated soldier, Duvall only served in the army for a year before drifting into acting. "My parents kinda pushed me into it because I was... floundering. They figured maybe I could do that, because I'd do skits around the house - I sang because my brothers all sang a lot. I was pretty petrified at first, but I got to like it. In the beginning, I went to New York to be a theatre actor, then I ended up in films, which I prefer. I'd rather do that than eight performances a week on stage.

"For a while it was hit and miss - I was looking to make a living, I'd gotten married, I had two step-daughters... it was hard. Until I did M*A*S*H with Altman, and then I made a few good movies with Horton Foote - he's one of our great writers, from Texas. He provided me with some great roles, such as Tender Mercies [for which the six-times Oscar-nominated Duvall won 1983's Best Actor award]."

Though he rejects the suggestion that he is offered "Robert Duvall-type roles" ("I've played a Cuban barber, cowboys, Stalin..."), the actor does admit to being drawn to roles in which he can put to use the vivid characters that he has met down the years - even such an apparently unlikely figure as the legendary Celtic footballer Jimmy "Wee Jinky" Johnstone: "I met a lot of characters in my time, Texas, here, there, all over. The biggest I ever met was Jimmy Johnstone. We spent about two hours talking. What an entertaining guy, just to sit and talk for two hours. People say the Scots are dour, but they're not: they're like the Italians, they throw things, they curse!"

He delights in recalling a Scottish cowhand who worked on his uncle's Montana ranch: "Morrison... I actually saw him once run up on a quarter-horse - a speed-horse, good for a quarter of a mile - and touch it on the neck. He roped a baby coyote once. A natural veterinarian, amateur - all the professionals wanted to know his secrets, but he wouldn't tell 'em. A terrific guy, used to pitch horseshoes, was the champion of Montana.

"So all that builds up, to play these parts, like Boss Spearman in Open Range. It all gives me the... the security to play that kind of part."

It's a security that Duvall has built up very patiently over the years: "All the time, in the Sixties and early Seventies," he recalls, "I always figured that I was sort of a 'late bloomer' - I felt my time was later than guys such as Jimmy Caan, De Niro, Pacino. It's later now... I guess I'm still around! In fact, I'm getting more offers than ever - that's fine with me. They want me to do Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea..."

A glance at the Internet Movie Database reveals a somewhat less lofty future project, that will see the living legend return to familiar (Astro)turf: "Untitled Will Ferrell Soccer Comedy (2005)." The perfect vehicle for a Duvall- McCoist reunion, perhaps?