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Do not disturb the subtle on-set genius of Robert Duvall

By Dan MacMedan, USA TODAY

LOS ANGELES — The rumors arrived on set before Robert Duvall did.

Joaquin Phoenix had heard them. He had heard the actor couldn't be rattled, that once Duvall was in character, once the cameras rolled, he was unshakable. That bigger names — guys named Brando, De Niro, Coppola — had tried to get him to flub a line, crack up, miss his mark. No luck.

That didn't stop Phoenix from trying. Off camera, he'd rub Duvall's earlobes and whisper "such a pretty bunny." He'd kiss Duvall full on the lips. For a scene that took two hours, Phoenix screamed non- sequiturs to rattle the man who has starred in nearly 100 films.

At the end of the scene, Phoenix shook his head and whispered to director James Gray: "Forget it. He's some sort of Jedi knight."

Not exactly. There just isn't much that Duvall hasn't done or seen — and less that impresses him. Sometimes, that includes his own work.

Consider his recollections of his first film, 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird, in which he played Boo Radley: "Not bad, not bad. Not as good as the book, though."

Or Mob consigliere Tom Hagen in the first two Godfather films: "Those were pretty good. I figured I'd be able to pay rent after that, yeah," a word he uses to end many of his sentences.

Or his Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore from Apocalypse Now and the famous line "I love the smell of napalm in the morning": "People think I was trying to be over the top. I just had to shout over all those damn helicopters, yeah."

Over the top galls Duvall. Throughout his six-decade career, which includes an Oscar, Emmy and five Academy Award nominations, Duvall, 76, has made a reputation as much for what he doesn't say on screen as what he does.

"I don't like Hollywood acting," he says, using the term as if he were cursing. "Be yourself. I once had a director say to me, 'When I say action, you tense up, damn it.' Can you imagine saying that to Joe Montana at the Super Bowl? Dummy. Mood spelled backward is doom."

Duvall brings that approach to We Own the Night, a crime drama in which he plays a police chief who investigates a nightclub run by his coke-sniffing son, played by Phoenix.

"He may be the only Hollywood legend who doesn't know he's a legend," says Night director Gray. "Either that, or he doesn't care."

It's probably the latter. Duvall still prides himself on being a blue-collar actor with no retirement plan: "They'll have to wheel me out. I'll be working until they wipe the drool from my mouth. I think I can still do a decent job."

So do awards voters. He won his first Emmy this year for the Western Broken Trail, though he considers the statue a makeup award for not taking best-acting honors for the role of Gus McCrae in the 1989 miniseries Lonesome Dove. To this day, it remains his favorite part.

"Hollywood tends to underestimate the middle states," he says over tuna at Madeo, a tucked-away Italian restaurant that was a favorite of Frank Sinatra's. "But it's where this country was formed."

And it's where Duvall calls home. Though he owns a small West Hollywood bungalow to do business here, he spends most of his free time at his 362-acre farm in The Plains, Va., population 284. He shares the spread with his wife, Luciana Pedraza, three dogs and a few horses. The homestead features a barn he turned into a saloon with a dance floor and spittoons for visitors who enjoy chewing tobacco. The buckets, he says, need regular cleaning.

Born in San Diego to a career military man, Duvall eventually returned to Virginia, where his father's people worked tobacco fields behind Confederate lines while siding with the Union; his grandfather was named Abraham Lincoln Duvall. He can still spend up to six hours a day in the saddle, either preparing for a role or "just taking in air you can still breathe and where you hear yourself think."

It's a life, says his friend Kevin Costner, that has forged Duvall's on-screen presence.

After picking Duvall to co-star in the Western Open Range, "I gave most of my lines to him," Costner says. "I knew they were going to sound a lot more authentic coming from his mouth than mine."

Authenticity is paramount to Duvall. He refuses to watch the HBO Western series Deadwood because he considers the constant swearing inaccurate and gratuitous. He found Unforgiven, which won the best-picture Oscar, flawed because Clint Eastwood's character has trouble mounting his horse after years out of the saddle. "You never forget a thing like that," Duvall says. "I may need a stool nowadays, but you never forget how to get on your horse."

But don't take Duvall for a rube, says friend Morgan Freeman. "Oh, Lord, how that man loves the tango," he says. "You get two impressions when you first meet Bob. The first is he's just like any other quiet man you've met. The other is, if he could be anything he wanted, he would have been a dancer."

Duvall can't deny the assessment. There are two TV shows he cannot miss: So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With the Stars. "Those kids think they can tango," he says, putting his fork down. "They can't even mambo. I think I could show them a thing or two."

Duvall still shows plenty, Phoenix says. "Watch how much he says just with an expression on his face. He doesn't have any of that actorly (stuff). He's like this country guy who just happened to be in the most classic movies in history."

Duvall literally waves off the praise. It doesn't sit well. He tries in vain to pay for lunch. He sheepishly accepts a ride home after realizing he made no plans to get back after his wife dropped him off.

"This town can be OK," he says on the drive, eyeing a massive Bentley trying to squeeze into a parking spot. "But I can't stay long. It's too easy for a man to get full of himself."