May 09, 1977 12:00 PM

Character actors are the rubber men of the trade—the knockabout pros-for-all-seasons, their kit bags packed with face fur, their heads abuzz with dialects, pieces of stage business and behavioral tics glommed from strangers and friends. Robert Duvall has been in that special company for 20 years—most notably as the priggish major in the movie M*A*S*H and the canny consigliore to both Godfathers, and in a rush, more recently, as Dr. Watson in The Seven Percent Solution, the corporate cutthroat of Network and the Nazi with the conscience in The Eagle Has Landed. It is Duvall’s distinction (and the torment of his breed) that the depth of his characterization obscures his own face and memory in the public mind. Nevertheless, adjudges director Francis (Godfather) Coppola: “He’s one of the four or five best actors in the world.” Certainly Duvall is Hollywood’s No. 1 No. 2 lead, and at 46 he has finally arrived within a few watts of stardom.

Currently he’s on Broadway—as a felonious punk in David Mamet’s gritty hit American Buffalo—for what he calls professional refreshment and a respite from five back-to-back film roles. (He’d previously finished playing a sharpy fight promoter in Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest and a surfboard-crazy Army colonel in Coppola’s still-awaited Vietnam epic, Apocalypse Now.) The Buffalo part, which nets him a small fraction of movie pay, is a lead and is clearly a signal of his readiness for top billing in Hollywood. “People keep asking me, ‘Why walk away when you’re hot?’ ” he says. “I hope this will get me better film roles.”

His passage to fruition as an actor has made a migrant of him. Three years ago he walked away from a 10-year marriage to a former Jackie Gleason Girl and away from the lush Tuxedo Park, N.Y. spread where they had rooted themselves. “It didn’t change my life radically,” he says. “Divorce is kind of lonely, but my career took off.” Not long separated (the divorce terms are still unsettled), he bounced into a live-in relationship with a 27-year-old airline stewardess in Queens. That broke up after 18 months—leaving, as he put it, “that frantic thing about being alone, the feeling of being on the prowl.” Since January his address has been a cluttered bachelor apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But his primary ports of call have been his dressing room at the Belasco Theatre (“I take naps and get my mail there; it’s like home”) and a tidier pad a few blocks from his, belonging to actress Lindsay (Slap Shot) Crouse.

“I like to pal around with one woman, not a bunch,” says Duvall. “She’s a good friend—and good in the other department.” (Lindsay is less equivocal: “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”) Their social life together is homey, not high-stepping. Duvall favors quiet pleasures—listening to country records, teaching Lindsay tennis (“She was a dancer so she has great footwork”) or eating a prime steak. He doesn’t smoke or drink even coffee. But he fights redomestication. “I miss that part of my life,” he says. “There were dogs, horses nearby, a tennis court, this and that. I enjoyed it. But to take on that responsibility again would take a lot. Who’s that guy—Ulysses?—who kept trying to get back and back and back? I felt that way in the past. Maybe I’m that guy. But I just can’t seem to get back, so I guess it’s gone.”

Restlessness has roiled in him since childhood. His father was a Navy admiral, and the course set for young Robert was Annapolis. Yet, as he remembers, “I was terrible at everything but acting—I could barely get through school.” So after high school in San Diego he rebelliously joined the Army and wound up in Korea. After that his parents agreed he should try acting, and he went to Principia College in Illinois before migrating to New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse. Its director, Sanford Meisner, remembers Duvall as one of the best students he ever had.

Robert still had to clerk at Macy’s, sort mail at the post office, drive a truck and split the rent with Gene Hackman (Dustin Hoffman sometimes slept on the kitchen floor) before anything happened. He caught his first film job in 1963, as the retarded villager in To Kill a Mockingbird. Since then his kicks have come among his peers—for example, an admired but still undistributed documentary he shot about rodeo life, We’re Not the Jet Set, and an off-off-Broadway performance in the adaptation of Faulkner’s Tomorrow. “Hoffman was there, and Jon Voight and a lot of actors, and I was so up I had to sit on myself. It was like an athletic event, and I came in with that accent, and Dusty started laughing and at the end they were pounding the floor and yelling ‘bravo.’ ” (Tomorrow subsequently became Duvall’s second—and last—movie lead after THX 1138. It won a split decision with the critics but was kayoed at the box office.)

Despite his ambition and his sacrifices for it, he still seems to be drawn to the anonymity and detachment of the character actor. “To be a McQueen or a Redford,” he says, “I don’t know. They do the same thing all the time. They do themselves, and that must get boring.” After the run of Buffalo he says he’d like to go to a friend’s tennis camp in Connecticut and “hang out.” But, as he resignedly puts it, “I feel that there is this big invisible finger beckoning me West once again. If I get good parts I’ll start traveling again, but I’ll have mixed feelings about it. Ten years ago people were saying I should have been further along, but it didn’t bother me. Maybe I needed time to ripen. I’m really ripe for a lot of things right now.”

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