The Robert Duvall Story

Robert Duvall: An American Legend


For over seven decades, Robert Duvall has starred on stage and screen—and is considered one of the greatest American actors of all time. Learn about his life, career…and the traits that have made him such a talented actor.

Early Life

Robert Selden Duvall was born on January 5th, 1931, in San Diego, California, to Mildred (an amateur actress) and William, a Virginia-born United States Navy Rear Admiral.

Born the second of three sons, Robert’s older brother was William Jr., and his younger brother was John. Robert considered himself a “Navy brat” and said he grew up in and around Annapolis near the U.S. Naval Academy.

After Robert graduated in 1953 with his Bachelor of Arts degree in Drama from Principia College, William expected his son to join the Naval Academy. Robert, however, defied him and joined the U.S. Army instead. He left the service as a Private, 1st Class, in 1954.

When asked why he didn’t join the Naval Academy, Robert said that he was never a big fan of school…and he knew in his heart that the only thing he was ever really good at was acting.

In The Beginning

Robert Duvall in Geronimo an American Legend While Robert was still in the Army, he landed a small part in an amateur theater production of Room Service. This led Duvall to realize that acting was his passion, and he wanted to do it for the rest of his life.

In 1955, he joined Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York City, using his GI Bill benefits to pay for his acting studies. While there, he made a pair of lifelong friends with two other struggling actors: Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman.

While he pursued his big break, Duvall worked many odd jobs, including sorting mail at the U.S. Post Office, working at Macy’s as a clerk, and driving trucks.

The Stage Beckons

From 1952-1959, Duvall appeared in numerous plays, and his reputation as a great actor grew. He honed his craft in renowned plays such as PicnicThe CrucibleDial M For MurderBus Stop, and the role that he said was a “catalyst” for all the wonderful roles to come, that of Eddie Carbone in Arthur Miller’s play, A View from the Bridge.

By the late 1950s into the 1960s, Duvall was getting cast as the lead in such Off-Broadway plays as A Streetcar Named DesireOnce More with FeelingRomanoff and Juliet, and The Happiest Millionaire. Back at the Neighborhood Playhouse, Duvall also got the leading roles in Camino Real and The Midnight Caller. He won an Obie Award in 1965 when he reprised his role as Eddie Carbone in A View from the Bridge.

He made his Broadway debut in February 1966 in the play, Wait Until Dark, at the Ethel Barrymore Theater.

Television Comes A’ Calling

Like many actors of his era, Duvall was a regular TV guest star throughout the 1960s. He appeared in episodes of Alfred Hitchcock PresentsNaked CityThe UntouchablesThe Twilight ZoneThe FugitiveThe F.B.I., and many more.

Although Robert worked steadily throughout the 1950s and 1960s and was earning a reputation for being a fantastic supporting actor, he longed for bigger, better parts. He had no idea what the next decade would bring….

The Big Screen Loves Robert Duvall

During the 1970s, Robert Duvall began getting breakout roles in great movies—and earning the reputation of being one of the greatest character actors around.

The decade kicked off with the role of Frank Burns in the Korean War comedy M*A*S*H., followed by his iconic role as Tom Hagen, the Corleone family consiglieri and “fixer” in The Godfather and The Godfather II. He also appeared in The Eagle Has LandedApocalypse NowNetwork, and The Great Santini. Director Francis Ford Coppola praised Duvall as “One of the 4 or 5 best actors in the world.”

Duvall went back to Broadway to star in American Buffalo and received a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Play. At the time, Robert Duvall said that he hoped this recognition of his acting ability would help him get better parts in the years to come.

He didn’t have to wait long…

Duvall’s Greatest Roles

Robert Duvall in Geronimo an American Legend The 1980s came along, and by 1983, Duvall won the Academy Award for Best Actor in Tender Mercies. He played Mac Sledge, a Country Western Singer…and yes, he did ALL his own singing!

That decade also saw him starring in The NaturalColors, and the role he says was his personal favorite: Captain Augustus “Gus” McCrae in Lonesome Dove, for which he received an Emmy nomination.

In the 1990s, Duvall continued to appear in many movies, including Days of ThunderThe Handmaid’s TaleRambling RoseFalling DownThe PaperGeronimo: An American LegendThe Scarlet LetterSling BladeThe Apostle, and A Civil Action. He received Oscar nominations for The Apostle (which he also wrote and directed) and A Civil Action.

At a time in life when most actors would be looking to retire, Duvall was just getting started!

Later Career Triumphs

The early 2000s saw Robert Duvall working, often doing star turns in many different films. His triumphs included the role of Robert E. Lee in Gods and Generals, and as the writer, producer, and star of Assassination Tango. Here’s a fun fact: this movie allowed Duvall to incorporate one of his great passions—Argentinian Tango Dancing—into the plot. In it, Duvall plays a Tango-loving hit man.

By 2006, Duval starred in Broken Trail to much acclaim. After a long and storied career, Duvall finally earned an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie—his first Emmy win ever.

Duvall has continued his prolific work schedule, and his other projects included Open RangeSecondhand LionsCrazy HeartKicking and ScreamingGet LowSeven Days in UtopiaJack ReacherThe Judge (which earned him another Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor), and Widows.

Personal Life

Robert Duvall married his first wife, Barbara Benjamin, in 1964. Barbara had two daughters from a previous marriage. She and Robert were married until 1975. Duvall’s second wife was Gail Youngs. The couple was married from 1982-1986. His third wife was Sharon Brophy. They were married from 1991-1995. In 2005, Duvall married his fourth wife, Luciana Pedraza. They met in a bakery, and both share the same birthday (just 41 years apart). They’ve been together since 1997. Although Duvall has been married four times, he has no children of his own.

Life and Legacy

Robert Duvall in Seven Days in UtopiaAt 92 years old, Robert Duvall is still active and vibrant. Duvall continues to stay active by practicing martial arts with his wife. He also enjoys training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

He and his wife, Pedraza, founded the Robert Duvall Children’s Fund in 2001 and continue to help make life better in Northern Argentina (Pedraza’s hometown) for the poor. The Duvalls also actively support Pro Mujer, a nonprofit organization that helps some of the poorest women in the Argentine northwest.

In a career that has spanned 70+ years, Duvall has starred in scores of films, television shows, and theater productions. We’re proud to have some of those movies right here on INSP for you and your family to enjoy.

See for yourself why Robert Duvall has been called one of the greatest actors of his generation…and of all time.