“I love the smell of napalm in the morning!” is a famous phrase uttered by Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore played by Robert Duvall in Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic 1979 film about the Vietnam War, “Apocalpyse Now.” Named by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most versatile actor in the world, Duvall’s sterling performance in this war picture, for which he received an Academy Award nomination, created a memorable character that was ranked as one of Premiere Magazine’s 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time. But it was in another Coppola picture that this veteran actor and director actually got his career breakthrough when he was cast as mob lawyer Tom Hagen in the 1972 film “The Godfather,” for which he received the first of his 6 Academy Award nominations.
Clearly, some of the finest acting ever put to film by Robert Duvall must have been influenced by his lineage and own personal background. He was born on 5 January 1931 in San Diego, California. His mother, Mildred Virginia Hart, is a descendant of American Civil War General Robert E. Lee. And, as a descendant of Robert E. Lee, Duvall’s lineage can be traced as far back to the first U.S. President, General George Washington, who became his ancestor by adoption. Duvall grew up in a military family living for some time in Annapolis, Maryland near the United States Military Academy, as his father, William Howard Duvall, was a career military officer who later became a U.S. Navy admiral.
Interestingly, Duvall owns a large estate in Virginia, where some Civil War skirmishes were fought and where he has discovered some shells and war artifacts. His Virginia estate was also the setting of some scenes in the 2003 film “Gods and Generals,” where he played his ancestor, General Robert E. Lee. Robert Duvall himself is a veteran, having served from 1953 to 1954 in the U.S. Army and was subsequently awarded the National Defense Service Medal. By serving in the military, he has earned the privilege, should he so desire, to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery which is located on land seized from his ancestor, General Robert E. Lee.
After his tour of duty with the Army, Robert Duvall studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater in New York under Sandford Meisner, who later cast him in the play “The Midnight Caller,” by Horton Foote. His casting in this play established a link that became critical in his career because it was Foote who was responsible for earning him the major role of the mentally disabled Boo Radley in the 1962 film “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Robert Duvall, who was described as having conservative political views, is a staunch supporter of the Republican Party. He was personally invited to attend the inauguration of Republican President George W. Bush in 2001 with whom he subsequently watched the special screening of “Broken Trail” on 11 June 2006 at the White House. In 2008, Duvall appeared on stage at the New Mexico rally of John McCain and Sarah Palin.