It is, as they say out on the range, a sight for sore eyes to see Robert Duvall back on TV in AMC's first-ever original movie, Broken Trail. The two-part, four-hour film (airing Sunday and Monday at 8 pm/ET) stars Duvall as grizzled cowboy Print Ritter, who leads his estranged, taciturn nephew Tom Harte (Thomas Haden Church) on a harrowing horse drive from Oregon to Wyoming.
The ragtag travelers embark on your classic Western odyssey, complete with smallpox, bloodshed and outlaws, but with a twist: Duvall, who also served as executive producer, was intent on putting people, not shoot-'em-ups, center stage. "I tried to say, 'Let's just keep this very simple. Talking and listening,'" he recalls. In fact, he oversaw an 11th-hour re-edit of the film, which restored "90 percent-plus" of his intention. "It got back to what it should be: a film of character-driven moments, not action." Along the way, Print and Tom rescue five Chinese women from sex slavery, as well as a "working girl" named Nola (Greta Scacchi), who offers the old cowpoke her proverbial heart of gold.
For Duvall's character, the journey is also one of redemption for a tragic, heartbreaking past. "Print wants to kind of mend family relationships on this horse drive," he explains. "He wants to make amends to his nephew. And then these Chinese girls are thrown upon us, and they become like surrogate daughters." (In fact, he notes, the project's original title was Daughters of Joy, which was period slang for prostitutes.)
Appropriately enough, Duvall spoke to TV Guide from the comfy confines of his sprawling Virginia ranch, where the remarkably spry septuagenarian lives with his dance partner (and costar of his 2003 thriller, Assassination Tango), Luciana Pedraza. With the smell of fresh hay in the air, the Hollywood legend spent a leisurely afternoon recounting celluloid adventures past.
Print Ritter is the latest in a line of damaged men in Duvall's repertoire. The character is reminiscent of his Oscar-winning turn as Mac Sledge, the has-been country singer from 1983's Tender Mercies, as well as hotheaded preacher Sonny Dewey from Duvall's 1997 film, The Apostle. "They're guys who have histories but can't make things work," he says. "I always try to find the contradictions in a character, a moment of vulnerability in the guy. That's what makes drama."
Trail also marks the latest in a long line of Westerns for Duvall: "I always say the English have Shakespeare, the French have Molière, the Russians have Chekhov, and the Western is definitely ours."
Of course, more than anything else, Trail will evoke fond scratch that, passionate viewer memories of Lonesome Dove, the landmark 1989 miniseries that landed Duvall an Emmy nomination for his enthralling portrayal of complicated ex-Texas Ranger Augustus McCrae. Duvall cites McCrae as his favorite role and, set against a storied half-century of acting, that's saying something. "I'd rather play Augustus McCrae than Hamlet or King Lear," he says.
Duvall is rare, maybe unique, among Hollywood actors in having left his stamp on a pair of homegrown genres the other, of course, being the gangster movie.
Having etched a monument to character-actor greatness in his portrayal of The Godfather's Mafia consigliere Tom Hagen, Duvall maintains his appreciation for a well-executed mob tale. "A couple of years ago, Godfather II was on TV I didn't turn it on to see me and I thought, 'Let me watch five minutes,'" he recalls.
"I couldn't turn it off!"
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