I Meet Robert Duvall


I Meet Robert Duvall

By April Horowitz

(The Heart of a Horse Story, part 9)

One of the celebrities who responded to my request was the Academy Award Winning actor Robert Duvall. His willingness to help was truly emotional for me. He was such an icon, and I was overwhelmed that he would be willing to do this But once again the horses I needed to help made me forget my shyness and press on with my request. As with the others, I asked him for a story about a horse to put on the website. He had obviously done a lot of work with horses in many films throughout his career, and I knew his experiences would touch a lot of people. He sent me this letter:

Dear April

Here is my story for Heart of a Horse about Don Manuel, my part Arab, part Thoroughbred, half Andalusian baby.

Don Manuel was born in a Virginia field on a workday (usually it happens at night). When everyone came back from lunch, they said, “What is that big dog doing in the middle of our field?” They finally realized it was a foal that was just a few hours old. They had to put a strange two and two together because the people involved weren’t even aware that the mother had been pregnant. I visited the rascal when he was just two days old and it was a wonderful visit to say the least.

Six months later, my wife Luciana told me she wanted to show me Manu (we call him Manu or Manito for short because of his Spanish heritage) one more time before he was shipped off to a lady she said had bought him. But without my knowing it, she had sneaked into the stall and put a sweet yellow ribbon on him just in time to say “Merry Christmas” to me as I walked up.

What a great surprise! He is at our farm right now. He’s a real people horse, and loves following us around the property, running up and down along the fence, always looking to be fed. He was broken to ride in a more modern, gentle way. With his unique personality, he may well be in one of my movies sometime in the future. He is a beloved member of our family.

Robert Duvall

I called Duvall and thanked him. He said, “When you get a chance, come and see the horse and spend the day with me.” I jumped at the opportunity and told him I surely would. But I had more ambitious plans in mind. I wanted to make a film featuring Duvall in which he would tell about his life with horses. I called him and asked if would give me and the crew I had assembled time to film and interview him if we showed up at his door. I was very nervous making the call but Bobby, as he likes to be called, is a very generous man and immediately agreed.

One summer day I boarded a flight to Dulles Airport in Reston, Virginia which was a 45-minute ride from Duvall’s ranch. At the airport I met up with my cinematographer, Peter Borrud and a crew he had assembled, and we proceded to an old Virginia town of about 300 people in Civil War country. When we reached the town we phoned Duvall for further directions, then took a turn in the center of town and drove a few miles north through a rolling green countryside until we saw the sign for Duvall’s 350-acre ranch. We turned into the long driveway past herds of cattle and arrived at a cluster of buildings where Duvall was already waiting for us.

As soon as our white SUV pulled up and I got out, he practically ran over calling out to me, “April, April the horse is up here.” All my nervousness about about meeting him vanished in the face of his warmth and his eagerness to show me Manu, the beautiful chestnut Arab-Thoroughbred-Andalusian his wife Luciana had given him for Christmas. We went immediately over to his stables, which were across a shaded yard from the driveway in front of fieldstone ranch house where he had met us, to show us the horse.

His stalls were elegant in the English style, of dark wood, and as we toured them he talked about the horse and about his father who was a military man and and had encouraged him early in life to read books and get involved with horses. We then took a walk around his grounds down to the very spacious arena where his trainer brought Manu out to exercise him, and then went over to look at a large pond on his property with wild birds. The whole vista was simply stunning.

Before we had left California I had asked Duvall to think of a word – any word — that is used to describe a horse. It was another idea I had to make people aware of horses and how they were part of the fabric of our lives. While we were walking I asked him if he had come up with a word, and he said he had. “Jade. I looked it up and the first meaning in Webster’s dictionary of ‘jade’ is a broken-down, worn-out horse.” It made me sad because I thought of the abused horses I had come to know and it seemed at the same time incongruous but also fitting that they should share a name with a precious gemstone.

Our crew was now ready, and, we set Duvall down in a wicker chair on an extended part of the lawn by his house and I began to interview him about the horses in his life and work: “I always had a pretty good seat on a horse, ever since I went to my uncle’s ranch as a kid when I was twelve and thirteen up in northern Montana,” he began. “We would go up there in the summertime. You could look over the mountains, the sweet grass hills. We’d go up and camp out on horseback, and he’d tell stories and play the harmonica. It was great.” As he spoke the words recalling the memories of his youth, a big smile spread over his face. “You could see the Milk River, you could see Canada. As beautiful as Montana was, my uncle would always say how beautiful Banff and the Canadian Rockies were. I worked on films up there, and it’s an incredible place. My uncle always said I had a pretty natural seat on horse, so I knew when the time came I wanted to do westerns.”

As he said these words, which segued into his film career, Duvall paused and drew himself up as though he were addressing a class and went on: “The English have Shakespeare, the French have Moliere, the Russians have Chekhov, the Western is ours.”

One of his first Hollywood jobs was in a western segment of the 1960s television series Route 66, starring George Maharis. As he began to tell us this parwt of his story, his face broke into a big smile and he said: “I did the dumbest thing I ever did in my career. I was supposed to play a gunfighter. I got on this horse and came up to my mark and it was like I was a kid again playing cowboys and Indians. I pulled out my pistol and fired two shots into the air. Even the horse looked around as if to say what can this guy be thinking? The dumbest thing I ever did in my life.”

Part 10: Lonesome Dove: My Visit With Robert Duvall II »

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