Lonesome Dove: My Visit With Robert Duvall II
By April Horowitz
(The Heart of a Horse Story, part 10)
One of Duvall’s 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 part 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.”
I then asked him about my favorite western and my favorite Duvall character, which was Augustus McRae, the Texas Ranger in Lonesome Dove. It turned out to be his too: “My favorite role of all was Lonesome Dove when I played Augustus McRae, the former Texas ranger. My ex-wife said to me, ‘Bobby, you have to play this part.’ But they tried to talk me into the other one.’” McRae’s character was impish and romantic and wise, and personified a love of life itself. The other part was that of his partner in the film, the stoical Woodrow F. Call, which was eventually played film by Tommie Lee Jones. Originally, James Garner was offered the part of Augustus and Duvall was asked to play Woodrow. “My agent handled us both,” Duvall recalled. “I told him I wouldn’t do it unless he could get Garner to switch parts. If he could do that, I was interested.” Four hours later Duvall’s agent called back and said Garner had injured his back and couldn’t ride a horse. So Duvall got the part of Augustus McRae and the part of Woodrow Call went to Tommie Lee Jones.
I wanted to know whether he had ever been bucked off a horse, which is a question I ask all the celebrities I interview because almost everyone who has ridden a horse has had that experience. When the celebrities give their answers to questions like this, it connects them directly to people I am trying to reach. As it happens Duvall was bucked off a horse during the making of Lonesome Dove. The director took advantage of the mishap and converted his fall into an incident in the film. “I had a horse that was a running Quarter Horse,” Duvall recalled. “He was terrific but he got a little edgy. We had to use ranch horses we got from the local ranches to calm him down. He was fine until there was a scene in the film where the Indians were chasing me and I turned around and fired at them with a pistol. Well this horse had never heard a pistol before, so he started bucking. It was like a rodeo. I said to myself either I’ve got to get off of here or be thrown off. I jumped. All the cowboys watching were laughing, ‘We’ll give you a seven, we’ll give you an eight’ – you know, a good score.”
The cameras were running as well, so they were able to use the footage in the film. In the scene Duvall “falls” the horse, something the film’s wrangler showed him how to do, slits the horse’s throat and uses his boy as a shield for himself. Through magical illusions of the cinema they managed to put it all together in the sequence.
Duvall also talked about an incident that occurred during the filming of Days of Thunder a feature he made with Tom Cruise about auto racing. “We had a good time down in the Carolinas,” he recalled. “We were in Florida too. It was a pretty long job and we had a good time. When I was away on location, my horse broke its leg and they had to shoot it. So Tom gave me a horse for Christmas. He’s a very giving guy. It was a wonderful thing he did.”
Twenty-five years after Lonesome Dove, Duvall made a western with Kevin Costner called Open Range, which also involved horses. “Before I did that film with Kevin I broke six ribs getting bucked off by a small horse. You know, they’re not machines. A small horse can have a faster bucking action then a big one sometimes. I was on the ground quickly. If it had happened two weeks later I couldn’t have done the movie, but I had time to heal. Broken Trail which I did three years later was more of a complete experience. I was ready for it. I had a better horse. They had a cowboy boot camp, which the actors went to. When I went up there the owner of the ranch where the camp was held let me use his personal horse. He’d never let them use this horse in a movie before. That horse made me look good and taught me a lot. His name was Wrangler. At the end of the film I said ‘How much is Wrangler.’ They said, ‘Oh, no, he’s not for sale.’ They wouldn’t sell him. So I made a joke. I said, when this film’s over I’ll be heading for the border with Wrangler with the sheriff after me. That horse was the best horse I’ve had in a movie. His four-year old daughter is riding it now. He’s that good.”
When we took one of our breaks from the interview, his wife Luciana came to meet us, and I interviewed her as well. She was an Argentinian whose mother had been a famous aviator, and she herself was an accomplished rider having won championship ribbons in competitions as a child. She told me about her childhood with horses and displayed an impressive knowledge of equine matters and a genuine caring for the animals, which made me feel close to her. While we were talking, we were joined by Duvall and the three of us walked over to the corral where Manu was grazing. When Manu saw us he loped over to the wooden fence where we were standing and became part of the shot. I asked the Duvalls if they would do a testimonial and say a few words about the work we were doing with Heart of a Horse to help us get others to support us.
Luciana spoke first, observing that while horses were dependent on people, they could not speak to defend themselves, and that’s why it was so important to have us to speak up for them. Without advocates, it was only when the abuse was visual, when the animal was visibly starving that there was even a possibility of anything being done. “I wish people would be more conscious of the responsibilities involved in having horses,” she said. “If they cannot keep them, don’t just dump them. Don’t mistreat them.” And then she said for our camera, “So please support Heart of a Horse.”
At these words, Duvall stepped up and agreed: “Heart of a Horse is a wonderful organization and Luciana and I are here to support it.” Then he turned to me and said, “People like us are here to reinforce what you believe, and hopefully others will follow your trail in this whole pioneering thing you’re doing.” Even though I had not given him any script, the actor in him responded to the moment and in his best commercial voice said with brio: “Good horse rescue. Heart of a Horse.” When she heard this, Luciana turned to him with a smile and said, “You’re going to win an Oscar for that.”
The Duvalls spent the whole day with us, from morning until the sun was just about ready to set. It was so generous of them. All the while “Bobby” gave us the tour of his ranch and spent hours in the interviews, I felt very emotional. I was so honored that he had set aside a day for us, and that he had given his time to our cause because he knew it would help us to help horses in need.