"Some stories have me shooting it out with the Commies from a foxhole over in Frozen Chosin. Pork Chop Hill stuff. Hell, I barely qualified with the M-1 rifle in basic training."
Robert Duvall is best known for his 70-plus years in Hollywood, playing such iconic military roles as Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore in "Apocalypse Now," Maj. Frank Burns in "M*A*S*H" and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in the TV miniseries "Ike: The War Years."
Although he admits to himself and the world his Army service was nothing like the stories and rumors swirling around him, he comes from a long line of military service. His father was Rear Adm. William Howard Duvall, and he's an actual descendant of Robert E. Lee, who he would portray in the Civil War epic "Gods and Generals."
Duvall grew up a Navy brat, going wherever his father happened to be sent, but spent much of his childhood in Annapolis, Maryland, home of the U.S. Naval Academy. His father wanted the young Robert to attend the academy, but it wasn't in the cards. Robert Duvall wasn't much of a student; in his own words, he wasn't good at anything but acting.
With the Naval Academy out as an option, he studied drama, first at the Severn School in Severna Park, Maryland, and later The Principia in St. Louis. He graduated from Principia College in Illinois in 1953.
Then Duvall joined the Army instead of the Navy, enlisting as a private first class shortly after the Korean War ended in 1953. Shooting commies on a distant hill never happened for Pfc. Duvall. With the war over, there wasn't much need for men like him, and he left the very next year. While he was still in, however, he acted in a stage production of the comedy "Room Service" during his time stationed in Georgia's Fort Gordon.
Having been fully bitten by the acting bug, his next step was using his GI Bill benefits to attend acting classes in New York City under famed instructor Sanford Meisner. At the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater, he studied alongside future Hollywood greats Dustin Hoffman, James Caan and fellow veteran Gene Hackman.
Along the way, Duvall made ends meet by any means necessary; driving trucks, sorting mail or working the cash register at Macy's. He performed on and off Broadway for the next 20 years, but got his television debut in 1959 on an episode of "The Jailbreak." His big-screen break came in 1962, when he played Boo Radley alongside Gregory Peck in "To Kill A Mockingbird."
Perhaps the rough and tumble image that makes people think Duvall was dealing death to communists in Korea comes from his long line of tough-guy roles. He was Ned Pepper in the original production of "True Grit," Tom Hagen in "The Godfather" trilogy and -- of course -- Lt. Col. Kilgore, the man who loves the smell of napalm in the morning.
But Duvall's acting career includes a broad range of roles, including musicals, television movies, comedies and more. Duvall has been nominated for six Oscars and won Best Actor in 1984 for his role in "Tender Mercies," a film about a struggling country singer trying to reconcile his family. Duvall, now in his 90s, has yet to retire from acting and was last nominated for an Academy Award at age 85.
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