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Robert Duvall talks ’12 Mighty Orphans,’ Marlon Brando and retirement

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Acting is Robert Duvall‘s first love, but football ranks a very close second. 

Someone once said that “American football is the greatest game ever invented, and I would have to go along with that,” says Duvall, 90, who played defensive back on his high school team growing up in St. Louis. 

So it’s no surprise that the seven-time Oscar nominee (and proud Clemson Tigers fan) was drawn to football drama “12 Mighty Orphans” (now playing in theaters in Texas; opens nationwide Friday). Based on Jim Dent’s 2008 book, the film tells the true story of the Mighty Mites, an underdog football team from a Fort Worth, Texas, orphanage that went all the way to the state championships in the 1930s. Luke Wilson and Martin Sheen play coaches, while Duvall makes a cameo appearance as former orphan Mason Hawk, who helps finance their efforts. 

Robert Duvall says he was unfamiliar with the real-life story behind "12 Mighty Orphans" before signing on.
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“It’s a very good human story with a lot of positive notes that make it quite attractive,” Duvall says. “It’s a little part, but I wanted to support this wonderful little film in any way I could.” 

“Orphans” reunites Sheen and Duvall onscreen for the first time since Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 war epic “Apocalypse Now.” That’s one of the countless classic films lining Duvall’s six-decadelong résumé, including two “Godfather” films, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Tender Mercies” (which earned him the 1983 best actor Oscar), and “Network,” co-starring the late Ned Beatty, whom he remembers as a “terrific” and “talented guy.” 

Assistant coach Doc Hall (Martin Sheen, left) greets Mason Hawk (Robert Duvall) in football drama "12 Mighty Orphans."

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Duvall called up USA TODAY earlier this week from his Virginia home, where he’d just finished lunch and a workout. (Interview edited for length and clarity.)

Question: What was it like getting back on set with Martin Sheen for your scene in “12 Mighty Orphans?” 

Robert Duvall: It’s been many, many years, and we didn’t have much to do. We just kind of had a quick embrace and that was it. We talked a little bit. It was nice to see him again, it really was. We had a good time doing “Apocalypse Now” with the great Francis Ford Coppola. 

"I love the smell of napalm in the morning": Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall, right) and soldier Lance B. Johnson (Sam Bottoms) in a scene from Vietnam War drama "Apocalypse Now."

Q: Was Marlon Brando really as intimidating as all the stories make him out to be?

Duvall: No, I was never intimidated by him – I had great respect for the guy. He was kind of like our “Godfather,” in a way. He’d come down in the jungle in his baby blue Mercedes, do a day’s work and then go home, wherever that was.

Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack on the Philippines set of "Apocalypse Now."

Q: What do you recall about Martin’s heart attack during the filming of “Apocalypse”? He reportedly claimed it was a heat stroke so production wouldn’t shut down. 

Duvall: I guess, yeah. And when it happened, Coppola scanned other movies Marty had done to try and make some kind of small compilation to supplant Marty if he died, which kind of sounds cold and calculated. But I guess that’s what you’d have to do in a situation like that. But Marty survived and he’s still surviving, years and years and years later. 

Q: Looking back, is there a performance that you’re proudest of? 

Duvall: Well, there’s some I wanna forget, but there are some I feel good about. I would say probably the one that people respond to the most, and one I remember with a great deal of affection was the miniseries “Lonesome Dove.” The Western is our genre in the United States of America. The English have Shakespeare, the French have Molière, the Russians have Chekhov, but we have the Western. 

Robert Duvall, left, and Tommy Lee Jones in the 1989 CBS miniseries "Lonesome Dove."

Q: What was it about that project that made it so memorable? 

Duvall: It was just a great character. My good friend Hank Whitman, who’s head of the Texas Rangers, made me an honorary Ranger. And that day, a woman came up to me and said they watch it as a family once a year, at least. She said, “I would not allow my daughter’s fiancé to marry into the family until he had seen ‘Lonesome Dove.’ ” It’s held in great reverence, particularly in the state of Texas. 

So I guess that’s part of my legacy that will live on for a while. There are other parts I enjoyed doing very much and thought I did OK. One of them is when I played Joseph Stalin (in HBO’s “Stalin” in 1992). There were certain Russian people who embraced what I did in a positive way. 

Q: What about The Apostle, Mac Sledge, or Boo Radley? Would any of those roles be pretty high up on the list for you, too? 

Duvall: Yeah, very much so. “The Apostle” was a thing where I wrote, directed and financed it myself. I felt it was a great slice of Americana that when it was usually shown, it was much more on the level of caricature. But I used real preachers and tried to make it as valid as possible.

Al Pacino, left, and Robert Duvall in 1974's "The Godfather Part II."

But no matter what you do in a positive way, there’s always somebody around the corner who doesn’t accept it. There was a well-known director who came up to us at the St. Regis (Hotel in New York) after “Godfather 1.” Jimmy Caan and all of us were there. And this director said, “I loved you boys in the movie. I don’t know about the movie, but you guys were terrific.” In three lifetimes, this director could never do what Coppola did in “Godfather 1.” But that’s the furthest I’ll go.