Robert Duvall: Brando..He Likes To Read The Lines A Little Bit He Claims That Keeps His Spontaneous … I Think He Could Learn Lines Through And Through And Still Be Spontaneous


The iconic Robert Duvall has had a tremendous career in Tinseltown, and a big part of that was due to The Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola.

For the 50th anniversary of The Godfather – which for the first time ever has had all three films in the epic trilogy release in 4K Ultra HD on March 22nd – Robert Duvall spoke with Screen Rant about the respect he gained for Coppola due to the tremendous pressure the director was under from the studio and also about how James Caan kept things light on set.

Duvall also shares his thoughts on if The Godfather should ever be remade and what he learned about himself while playing Tom Hagen in The Godfather.

Robert Duvall: I didn’t realize it in those terms but about a third of the way through Godfather 1 I know it was something pretty special. Definitely.

I know that with Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo, a lot of the writing is already on the page, but is there anything that you wanted to add to Tom Hagen? Any nuances that you wanted to add to the character?

Robert Duvall: Well, what you bring is not necessarily on the written page. I can’t put that in words, necessarily, but you bring you as that person, as that character, and whatever you present is hopefully truthful enough to fit what they’re doing in the overall picture.

You’re obviously a Hollywood and acting legend, but back then you were still an up-and-coming star. Can you talk to me about working with Marlon Brando back then? I know you worked with him on The Chase in 1966. Was his process more or less the same for The Godfather?

Robert Duvall: I’d say so, yeah. He likes to read the lines a little bit. He claims that keeps his spontaneous … I think he could learn lines through and through and still be spontaneous, but … No, it was pretty much the same. Pretty much the same.

Now, you’ve worked with Francis Ford Coppola on The Rain People, The Godfather I and II, Apocalypse Now. Can you talk to me about the collaboration process of working with such a visionary director?

Robert Duvall: He’s the kind of guy that, when you come in for any given scene, he stays back and waits to see what you bring to the table, what you want to offer. He’s not one of these old-time directors, “You’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that.” He’s very collaborative that way and wants to see what you bring.

Which is just great. That’s great. I worked with a director in one, and he said to an actor, “When I say ‘action’, tense up, god damn it!” Coppola’s not like that. But some of those old-school guys were like that, you know.

The Godfather 4K Remastered James Caan Sonny and family

Just speaking about that a little bit, can you talk to me about his ability to communicate with actors? Because I feel, as a director, that’s such an important part of the process that kind of goes overlooked sometimes.

Robert Duvall: Well, he doesn’t talk a lot. He doesn’t talk a lot. Once again, he wants to see what the actors bring.

He’ll talk about the overall thing. Godfather I, in the beginning, I gained a lot of respect for Francis because they had a guy waiting in the wings as an alternate, a backup director in case they had to fire him. They didn’t, but he stuck to his guns as far as his vision went, and I gained a lot of respect for him for working under those conditions of pressure.

You know what? Speaking about those conditions of pressure, I find the making of The Godfather just as fascinating as the actual film, and there’s so much pressure that was on Francis at the time while making The Godfather. I read that James Caan is one of the funniest people on set. Can you talk to me about how he kind of made the set a little bit more lighthearted and kind of lifted people’s spirits?


Robert Duvall: In Godfather I, definitely. He was very funny, and he would tell a joke, and it would take Brando two or three seconds to get it. And he loved Jimmy. Jimmy’s a very clever guy, and he does have a terrific sense of humor.

Now, I’ve heard from some other actors that they learn a lot about themselves through playing a character through empathy. Is there anything you learned about yourself, either through the experience of The Godfather or through the character of Tom Hagen?

Robert Duvall: Well, I just learned that you have to use yourself. You have to use yourself in any given part, in any given set of circumstances, and I call it from ink to behavior. You’ve got to find that little route with an imaginary set of circumstances to present. You talk, I listen, I listen, you talk,. You learn that, and if it works, it’s … Don’t play results. Let the process evolve by taking you to a result.

Just like you and I know, you’re talking, I’m listening, I talk, you listen. You can boil it down to that. Could be as simple as that. And then the other things that happen that surround that process to make it more complex and legitimate for the project.

The Godfather Marlon Brando Francis Ford Coppola

The Godfather is one of the biggest films, historically, in the world, of all time. What other crime family dramas on the bigger small screen have you enjoyed in recent years?

Robert Duvall: I don’t know. I have to think about that. I mean, every family in every given situation has negative things, but I don’t find it necessary to glamorize organized crime. But, what Francis tried to do, and he has with his own family, is to show within that framework of a crime family, a sense of family.

He’s very much into that in his life, and so I think he wanted to show that, and that was the main emphasis of his filming was to portray a family unit that was very much unto itself.

You weren’t involved in The Godfather III, but I read that there were some preliminary talks about bringing you back. If you were to be brought back, had they discussed anything of what they were going to do with Tom’s character?

Robert Duvall: I forget. I forget now. I had no interest in it.

I almost look at The Godfather as almost like the Sistine Chapel. We live in a world of remakes of different films. Do you think that anybody would ever be brave enough to touch The Godfather? I think it personally should be off-limits and never done again, but do you think a studio would try to remake something like The Godfather?

Robert Duvall: I think a studio should say what you just said, “Off-limits.” It’s been done.

It’s finished. There should be no Godfather IV or anything, just leave it as it is.