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Son of a Navy Admiral, Actor Robert Duval Joined the Army

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Actor, Filmmaker Robert Duvall Was Navy ‘Brat’ Turned Soldier


Actor and filmmaker Robert Duvall grew up a Navy brat — an endearing term for a child whose parent is on active military duty.

Duvall’s father, Navy Rear Adm. William Howard Duvall, wanted his son to attend the Naval Academy and have a career in the Navy.

But that was not to be. Instead, Duvall enlisted in the Army in 1953, just after the end of the Korean War. He served for two years and was stationed at Camp Gordon (now Fort Gordon), Georgia. After his enlistment was up, he was honorably discharged, having attained the rank of private first class.

Duvall then used his GI Bill benefits to attend acting classes at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York City. Classmates included future actors Dustin Hoffman, James Caan and fellow veteran Gene Hackman.

A scene from MASH

In 1962, his big-screen break came playing Boo Radley, alongside actor Gregory Peck, in “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

In the years and decades that followed, Duvall would appear in many acclaimed films. Those with military themes include:

  • Director Robert Altman’s 1970 dark comedy “M*A*S*H.” in which Duvall played Army Maj. Frank Burns during the Korean War. The movie spawned a highly successful TV series.
  • Director Lewis John Carlino’s 1979 movie “The Great Santini” in which Duvall played main character Marine Corps Lt. Col. Wilbur “Bull” P. Meechum. The film was set in 1962, and Meechum is an F-4 Phantom jet naval aviator.
  • Director Ronald F. Maxwell’s “Gods and Generals.”  Duvall played Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in the 2003 film. Duval’s father was a descendant of Lee.
  • Director Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film “Apocalypse Now” in which Duvall played Army Lt. Col. William “Bill” Kilgore, the commander of 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, during the Vietnam War.
Actor Robert Duvall crosses paths with Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington on Sept. 25, 2007. Duvall was on his way into the facility to visit with wounded servicemembers. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley

In “Apocalypse Now,” Duvall’s character was a composite of several real-life soldiers, including Army Col. John Stockton, the actual commander of 1st Squadron, 9th Cav. Reg.; Army Lt. Gen. James F. Hollingsworth, who served in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967; and Army Maj. Gen. George Patton IV, son of famed World War II veteran Army Gen. George S. Patton.

Duvall once said that he was upset that a scene where Kilgore saves the life of a Vietnamese baby during the beach assault was cut by Coppola, as he felt that it added to the complexity of his character.

During his spare time, Duvall, now 91, sometimes visits Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals across America to thank injured veterans for their service.Spotlight: Arts and Entertainment 

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