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Actor, Filmmaker Robert Duvall Was Navy 'Brat' Turned Soldier

Jan. 26, 2022 | BY David Vergun , DOD News

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.

An older man and younger man shake hands as a woman and child watch.
Duvall Greeting
Actor Robert Duvall, wearing a blue shirt, and wife Luciana Pedraza shake hands with a member of the Navy's Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 4 at the Taormina Film Fest in Sicily, Italy, in 2005.
Photo By: Courtesy of Robert Duvall
VIRIN: 050917-O-D0439-001A

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.

An older man has his arm around the shoulders of a young woman.
Emmy Awards
Actor Robert Duvall and actress Diane Lane appear at the 41st Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, Calif., Sept. 17, 1989.
Photo By: Alan Light
VIRIN: 890917-O-D0439-001

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

Two men shake hands.
Reagan Meeting
Actor Robert Duvall, right, meets President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan in the White House, May 25, 1985.
Photo By: White House photo
VIRIN: 850525-O-D0439-001

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.

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.

A soldier peers into the distance.
Army Maj. Gen. George Patton IV
Army Maj. Gen. George Patton IV, commander of 2nd Armored Division in 1977, watches the Cowhouse River crossing during Exercise Gallant Crew in Texas. Actor Robert Duvall borrowed from Patton's real-life Vietnam combat experiences in director Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film "Apocalypse Now." Patton is the son of Army Gen. George S. Patton of World War II fame.
Photo By: Army Staff Sgt. Barry A. Purkis
VIRIN: 770909-O-D0439-001A
A man wearing a cavalry hat stands at a lectern.
Former Army Lt. Col. John Stockton
Former Army Lt. Col. John Stockton, commander of 1st Squadron, 9th Air Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), speaks at Fort Benning, Ga., Sept. 9, 2015. Actor Robert Duvall borrowed from Stockton's real-life Vietnam experiences in 1965 in the 1979 film "Apocalypse Now." Duvall played Army Lt. Col. William "Bill" Kilgore, the fictitious commander of that squadron.
Photo By: Army News Service
VIRIN: 150909-O-D0439-001C

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.