Robert Duvall, 86, played Augustus McCrae as the most beloved character in Lonesome Dove and his legacy is as strong as ever in the cowboy culture. Duvall, who brought the character to life in the CBS miniseries more than 25 years ago, visited with our editor, Bob Welch, about what the iconic role meant to his career, and to share some behind-the-scenes stories from the set.
How did you become attached to the Lonesome Dove cast?
I read that wonderful book in 10 days. My ex-wife said it was the first book she liked better than Dostoyevsky. She said, “You must play Augustus McCrae.” I don’t see her often, but when I do, I thank her for that advice. They wanted me to play Call and I totally disagreed with that. My agent handled James Garner, too, and they wanted him to play Augustus McCrae. I told my agent, if you could get Garner to switch parts, I would do it. I would not have been ready to claim that part so intensely had my ex-wife not said that to me. My agent called back four hours later and said James Garner cannot be on a horse for 16 weeks. He declined and I took the part of Augustus McCrae. That’s the way it started.
I can’t imagine anyone else as Augustus McCrae.
At least not in that era. When we finished shooting, I said, “I can retire now, I’ve done something I can be proud of.” Playing Augustus McCrae was kind of like my Hamlet. It may be my favorite role.
What about the role made it so special for you?
[Gus is] full of contradictions—a very interesting guy. I followed the pages and it was so well-written; it just flowed. It was a part that came easy to me. I followed my instincts. Suffice it to say, I can’t ride a cutting horse like my friend Buster Welch, but I did start working.... I was in California and I’d use an English saddle, Western saddle, bareback until I could get a good seat on a horse. A seat on a horse and a hat are the most important things. All the horse work, I did myself. It was 25 years ago and I was a lot younger then.
That’s why cowboys love that movie—you and Tommy Lee Jones can ride. You stuck that horse pretty well when he started bucking during the Comanchero attack.
I’ll tell you what happened: That was a mistake. The horse I was riding was a little jaded, so they used some of the local ranch horses—and they were great. But when the pistols went off, they were not used to it, and we didn’t know that. So when the pistols went off, he started bucking. After five seconds, I jumped. All the crew was shouting, “You did good.” I told them to get a cutaway shot of me on the ground, getting back on, and use it since it really happened that way. And they were able to. The head wrangler showed me how to “kill” and take that horse to the ground to make a shield. I did it all myself, and it really paid off. It was a great experience.
Besides the riding, what research went into preparing for the character of Gus? I heard Sammy Baugh had something to do with it.
The writing was so good that I innately responded to the part. When I was a young kid, I spent summers with my uncle on his ranch in northern Montana. It was something I never forgot and seeds were sewn even before I decided I wanted to act. I just let the script lead me. As for Sammy Baugh, I used to watch him play and I said I’d like to meet him. He had a ranch that backed up to Buster’s. We went in and talked for two hours. He didn’t know who I was, but some of the gestures he used while talking about football, I incorporated into the part. Somebody explained to him later that I went on to do Lonesome Dove. But I did pick up some pointers from him. For the most part, the character came from my inner feelings and, on a daily basis, things happened by accident that you can’t plan.
Did any of those unplanned moments make the final cut?
When we hanged Jake Spoon, we had the shot complete. Then the director said, “Would you like to do one more?” I said, “Well, why not? Let’s do it.” Something happened emotionally that just clicked. It was totally unplanned. I had read that some Texas Rangers down on the border witnessed their captain shot dead in front of them and they wept. These guys were sensitive guys—not just macho, macho, macho. On a daily basis, you let things unfold within an overall arc of understanding the character. One day, I walked into the mess hall and told them, “Boys, we’re making the Godfather of Westerns.”
Writer and executive producer Bill Wittliff described the movie-making process as pre-ordained. You’ve worked on a lot of sets; how did the atmosphere of that shoot compare?
Being in South Texas and having the animals around all the time was definitely a different feel. It wasn’t a perfectly harmonious set either. There were problems. Sometimes, if things go 100-percent smooth, that means it’s not going to be interesting. There were times when people didn’t get along—this and that—but we all pointed to the end result that we were trying to make as fine a film as we could. We made four films within 16 weeks so it was a very committed time that we all went through.
Over the past 25 years, what’s been the audience reception to you as Gus?
Wherever I go, it follows me. I met a gaucho cowboy in rural Argentina who wore out a copy of Lonesome Dove with subtitles. Wherever I go, that’s the role that people mainly identify me with. I was made an honorary Texas Ranger several years ago and during that evening’s activities, a woman came up to me and said, “My daughter is getting married, but I wouldn’t let the fiancé marry into the family without seeing Lonesome Dove.” That symbolizes the whole thing. It’s like a bible in Texas. People watch it at family gatherings once a year, in groups of friends, and name their dogs, horses, and kids after my character—I’m sure it happens to Tommy Lee as well. It’s an experience that lives with me wherever I go—especially in Texas.
Why does Lonesome Dove hold up after 25 years?
The English have Shakespeare, the French have Molière, the Russians have Chekhov, the Argentines have Borges, but the Western is ours—from Canada down to the Mexican border. It’s our thing. People love Westerns because Westerns remind them of the frontier times and the expansion of America, and Lonesome Dove embodies that period. We tend to romanticize it, but there’s something very valid there as part of our innate history as Americans. I was fortunate to be in two of the epics—for me—of the 20th century: the Godfather I and II and Lonesome Dove. Godfather might have been better directed, but the overall arc of Lonesome Dove carried it beautifully. It’s something that will continue to live on.