- Henry Gibson, Nashville, 1974. Written for him, and he was writing his own songs for it when... "I guess we broke over money," suggested Robert Altman. Duvall said it was because Altman wouldn’t let him write his own songs - rather odd as Keith Carradine wrote his own song, “I’m Easy,” the sole winner of the film’s five Oscar nominations. (And Gary Busey, who never made the film, wrote a song for it). Just as Altman’s film grew out of another Nashville project he refused to make, Duvall won his Oscar for singing his own compositions as C&W singer Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies, 1983.
- Roy Sheider, Jaws, 1974. “Charlie Hero” – as Roddy McDowell called Charlton Heston - backed off from another Universal action hero for a return to the (LA) stage. (Macbeth, no less) . Steven Spielberg always said that Duvall encouraged him to make the movie that made him. Exactly why the young director offered him Police Chief Brody. Duvall demurred. “No thanks - it might make me too famous!” (Anyway, he preferred Robert Shaw’s role). Sheider agreed Winning the best line: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat!”
- Harrison Ford, Blade Runner, 1981. UK wiz Ridley Scott spent a long time sniffing out the perfect Deckard. From top notchers Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman (keen… on making it a totally different character, of course), Robert Mitchum, Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino… to such excellent journeymen as Duvall, William Devane, Peter Falk, Frederic Forrest, Scott Glenn, Tommy Lee Jones, Raul Julia, Nick Nolte, Christopher Walken. In sheer desperation, choices lowered to Cliff Gorman, Judd Hirsch. Even the Virginian Morgan Paull stood a chance, having played Deckhard in Scott’s tests of potential Rachaels. (He was given Holden for his pains). Plus Arnold Schwarzenegger, not yet seen as Conan, much less Terminator. And for probably the last time in such an illustrious list, the fading star of Burt Reynolds.
- Jurgen Prochnow, Dune, 1984.
- Jon Voight, The Runaway Train, 1984. Due in 1970 as Akira Kurosawa’s first US film, the project was cancelled due to heavy snowstorms (and budget hassles) in the upstate New York. Cannon’s much ridiculed Go-Go Boys, Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, wisely invited Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky aboard - and really shook up the 1986 Cannes festival. Kurosawa had wanted Peter Falk as the escaped convict aboard a fast moving train without a driver. Duvall chased that role but proved too pricey for Cannnon’s pocket.
- Al Pacino, Revolution, 1986. Almost signed after Al Pacino, Harrison Ford, Richard Gere, Dustin Hoffman, Sam Shepherd backed off. They were lucky. "Revolution is so bad," said the critic, Pauline Kael, "it puts you in a state of shock."
- Scott Glenn, Man on Fire, 1986. After The Hunger, Tony Scott, Ridley's flashy brother, worked for 18 months on this project - including six months with Duvall "giving us input in terms of script ideas and stuff." Then, his producers started courting Marlon Brando and Tony could see another year going by, so he quit for Top Gun. Lelouch apprentice Eli Chouraqui, directed Glenn in a script tightened by Brando's input... although he refused to be in it.
- Tommy Lee Jones, Lonesome Dove, 1989. “But I’ve done that,” said Duvall about the introverted Captain Woodrow Call. “I’d prefer to be Gus.” And he was perfect as Augustus McRae. First aimed in 1971 at John Wayne, when Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was a film script for Duke, James Stewart and Henry Fonda… all warned off it by a cantankerous (jealous!) John Ford. “I was honoured to play that role,” said Duvall, “probably the favourite of my entire career.”
- Gary Kemp, The Krays, 1990. Early plan had Duvall as Ronnie opposite Bob Hoskins as Reggie. Hey, weren’t they twins?
- Bob Hoskins, Heart Condition, 1990. A racist cop is haunted by the ghost of his murdered black partner.
- Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs, 1990.
- Alexsandr Zbruev, The Inner Circle, 1991. "I was supposed to be Stalin in Konchalovsky's film about Stalin's projectionist," Duvall told me in Cannes. He was not met on arrival at Moscow airport, paid for his own hotel. "The Italian money didn't work out. I went home a little disappointed. But there was a reason - HBO’s Stalin was a more interesting script! Hard to play him such a quiet, hermetic, anti-social, complex, evil guy - and still be alive."
- George Hamilton, The Godfather: Part III, 1991.
- Michael Douglas, Falling Down, 1992. Douglas swopped roles, preferring the angry nutter to yet another cop.
- John Malkovich, In the Line of Fire, 1992. On the short list of inevitables - Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson – for the would-be assassin of a US President, thwarted by Secret Service man Clint Eastwood who lost JFK in Dallas. One of Clint’s finest.
- Martin Sheen, Gettysburg, 1992. General Robert E Lee was at one time slated for William Hurt or Tommy Lee Jones. Duvall did not waste all his research into the man (and his Virginia accent) - because he played him in the prequel, Gods and Generals, 2003.
- Liam Neeson, Schindler’s List, 1993. “I wanted the role - but I was too old,” recalled Duvall. “I could have made the emotional moment that the guy didn't. Other than that, the guy was fine. Nice movie.” Steven Spielberg spent ten years growing up before making the Holocaust film and not just because he couldn’t find his Oskar Schindler, the Nazi businessman who saved the lives of more than 1,100 Jews. The list also included Warren Beatty, Kevin Costner, Harrison Ford, Swiss Bruno Ganz, Mel Gibson, Swedish Stellan Skarsgård, Australian Jack Thompson… and the director’s 2011 Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis. After four previous nominations, this is the film that finally won Spielberg his first Oscar on March 21, 1994. Chicago critic Roger Ebert praised Spielberg’s unique ability of adding artistry to popularity in his serious films - “to say what he wants to say in a way that millions of people want to hear.”
- Jeremy Irons, The Lion King, 1993. In the frame to voice the villainous Scar in the 32nd Disney toon - Bambi meets Hamlet in Africa! - were top Brits, Sean Connery, Tim Curry, Malcolm McDowell. And assorted Hollywood-mafiosi Duvall, James Caan, Ray Liotta.
- Harvey Keitel, Imaginary Crimes, 1994. Over eleven years, Duvall, Harrison Ford and Dustin Hoffman had been up for the hustler-father of two young girls - based on Sheila Ballantyne’s autobiography.
- Morgan Freman, Se7en, 1994. Duvall passed on Ridley Scott’s invite to be Somerset, a meticulous veteran cop oveerseeing Brad Pitt investigating murders inspired by the seven deadly sins.
- James Woods, Ghost of Mississippi, 1996. He backed off from the white supremist killer of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963. At 49, Woods had to age from 42 to 73 - the reason director Rob Reiner sought an older star. Woods showed them all how - all the way to an Oscar nod.
- Eric Roberts, Doctor Who (The Movie), TV, 1996. Hollywood goes Who. Why? For the pilot of a USeries to exhume the BBC science-fiction cult, buried since it ran out of puff after 26 seasons in 1989. As if to prove this was big deal LA in action (!), some 63 actors were listed for Doc8 and a further 71 (well, some were on both lists) for his foe, The Master. Such as James Bond, Dracula, Gandhi, Han Solo, Freddy Krueger, Magnum, Spock, Jean-Luc Picard and - hey, they’re doctors! - Emmett Brown and Frank-N-Furter. Aka… Timothy Dalton, Christopher Lee, Ben Kingsley, Harrison Ford, Robert Englund, Tom Selleck, Leonard Nimoy, Patrick Stewart, Christopher Lloyd,Tim Curry. And… Mr I Love The Smell Of The BBC In The Morning…
- Danny Glover, Switchback, 1997. Arkansas auteur Jeb Stuart first planned his film - as Going West in America - in the 80s with three different actors: Bacon, Robert Duvall and Sidney Poitier.
- Jeff Bridges, Seabiscuit, 2002. Had to pass on the story of the great (and titular) racehorse of the ’30s - he was shooting Secondhand Lions with fellow lion Michael Caine.
- Bill Murray, The Lost City, 2004. Andy Garcia, star and director, landed Dustin Hoffman as Meyer Lansky but not Duvall as... The Writer.
- Terry Bradshaw, Failure To Launch, 2005. New Dad for Matthew McConaughey - still living at home at age 35. So Dad calls in an interventionist: Sarah Jessica Parker.
- Richard Dreyfuss, W, 2007. In the mix for what many saw as the villain of the George W Bush biopic: Dick Cheney, the 46th US vice-president, 2001-2009.
- Bruce Dern, Nebraska, 2012. Excepting Clooney and Nicholson, Nebraskan director Alexander Payne had a phobia with (some say, an hostility toward) casting stars. Not this time… While flirting with Bryan Cranston and the two Roberts (Duvall and Forster), Payne was really wooing Hackman back into movies - the perfect crotchety alcoholic who thinks he’s won a sweepstake. But no, retired is what it said! Dernsie said it was a relief not to be playing “some piece of piece of shit who wants to blow up the Superbowl.” Result: He was voted the 2013 Cannes festival Best Actor by Steven Spielberg’s jury.