Celebrity Veterans: Actor Robert Duvall served in U.S. Army

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.

President and Nancy Reagan greeting actor Robert Duvall at a reception for a Tennis tournament benefit for the Nancy Reagan Drug Abuse Fund sponsored by Community Foundation of Greater Washington in blue room.

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), Ga. 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.

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.

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.

MGEN Georg S. Patton Jr., commander of the 2nd Armored Division, watches the Cowhouse River crossing during the joint services Operation Gallant Crew ’77.
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. (Army photograph)

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