"I was never any good at sports when I was a kid," says Robert Duvall. "Didn't come into my own athletically until I was a grown man. I'm a tennis nut now—play every chance I get and sometimes, hell, I even win. Nine years ago I placed fifth overall in that Superstars thing they have on television. I really trained for it. Even so, after the 100-yard dash my legs were fluttering like crazy. Then I saw Rafer Johnson lying there, flat on his back. He'd been in my heat. The great Olympic decathlon star."

He cackles and rubs his hands, all energy, glee and fierce competition. A moment later he's seated on the couch in his finely appointed, high-ceilinged apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side, strumming a guitar and singing Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain. The voice is dry, sad, grave, the whiskey-rough drawl of a hollow-eyed human ruin who seems to bear within him all the debris of love and death in rural America. In the background a pair of caged white doves sings a liquid counterpoint. Duvall's wife sits beside him on the couch with real-life tears in her eyes. Tender mercies, indeed.

Duvall is a man of seeming contradictions. Flashes of the characters he has played in 33 films over the past 21 years surface constantly during the conversation. It's a one-man nonstop film festival evoking images of cops and outlaws, fanatics and physicians, a shy Alabama recluse and a macho Marine Corps fighter jock. The conversation, quick and eclectic, ranges over subjects as varied as the best way to handle rattlesnakes (for an upcoming role as a Pentecostal preacher), opera (Duvall loves singing arias), Philippine headhunters(he met a few "during my second tour on Luzon"—while filming Apocalypse Now) and fly-fishing for trout on Montana's Smith River, a recent enthusiasm. From time to time he pauses to refuel: fresh tuna salad, ginger ale. "I want my work to be true," he says, over and over again. "Pure. Not a false note from the start to finish." It is hard to tell with Duvall if his art is the sum of his life or the other way around. Perhaps even he doesn't know.

For a moment he sits in repose: a lean, balding sandy-haired man of middle years with pale gray-green eyes, a hooked nose and slightly discolored teeth, not particularly large or small (5'9¾", 170 pounds). Rather ordinary. On a big-city street and certainly anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line, you'd pass him without a second glance. Yet Robert Selden Duvall is one of the most intense, most versatile actors in the world today, a star of strange brilliance.

The star was born 53 years ago in San Diego, Calif, but grew up on the East Coast. "Mainly Annapolis," he says. "I was a Navy brat. My father started at the Academy when he was 16, made captain at 39 and retired as a rear admiral. William H. Duvall." He pronounces it doo-VAWL, speaking fast, almost excitedly—a sharp contrast with his often taciturn screen presence—and with just a taste of the Tidewater in his accent. " 'Willy' is what we called him. Didn't see much of him during World War II—he had a destroyer command in the Pacific. He died a month ago."

Annapolis was an exciting place for a boy during the war years. Duvall saw young would-be naval officers come and go, some never to return. He grew up in a brotherhood of opera buffs. His brother William teaches music at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, and when he, Bob and their younger brother John (who today serves as Duvall's attorney) get together, they inevitably end up singing.

When their father did manage to get home from time to time, the reunions were intense. Duvall remembers going hunting with him once. "I killed a quail," he says softly. "I remember it got up and winged out, fat and brown and very fast, and I swung with it like my dad had taught me and—pow!—it folded and fell in a puff of feathers. Later I shot a squirrel—in the tail." He shakes his head ruefully. "My dad finished it off as it ran up the tree. When we got home, my mother cooked them for us." The close-set eyes soften: He can taste that game supper again.

Like most kids of the era, he was a movie-lover. "Today, looking back from what I've learned about acting," he says, "I'm not a great admirer of the actors of the past. But God, did I love the stories! There was a serial, The Perils of Nyoka. I couldn't tell you what it was about, but I didn't miss an episode. Gunga Din was my favorite." Most young boys in those warlike days probably would have identified with one of the three tough British sergeants in that film, played by Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Victor McLaglen. Not Bob. "I dug Din," he says. "Sam Jaffe's part, the humble waterboy who in the end proves the bravest of them all." Even then, the contradictions were taking shape and, with them, the character actor.

But "I've done my share of soldiers too," he says, "even Eisenhower on that TV miniseries Ike. Bull Meechum in The Great Santini was the most rounded. I researched him thoroughly—hung out at Marine air stations, El Toro and Beaufort, and those guys are really competitive. Jet pilots have to be."

Duvall himself never experienced combat, though he spent two years in the U.S. Army as an enlisted man during the Korean War. "That's led to some confusion in the press," he says. "Some stories have me shooting it out with the Commies from a foxhole over in Frozen Chosen. Pork Chop Hill stuff. Hell, I barely qualified with the M-1 rifle in basic. I was better with the bayonet, though. In fact, my sergeant said I was great. I'd give it this..." He spins an imaginary rifle, leans forward menacingly with a John Wayne scowl, thrusts and yells, "Yaaaaahhhhh!" You can feel the cold steel in your belly. "It was all acting talent," he laughs.

From the Army Duvall moved on to academe: Principia College, a small school in southern Illinois across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Mo. "I studied drama," he says. "What else? Hell, it was the only thing I was any good at." In 1955, bachelor's degree in hand, he drifted east to New York and enrolled at the Neighborhood Playhouse. Among his classmates there: Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman and James Caan, all of whom remain friends to this day.

Duvall's first break in the New York theater came in 1961 with a role in Call Me by My Rightful Name. During his Neighborhood Playhouse days, he'd impressed the playwright-screenwriter Horton Foote in a production of Foote's The Midnight Caller. When Foote was in Hollywood writing the screenplay of Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird, he recommended Duvall for the part of Boo Radley, the pallid, misunderstood recluse—wrongly perceived as the essence of evil—who befriends the children through whose eyes the story unfolds. Duvall got the part, the first of many in which he would depict a troubled but basically decent son of the post-Snopesian South.

Elements of that character—tough, mystical, sad, eminently skilled at whatever trade he plies, vulnerable yet vengeful, in William Faulkner's phrase "a human heart in conflict with itself"—crop up in nearly every role he's played. Most powerfully, at least to date, in Mac Sledge of Tender Mercies. "I love those people," he says. "I can't learn enough from them. Southerners, Texans, cowboys and country singers, the sort of folks you see all lean as leather out there in the Southwest or up along the Rocky Mountains. How tough and vengeful and loving they are, how serious and religious in the best sense of the word. Part of it is the mystery at the heart of Fundamentalism. It's the link that was struck in the South, at least between the whites and the blacks. You don't see that in the North. My father was a Virginian—born and raised in Lorton, near Alexandria—and way back, in the early 1800s, there was French Huguenot in the background. A fellow named Maureen Duvall. A man named Maureen! We had ancestors who fought on both sides in the Civil War. Maybe that's where my fascination with those kinds of people comes from."

Movie work came thick and fast after the success of Mockingbird, but Duvall has tried to keep in touch with the New York stage. In 1965 he won an Obie as Eddie Carbone, the tragic, love-torn longshoreman hero, in a revival of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge. He did Wait Until Dark through most of 1966 and as recently as 1977 was on Broadway in David Mamet's American Buffalo. That sojourn in New York proved a turning point for Duvall, both personally and professionally.

One of Duvall's fellow actors in Buffalo was John Savage, whose kid sister, Gail MacLachlan Youngs, dropped by one evening to say hello. Savage introduced her to Duvall: The legendary electrical charge went "zap!" "The first night we spent together," Duvall recalls with something like wonder in his voice, "she was too embarrassed to face me in the morning. She left while I was in the shower." Youngs, listening to his revelation, blushes all over again. "I'd never done anything like that before," she says. One thing, as they say, led to another—Duvall's second marriage, her first. They were wed in August 1982 on an island off the Maine coast near Boothbay Harbor—New England's equivalent of that bleak, beautiful America he admires in the wastelands of the South and West. Youngs, now 31, grew up in a theatrical and musical family. Her mother was an opera singer, and Gail shares with Duvall an appreciation of all those orotundities from Aida to Zarathustra. Until she met Duvall, Gail herself had no serious acting ambitions. Marriage changed that.

About the same time they met, Duvall spotted one of those street faces that draws him to New York. It belonged to a young gypsy named Angelo Evans. From that chance meeting grew the movie Angelo My Love (1983), which Duvall wrote and directed and Youngs produced, a near-documentary of gypsy life in the Big Apple that already has begun to establish a cult following. Youngs got her first chance to act opposite her husband in Duvall's latest film, The Stone Boy, in which she plays—with Duvallian intensity—a blowsy former cocktail waitress out of Reno who's the Duvall character's sister-in-law. "Gail fell in love with the story about five years ago," Duvall says, "and turned me on to it too. We shot it entirely on location, mainly up in that wide-open wheat country around Great Falls, Montana. Hey, only two million bucks, and just 21 days from start to finish. That's the way to bring in a movie. It was ensemble acting all the way—Frederic Forrest, Glenn Close, Wilford Brimley, real professionals. Even the kids were first-rate." He laughs. "It's dangerous playing against kids. Without even trying, they can upstage you, outshine you. You've got to stage even purer than they do," he says, ever the competitor.

A few weeks before the Oscars, Duvall visited his favorite New York restaurant, Eleanora's on West 58th Street just off the Avenue of the Americas. While Duvall wolfed down a plate of frutti di mare, the talk shifted naturally from life to art.

"I guess the main reason I want the Academy Award is for the artistic power and freedom it gives you," Duvall said between forkloads. "The right to choose your own director, to have control over the project as we did on The Stone Boy." Among film directors, Duvall has something of a reputation as a maverick. Bruce Beresford, after Tender Mercies, complained that Duvall tried to tell him how to make the film. "Hell," said Duvall, "I was just trying to tell him to leave me alone. Any director who never asks you, 'What do you think?,' well, he's in trouble. The way I see it, an actor's job is to get off-camera as fast as possible."

Meanwhile, though, the pre-Oscar hype had to be kept at full volume—interviews, talk-show appearances, all the grins and glad-handing. Youngs must have been thinking this as she watched Duvall bend over the last of his spaghetti: His bald spot stared at her like an unswept boulevard. "Bobby," she said, "you need to get your hair cut."

"Yes, dear," he said absently, busy corralling the elusive pasta. "I'll do it first thing tomorrow."

"I meant that in the singular."

He looked up, puzzled, then patted his shiny pate and laughed. Two of his upper teeth are darker than the others. No hairpiece, no caps, no makeup for this actor.

"Bobby really likes who he is," Youngs said. "There's nothing false about him. I'm not saying that because I'm his wife—there's a lot about him, believe me, that I don't like. But he's true. What you see is what you get."