1. TWS Blog
  2. Military Campaign Stories
  3. Korean War
  4. PV2 Robert Duvall, U.S. Army (1953 – 1954)

PV2 Robert Duvall, U.S. Army (1953 – 1954)

Robert Duvall is best known for his 70-plus years in Hollywood, playing such iconic military roles as Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now,” Maj. Frank Burns in “M*A*S*H” and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in the TV miniseries “Ike: The War Years.” But did you know that before his acting career took off, Robert Duvall served in the Army, shortly after the end of the Korean War? 

Robert Duvall’s Early Life

Actor and filmmaker Robert Duvall was born in San Diego, but grew up a Navy brat — an endearing term for a child whose parent is on active military duty. Duvall’s father was Navy Rear Admiral William Howard Duvall. His tenure included the time of the Tailhook scandal; he and Rear Admiral John E. Gordon were tasked with conducting the investigation. Robert Duvall’s mother was a relative of American Civil War General Robert E. Lee, and a member of the Lee Family of Virginia, while his father was a descendant of settler Mareen Duvall.

Admiral Duvall wanted young Robert to attend the Naval Academy and pursue a career in the Navy. The actor later recalled: “My father started at the Academy when he was 16, made captain at 39, and retired as a rear admiral.” But Robert Duvall was not much of a student; in his own words, he was not good at anything but acting. Instead, Robert attended Severn School in Severna Park, Maryland, and The Principia in St. Louis, Missouri. He graduated in 1953 from Principia College in Elsah, Illinois.

Robert Duvall’s Years In the Army

Although Robert Duvall did not follow in his father’s footsteps in the Navy, 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 ended, 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. Duvall’s classmates at the Playhouse included future actors Dustin Hoffman, James Caan, and fellow veteran Gene Hackman.

Robert Duvall’s Acting Debut

Duvall began his professional acting career with the Gateway Playhouse, an Equity summer theatre based in Bellport, Long Island, New York. His stage debut was in its 1952 season when he played the Pilot in Laughter In The Stars, an adaptation of The Little Prince, at what was then the Gateway Theatre.

As is typical for many struggling actors, Duvall made ends meet by any means necessary: driving trucks, sorting mail, or working the cash register at Macy’s. He performed on and off Broadway for the next 20 years. Duvall’s television debut was in 1959 on an episode of “The Jailbreak,” a dramatic re-creation of an attempted prison break at the Massachusetts State Prison at Walpole.


In 1962, his big-screen break came playing Boo Radley, alongside actor Gregory Peck, in “To Kill A Mockingbird.” He was cast in the film on the recommendation of screenwriter Horton Foote, who met Duvall at Neighborhood Playhouse during a 1957 production of Foote’s play, The Midnight Caller. Although the character of Arthur “Boo” Radley had one line in the original script, Robert Duvall revealed that the line had been cut. Considered one of the greatest films ever made, “To Kill a Mockingbird” film won three of the eight Academy Awards for which it was nominated, including best actor for the late Gregory Peck.

Robert Duvall’s Military Roles On The Big Screen

Duvall has appeared in over 70 films over the span of his illustrious career. Those with military themes include:

  • Director Robert Altman’s 1970 dark comedy “M*A*S*H.” where Duvall played Army Maj. Frank Burns during the Korean War. The movie spawned a highly successful TV series.

Robert Duvall’s Philanthropy and Activism

Duvall’s political views are described as libertarian or conservative. He was personally invited to Republican President George W. Bush’s inauguration in 2001. In September 2007, he announced his support for Republican Presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani. During the 2008 campaign, Duvall provided voiceover work for some of the videos appearing at the GOP convention. In September 2008, he appeared on stage at a John McCain-Sarah Palin rally in New Mexico.

Duvall endorsed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012. He revealed during a March 13, 2014, interview with The Daily Beast however that he will probably vote independent, calling today’s Republican Party “a mess.”

Rober Duvall also supports several non-profit organizations. In 2001, Duvall and his wife Luciana Pedraza founded the Robert Duvall Children’s Fund (RDCF) to assist families in Northern Argentina through renovations of homes, schools, and medical facilities. Duvall and Pedraza have been active supporters of Pro Mujer, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping Latin America’s poorest women, concentrating on Pedraza’s home in the Argentine Northwest.

In May 2009, Duvall spoke for historic preservation against Walmart’s proposal to build a store across the road from the entrance to the Wilderness Battlefield national park in Orange County, Virginia. In 2011, he appeared at the Texas Children’s Cancer Center charity event attended by more than 900 supporters and raising an unprecedented $9.1 million for Center’s genomic research program. Guests heard personal stories from Duvall, including many light-hearted moments, as he shared fascinating tales from behind the scenes on the sets of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Godfather,” “Lonesome Dove” and other roles.

During his spare time, Duvall, now in his 90s, visits Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals across America to thank injured veterans for their service.

TogetherWeServed honors Robert Duvall’s service in the army, his prolific acting career, and his commitment to important causes.

Read About Other Celebrities Who Served 

If you enjoyed learning about Robert Duvalls’s military service, we invite you to read the military service stories of other celebrities who served on our blog. You will also find military book reviews, veterans’ service reflections, famous military units and more on the TogetherWeServed.com blog. If you are a veteran, find your military buddies, view historic boot camp photos, build a printable military service plaque, and more on TogetherWeServed.com today.


Tags: 1st Squadron, 9th Cav. Reg., Apocalypse Now, Army Gen. George S. Patton, Army Maj. Gen. George Patton IV, Boo Radley, Camp Gordon, composite of several real-life soldiers, Duvall played Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, Duvall's political views, Equity summer theatre, famous military units, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, GI Bill benefits, Horton Foote, John McCain-Sarah Palin, Korean War, Lee Family of Virginia, Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore in "Apocalypse Now, Luciana Pedraza, M*A*S*H, Maj. Frank Burns in "M*A*S*H", Mareen Duvall, Marine Corps Lt. Col. Wilbur "Bull" P. Meechum, military book reviews, Naval Academy, Navy brat, Navy Rear Admiral William Howard Duvall, Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, over 70 films, presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, Principia College, Private First Class, Pro Mujer, Rear Admiral John E. Gordon, Republican Party "a mess.", Robert Duvall, Robert Duvall Children's Fund (RDCF), Robert E. Lee, Rudy Giuliani, Severn School, Tailhook scandal, Texas Children's Cancer Center charity event, The Jailbreak, TogetherWeServed.com, veterans’ service reflections, Vietnam, visits Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals, Wilderness Battlefield, World War II


  1. Alton Browning

    Great article on Robert Duvall. He is one of my favorite actors. Thanks.

  2. Micheal Faulk

    On Thanksgiving Day, 1966, I was awarded my Bronze Star Medal, by then Brig Gen James F Hollingsworth, vice commander of the 1st Inf Div, the Big Red One, as part of the divisions award of 21 Bronze Stars to the guys of the USAF’s 1st Weather Group’s Combat Weather Unit. This, I believe, was the largest award of its kind in Vietnam. I welcome to be corrected.

  3. KingRayVet

    No wonder he was so amazing in “Apocalypse Now”. For some reason, I connected with that movie, and thought he played one of the most iconic scenes in that movie. Didn’t know he served, and I admire the man.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *