When actors talk they talk about moments. And Robert Duvall is talking. "They'll say, 'God, I had a moment there.' Or 'Boy, did he have great moment in that performance.' You have a moment and it can be wrenching and emotional and two seconds later you say, 'Hey, let's eat. You want my soft-shell crab recipe? I'll show it to you.' I shocked a producer once after a scene like that. He said, 'You're all emotional one minute, next thing you're talking about crabs.' But the point is, when you do it, there's an elation. You go Wow! Then you move on." Moments. Like the one in "The Godfather II" when he tells Al Pacino that he always wanted to be thought of as a brother. Like the one in "Tender Mercies" when he stands by the window, back to the camera, singing in a fractured warble a few scratchy lines from a gospel tune. Like the one as the officer in "Apocalypse Now," strutting through the shrapnel spray bellowing, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells like ... victory." There are others -- as Boo Radley in "To Kill a Mockingbird," Bull Meechum in "The Great Santini," Dr. Watson in "The Seven Percent Solution," Frank Burns in "M*A*S*H," in "True Confessions," "The Rain People," "Network" and "Colors." And there are a handful as the philosophical former Texas Ranger Gus McCrae in "Lonesome Dove," the new miniseries based on the Larry McMurtry novel, premiering tonight on CBS. When asked to single out a moment of his own, any moment, the actor demurs, then, when pressed, mentions one that nobody will ever see -- a lost moment -- in "Lonesome Dove," when the director, Simon Wincer, cut to a close-up and missed the little nudge he gave to an old geezer with his elbow. "All the behavior was in the elbow." He describes making the movie as "hard work, but good hard work. Six days a week, outside, on horseback. I like that." And because of the emotional richness of McMurtry's original, the moments that weren't lost outnumber the ones that were. "A moment doesn't have to be a grand thing," Duvall says, bobbing his head slightly, jutting out his granitelike brow. "It can be a little thing that just goes, like, pow!" Saying this, Duvall snaps his fingers. This is his life. Characters. A collection of moments. What he calls "pockets of contradiction." He's an Oscar winner and a star, but dressed in scruffy brown, lace-up boots, a brown leather jacket, red-and-blue-striped polo shirt and black jeans, he could hardly look less like one. Here at Duke Zeibert's, folks are sure that he's somebody, they're just not sure who. This kind of anonymity is something the actor cultivates. Duvall is a character connoisseur -- he collects them, cataloguing their dialects, soaking up their gestures and mannerisms like a sponge, and storing them away for future use. What he's looking for, he says, is "the truth of the thing. "Someone once told me, 'Just play the facts,' " Duvall says. "You see so many talented people who go for what they figure their strength is -- crying or whatever. But you see a guy who's lost his kid in the flood and you don't see him trying to make points going for tears, like you see certain actors do. My old acting teacher, Sanford Meisner, said, 'If crying means great acting, my Aunt Tillie could have been another Eleanora Duse.' " Duvall is a documentary-style actor -- in fact, he often goes to documentary films for inspiration because, he says, "I learn so much about acting." And what does he learn? "Behavior! Saying that in Hollywood is like attacking motherhood. But I walked out on 'The Grapes of Wrath.' I don't think it was that well done. Everybody says it's a great film, and that films were better way back then. Well, maybe, but they patronize and put quotes around everything. On the one hand, they're patting them on the back, on the other, they're excusing them. The people I've met in Oklahoma don't act like the people I saw in that movie." Duvall prefers his acting straight. There's no rhetoric in his work, no empty styling, no fat. It's all grounded, rich in experience, lived in, and he submerges himself so completely in his characters that practically all trace of the actor himself is lost. "You are the character, but that doesn't mean that you become the character," the actor explains. "You gotta find aspects of yourself that make it seem as if it's somebody else, but it's always you doing it. It's got to be. It's you!" Beyond these basics, Duvall's assessment of his approach is meat-and-potatoes simple. "All I try to do when I work is listen and talk. Listen and talk," the actor says, clearly getting into it now. "A lot of times I just start in. I think about it a lot when I'm watching football or out with people. I figure by osmosis it'll drift into me somehow. You can't design things too much. If I go with what the other actors give me, then it's like life. And I think acting should be like life." Staring out the window, he adds, "I'd like to be remembered as an emotional actor. As an actor who could deliver the emotional goods. You put on the makeup and say the lines, but if you don't have a certain life, then ..." Duvall was born in San Diego, the son of Rear Adm. William Howard Duvall, but did a good part of his growing up in and around Annapolis. He says that there was "a lot of music" in his family -- his older brother, William, is a professional singer and teaches music -- and that his mother was a "terrific mimic." His parents encouraged him, he says, because "I was a little cautious, I guess, and they thought it would be good for me if I found something I could be interested in." His earliest acting experiences, he says, were in the "Cub Scout musicals" his mother would put on. "I would have to tap dance in them, and I can only tap with one foot." Though he was too inhibited to try out for plays in high school, Duvall says that he didn't begin acting in earnest until he was 20, while at Principia College. "In certain ways I guess I was a late bloomer," Duvall says, shyly. "I like sports but I didn't excel in them. I excelled more in my imagination. Everything adds up, though. It all fueled me. You don't have to act to become an actor. To act, you have to have something to draw on, and a lot of time people don't have that until later on." Adding summer theater and New York stage work to his college re'sume', Duvall worked the late shift at the post office, studied with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse and hung out with his pals James Caan, Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman. His first big career break came in 1957 when director Ulu Grosbard cast him as the lead in Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge." ("I didn't think I was right for the role, but I was 26 so who was I to argue.") He followed this with a series of character parts on television and, in 1962, made his movie debut as the shadowy Boo in "To Kill a Mockingbird." But even early in his career, Duvall knew how he wanted to work and that there would be times when he'd have to fight against directors who had different ideas. "I worked with Henry Hathaway way back on 'True Grit' -- a good guy, but ... The first day on the set, I heard him say to one of the actors, 'When I say 'Action,' tense up, goddammit!' I couldn't believe it." On another occasion, when he was working with Sam Peckinpah on "The Killer Elite," the director kept growling something into his ear. "He'd say, 'You don't like this guy. He's Nixon.' And I thought, 'How's this guy know how I vote?' " Still, he says, an actor can learn to use the tension and that, in some respects, he finds fighting helps him. He is asked what the fights are most often about. "I don't know," Duvall says. "Vibes. Power. Things just happen. Sometimes I get irritable on the set because, you know, you're into a thing, and you want to make it good. Sometimes you, like, snap, but it comes out of the moment and you apologize. And at the end of the movie you can shake hands and part friends even if you have differences." He worked with Sean Penn on "Colors" and calls him "a nice kid." "People were worried about me and Dennis Hopper and Sean on that film, but it was a very harmonious atmosphere. Very harmonious." In this case, though, harmony wasn't blandness, which along with boredom is Duvall's real enemy on the set. "They all love to use the word professional -- that means a guy who comes in on time every morning, like he's clocking in at 9 and leaving at 4. But that's what you see up there, instead of somebody who's trying to get some contradictions into the character, who comes in with some real impulses." When he's not working, Duvall engages rather seriously in raising and riding horses on his Loudoun County farm. "Where I live, you have to have great humility when you say you're a horseman, because there are so many exceptional horsemen there. There are some bad horsemen, too, but you have to be careful what you say." Also, he says, he and his girlfriend, Sharon Brophy -- who's a professional dancer -- like to dance the tango, milongueros style, and he's serious enough about it to travel to Argentina for instruction. "When they ask me in Argentina how I rate myself as a dancer, I say, 'Well, there are many, many levels. And whatever level I'm at, I'm not embarrassed.' " Duvall's other great passion is for preachers, and on most Sundays you'll find him in some church or another, in Harlem or Fort Worth or northeast Georgia or somewhere in Virginia, watching the preachers, drinking them in, all as research for a movie about a Pentecostal evangelist he's written for himself -- and is trying to raise money for -- called "The Apostle." "I'm on the devil's hit list, but I've got JESUS!" Duvall shouts, pounding the table, impersonating one of his models. "We're gonna have a Holy Ghost explosion. We're gonna short-circuit the devil tonight." This isn't something they see every day at Duke Zeibert's. "When I was growing up in the '50s I used to listen to Jay Charles Jessup from Del Rio, Texas. Everybody thought he was black, but he was white. He was like the Oral Roberts of radio. Powerful little guy. He can still do 50 one-arm pushups and he's 70 years old. He raises prize cocks for cock-fighting in Fort Worth." Before Duvall can lift a finger on "The Apostle," he's scheduled to work with Faye Dunaway in Volker Schlondorff's adaptation of Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaiden's Tale." He says that he's "trying to work up the excitement for that," but that it's these preachers who consume him and have consumed him for years. "These guys are great. I don't know where the money's going to come from, I don't know who's going to direct, but I know I can play one of these guys. I know I can." He stops for a second to think, then, nearly whispering, says, "Character. Character."