Standing ovations, jubilant cheers and tears of joy swept over the ballroom of the Hilton Americas-Houston Wednesday night when Sue and Lester Smith unveiled a check for $8,898,920 for Texas Children's Cancer Center, making it one of the city's all-time top-earning charity dinners. Before night's end, a generous donor wrote a check that upped the total to an even $9 million.
The astounding proceeds, made possible largely by the generosity of the Smiths whose foundation matched every dollar raised, practically outshone the star of the evening — film great Robert Duvall, who was interviewed by CBS News Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer. This was the seventh annual dinner benefit for Texas Children's Cancer Center that featured a big-name personality and VIP news correspondent.
The Smiths had slyly kept the total proceeds of the evening secret from just about everyone including Texas Children's top brass. So when young patients from the cancer center dropped the covering on the over-sized check, the astonishment was universal and the cheers and tears truly heartfelt. Texas Children's Hospital CEO Mark Wallace had no clue. Neither did Dr. David Poplack, cancer center medical director and professor of oncology at Baylor College of Medicine.
None could have been more blown away than event committee members Emily Crosswell, Lynn Baird, Flo Crady, Shelley Barineau and Susan Solcher and underwriter chairs Michael Ellington, Leo Reichle, Adam Ross, Jeffrey Shipley and Ned Torian.
The excitement finally settled down and the hugs and kisses to the Smiths subsided enough for Ward & Ames to continue the program that was emceed by KHOU Channel 11 news anchor Len Cannon, himself visibly moved by the high figure. As Schieffer said when he began his remarks, "I was just absolutely stunned."
The newsman, a native Texan and Texas Christian University grad, chatted with Duvall in a comfortable stage set where they talked movies and the television series Lonesome Dove. Once again, Duvall acknowledged that his role as Augustus "Gus" McCrae was indeed his favorite. He allowed, however, that The Godfather was his favorite film.
"The Godfather was better directed," he said. "But the overall art of Lonesome Dove carried it."
He recalled saying on the set of Lonesome Dove, which was released 25 years ago, "Boys, we're making The Godfather of westerns."
At age 79, Duvall boasted that good roles continue to come his way. "I'm still getting offers as good as ever," he said adding that he might play Don Quixote in a proposed film and that he is set to begin work with Billy Bob Thornton on a new project in the spring. "Billy Bob Thornton has written a script good enough to put Tennessee Williams in the back seat." Thornton will direct.
Duvall recently wrapped shooting on Seven Days in Utopia co-starring Lucas Black. That film is scheduled for release in August. While filming in that West Texas outpost, Duvall, who has an estate in Virginia hunt country, bunked at the swank ranch owned by Lou and Wanda Waters. Duvall divides his time between Virginia and Argentina where he met his young wife, Luciana Pedraza. She accompanied Duvall on his Houston visit and joined the Smiths at their table.
Beyond the seven-figure proceeds, this was not your typical dinner gala. The attire was western chic in a nod to the Lonesome Dove anniversary and most of the 900 guests stepped out in jeans and blazers (the gents) and suedes, leather and sparkly denims (the ladies). Among those dressing up for the evening were Sherry and Jim Smith, Glenda and Russell Gordy, Holcombe Crosswell, Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff, Shelly and Newt Barineau, Susan and Michael Plank and Laurie and Tracy Krohn.