In 1980, while filming "Popeye" on the island of Malta, actress Shelley Duvall had the idea of producing a series based on classic fairy tales and using Hollywood's top actors, directors and writers. Now in its fourth season on Showtime, her "Faerie Tale Theatre"is seen worldwide and is in bimonthly rotation with her new series, "Tall Tales"
Q: You once said, "Casting is the first big hurdle. If you cast it perfectly, people can't do anything wrong." How would you cast the following people: Tina Turner, President Reagan, Martina Navratilova, Andy Warhol and Sylvester Stallone? A: I've always cast my shows as realistically as possible so that the audience will find them believable. I would probably cast Tina Turner as Tinker Bell or maybe Pocahontas. Reagan could be Buffalo Bill Cody. Martina Navratilova would be a good swashbuckling pirate in "Peter Pan." Andy Warhol would either be Merlin the Magician from "King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table" or the Wizard in "The Wizard of Oz." Stallone would make a good early-day Rambo--a knight or a handsome prince who'd been out fighting in the Crusades or something. Q: Stars such as Christopher Reeve, Robin Williams, Joan Collins and Mick Jagger have been featured on your show. How do you get to these people? A: The shows just sort of evolve. A recent example is that Christopher Guest is married to Jamie Lee Curtis, and she had just been in "Annie Oakley" (on "Tall Tales"). Through her we met Christopher, and he directed "Johnny Appleseed." Molly Ringwald probably found it attractive to be in "Johnny Appleseed" because it gave her a chance to work with Christopher, Martin Short and Rob Reiner. So it's sort of like chemistry. I always wanted to be a scientist when I was growing up. Producing is really like being a scientist, just putting all the elements together to make it work, to create something new. Q: How do you get such expensive talent to work so cheaply? A: Actors are always interested in parts they may never get to play; that's why King Lear is so popular . For Joan Collins, to play an ugly witch was really fun. Also, it's a chance for stars to see how they like working together without making the commitment of six months to a year working on a film. There's also no star structure here; everyone is treated the same. I think there's a lot of relief in this for the stars. In Hollywood, the deal has become more important than the work. I think the success I've had in getting stars for my shows makes a statement--the stars still value their work more than the deal. In fact, our biggest problem is usually scheduling and availability. For example, I would really like Dolly Parton to play Mother Goose, but we haven't been able to arrange it yet. Q: Did you create "Faerie Tale Theatre" because you feel that children's television is lacking in quality? A: The quality of children's television is terrible. I mean, what do they have besides Saturday morning cartoons? Nothing educational, that could also entertain you at the same time. When I was first trying to sell the show I would come into executives' offices carrying two bags of antique, illustrated books and say, "Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could duplicate this scene?" And they would pat me on the back and say, "Well, that's very nice, little girl. Goodby." At the time, oddly enough, people didn't think that children's programming was as valuable as it is today. They were not concerned with its quality, either, which most of America was and still is. Q: What's the difference between "Tall Tales" and "Faerie Tale Theatre"? A: A "Tall Tale" is a legendary history based upon a person, rather than a moral. They're word of mouth; they're yarns. A person tells a story and it's about a real man. The second person tells the story, and the man performs a superhuman feat. The third person finishes the story, and the guy is 40 feet tall, like Paul Bunyan. With "Faerie Tale Theatre" the writers had to take a one- or two-page story and invent, flesh it out. With "Tall Tales" writers have to focus on one major life problem. OK, what about Paul Bunyan? How was he supposed to find a lover, a soul mate? Or Annie Oakley as our first American female superstar. All of a sudden she had to deal with more people knowing her than she knew, people who wanted her to act different, dress different. She had to deal with all this, overcome it. Q: Why are your shows more critically successful than newer anthology programs such as "Amazing Stories" and "The Twilight Zone"? A: Well, I enjoy "The Twilight Zone," but "Amazing Stories" has been hit-and-miss for me. They're geared toward a young audience. I don't think they were able to bridge the generation gap, where, oddly enough, we have. We have a sophisticated sense of humor so adults will like it, but children watch it like a kid's show. Also, they have the problem of being over-promoted--there was no big hoo-ha before "Faerie Tale Theatre" came out; we just snuck up on people. Q: Are you through with acting in films? A: No, I'd love to do another film. But there's something wonderful about television in that you can actually have an idea and see it brought to life in a much shorter time than you can with film. I owned the rights to "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues." I worked on it for four years and finally lost the option to Daryl Hannah. No one was willing to do it. So I turned to another medium. Q: You're also the co-executive producer and star of an hourlong pilot, "Lily," a comedy-drama just completed for CBS. How do you plan to handle not only the responsibilities of two cable shows but the rigors of network television? A: For quite some time I've been weaning myself from "Tall Tales" and "Faerie Tale Theatre." It's been a long, slow process, but the right arm really knows what the left arm is doing now. Also, I like being a pioneer of sorts, and I think I might as well try to better the television industry. If I can do something that's a notch above the typical television fare, then I'll be very pleased. Q: You're also developing several new cable shows, including a program based upon the harrowing clay animation adventures of Mr. Bill on "Saturday Night Live." Can you tell us about it? A: Yes. I think all of us feel like Mr. Bill sometimes. Probably at least one time a day most people feel like saying, "Oh, nooooo." It's basically going to be a situation comedy with an element of Man Ray thrown in. And it's going to be live action--we may have to cast a new leading man every week.