When I turned 18," says actress/producer Shelley Duvall, "I felt I was grown up. Then when I was 21, I reflected, 'Boy, I was just a kid then; now I'm grown up.' The same thing happened when I was 27. It wasn't until I was in my early 30s that I realized it was a futile goal to have. You're never grown up. We're all still dealing with the same hopes, same fears, same dreams that we had as children." * In a generation where being an "adult child" means your parents screwed you up, and discovering your "inner child" is the de rigueur method of self-help, Shelley Duvall turns the jargon upside down. It's not that she's made an unholy alliance in return for eternal youthfulness; she's simply a 42-year-old who has not sacrificed her innocence on the altar of adulthood. Her inner child not only has long been discovered, it gracefully, if sometimes oddly, cohabits with the grown-up Ms. Duvall. * When Duvall greets you at the door to her house in Studio City--a three-acre hillside spread she shares with 36 birds, 8 dogs, 2 cats, 2 goldfish and her boyfriend of two years, Dan Gilroy--it's the childlike side that strikes you first. She looks like a kid in her mother's lipstick, wearing beige overalls, thick-tongued Nike high-tops and a Desert Storm camouflage baseball cap that holds back her long, fine, bottle-red hair. Though her face has always looked eccentric and overdressed in films--huge, startled brown eyes; full lips that grin crookedly; long teeth with a middle gap--in person she looks uniquely beautiful, soft and amber-colored, like a Brittany spaniel. * The offices of Think Entertainment, Duvall's production company, are located just a few minutes away in a nondescript Studio City strip mall ("We're over a Chinese restaurant and a dry cleaners, and the windows open and close--it's perfect," she brags.) But it's at her home, in a sort of fantasy world that would be the envy of most youngsters, that Duvall glues herself to phone and fax and becomes the grown-up businesswoman, seeking green lights for the dozens of children- and family-oriented projects she and Think have cooked up. * Duvall opens a bird cage and puts her yellow nape parrot, Humpty, on her finger, urging him to show off his vocabulary with a rendition of his mistress at work. * "Telephone!" she sing-songs, miming a receiver at her ear. " Rrriiinnnggg. Hello? Oh, fantastic! Telephone, Humpty. Hello? Hello? . . . " * Now perched on a reporter's shoulder, Humpty remains silently uncooperative, absorbed in grooming the reporter's hair with the sharp end of his beak. But a dozen other parrots of various plumages fill Duvall's cage-filled kitchen with sound, as if they're imitating her as she imitates herself doing business. * Duvall is actually on vacation today, the week before Labor Day, but it's an aberration, her first couple of weeks off in two years. Her work schedule is one thing that makes it clear that this is a woman, not a child. It would give even a dedicated workaholic pause: When this year's fall entertainment schedule unfolded, Duvall was all over the schedule as both producer and performer. * In October, Nickelodeon began showing the five-minute-a-day music video show she is producing for preschoolers, "Nick Jr. Rocks." Her own video, "Little Kids' World," from "Hello, I'm Shelley Duvall: Sweet Dreams," one of her two September-release children's albums, is making the rotation.
"Backfield in Motion," the ABC-TV movie that she executive-produced for Roseanne and Tom Arnold, aired in November. This fall's "Suburban Commando" was her first feature film role since "Roxanne" in 1987, and she will be seen on the little screen later this year in a PBS "Wonderworks" special, "Frogs." Her voice will be heard on an upcoming children's radio show called "Sprouts," in which she does the "wraparounds"--the opening and closing monologues. And right now, she's producing the animated TV series "Bedtime Stories" for Showtime (it airs in February) with celebs like Bette Midler, Ringo Starr and Dudley Moore reciting classic children's tales and Duvall again performing the wraparounds. Meanwhile, even on vacation, she's just a few guarantees away from closing a "first look" deal with a major studio, which means Think would get an annual sum of money in return for giving the buyer first crack at all its productions. In fact, if her schedule didn't convince you that she was a serious producer, her deal-making would.
"I call her Shelley T. Duvall--T for tenacity," says Dennis Johnson, a senior vice president of Showtime who met Duvall in 1984 and considers her a friend. "She just never stops. Even when we've turned down a project, she'll bounce back to pitch another one five minutes later."
"She has a stick-to-itiveness that is not childlike but well-honed," says independent producer Bridget Terry, who worked with Duvall for eight years.
Duvall, who has let in her two toy Pomeranians, Cody and Zoe, to scamper around her feet, demurs at first. "I don't like the deal-making process," she says in her trademark squeaky voice. "I'm too sensitive; I often take it personally." But only to a point. Duvall makes it clear that her modus operandi is, as she characterizes it, "relentless pursuit."
"If I had listened to everyone who told me no, I'd never have gotten anything accomplished," she says. "When I really believe in something and someone says, 'You can't do it,' it just spurs me on."
IN 1981, LOTS OF PEOPLE WERE TELLING Shelley Duvall she couldn't do it. "It" was her idea to turn fairy tales into live-action television, with herself as producer. Back then, Duvall's only track record was as the gangly, flaky-looking actress who played appropriately flaky characters in Robert Altman movies--the hick Keechie ("Thieves Like Us"), hot-pantsed/platform-shoed L.A. Joan ("Nashville"), dress-caught-in-the-car-door Millie ("Three Women") and the ultimate goof, Olive Oyl ("Popeye," of course).
It was cable television--then the "virgin territory of show business," in Dennis Johnson's words--that caved in to her "relentless pursuit" and gave her a chance.
"They needed me as much as I needed them," says Duvall. Hungry for original products, Showtime bought Duvall's pitch that not only kids, but everyone, no matter how jaded, would relate to his or her favorite fairy tale. "Faerie Tale Theatre" was born with a slyly humorous attitude designed to please children of all ages. (Said the Princess to the Frog in "The Frog Prince," when he told her that his third wish was to sleep on her pillow: "Oh, you horny toad!")
It also helped that Duvall delivered cheap some of the biggest talent in show business. She guilelessly and fearlessly called every actor she knew or whose home phone number she could cadge. Her do-it-for-the-kids angle and her chutzpah worked. "I wanted to get popular with my own children," explains composer Van Dyke Parks, who wrote the music for much of "Faerie Tale Theatre." Duvall coaxed Robin Williams, Teri Garr, Jeff Bridges, Mick Jagger, Liza Minnelli and Vanessa Redgrave, among other big names, onto the show. Soon enough, Johnson says, "people started calling her and saying, 'Must do that show!' "
Although she kept budgets low for the anthology of 26 fairy tales, which were produced from 1982 through 1985, and later on for "Shelley Duvall's Tall Tales and Legends," which ran from 1985 to 1987, she made sure production values remained high. Actors worked only for scale, and she used videotape instead of film, but she went for state-of-the-art technology and hired people who would "do something creative with video rather than make it look like the 5 o'clock news." She thus helped lend respectability to the cable industry, whose image had been tied more to late-night lewdness and inept public-access shows. Duvall regularly swept the annual ACE awards for cable programming in those years, and because she'd also caught the first wave of home video, made the Home Video Hall of Fame in 1985 along with fellow actress and video pioneer Jane Fonda.
Duvall also won the plaudits of the children's entertainment lobby. "She recognized that children are an important audience," says Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television in Cambridge, Mass., "which is unusual for someone in L.A., where people tend to graduate from children's to adult programming as they move up the success ladder."
If becoming a producer was an against-the-odds triumph for Duvall, starting Think Entertainment was even more daunting. In 1987, she wanted to buy her own children's cable channel ("I wanted kids to say, 'I want my CTV' ") and had gone so far as to clear it for business in five states.
"But the problem at the time," she explains, "was channel capacity. Seventy-five percent of all the systems were not yet equipped with fiber optics, and therefore only had 36 channels, and if they dropped their PBS channel, or one of the four home shopping networks, then people would be mad."
She'd also gone so far as to join forces with four heavyweight cable system operators--Tele-Communications Inc., United Cable, United Artists Communications and Newhouse Broadcasting. When the cable channel deal fell through later that year, her partners decided to invest in her anyway and so Think Entertainment was born with a $15-million investment. Duvall put together a staff of three that grew to about 15 and began producing original programming for cable.
She specialized in "family" fare--the fairy tale shows gave rise to other projects including a contemporary version of "Dinner at Eight," with Lauren Bacall and Charles Durning for TNT, the too-terrifying-for-tykes horror anthology, "Nightmare Classics," as well as the star-studded (Paul Simon, Cyndi Lauper, Bobby Brown, ZZ Top et al.) musical special, "Mother Goose Rock 'n' Rhyme" for the Disney Channel.
Duvall's deal was groundbreaking in the cable industry. Coupled with TNT's decision in the late '80s to produce original films, it opened Hollywood's narrowed eyes to cable. "Just simply the announcement," says Duvall, "created a huge stir among studios and producers. They said, 'God, we want a deal like Shelley Duvall got.' " It served its purpose well; it attracted talent to cable and "really helped push cable penetration up in the marketplace. Penetration, that sounds so weird, doesn't it?"
After three years, though, Duvall let the deal amicably expire and bought out her Think partners. She wanted more freedom. She had set her sights on the Big Three networks and the silver screen. "I'm not copping out on cable," she says. "But to be competitive in the marketplace, any independent production company needs to be able to produce for all media."
The Think partnership had taken two years of full-time effort to put together, but Duvall let it go as easily as releasing a kite. Think is now self-sustaining. "Life is all about movement, and when you stop moving, you're dead!" she says. "That's my big philosophy--it's all about motion. Life can change in the blinking of an eye, so you just have to appreciate every minute and keep going."
"KEEP MOVING" IS AT LEAST IN PART THE STORY OF DUVALL'S LIFE. She was born July 7, 1949, in Fort Worth. Her father, Robert (not the actor), was a cattle auctioneer, an insurance man, then a criminal lawyer and a judge for a time. Her mother, Bobbie, would later open a very successful commercial real estate office, but when Shelley was a child, Bobbie accompanied her husband while he worked all over Texas for the state insurance board.
"We lived mostly in hotels for the first five years of Shelley's life," says Bobbie Crawford, who divorced her husband when Shelley was 24, remarried, and has since been widowed. "When we moved into our first house, in Houston, Shelley asked me where the elevator was."
Bobbie spent an extraordinary amount of time with her young daughter in those years, reading books with her and listening to Shelley's own made-up stories.
"I think Shelley has not forgotten her experience as a child, and how safe and rewarding it was," says Dennis Johnson. "Some people (who do children's entertainment) try to create an environment they wish they had as children. I think Shelley is recreating the childhood world of constant reading that she was in."
After Shelley, Bobbie gave birth at three-year intervals to three boys, Scott, Shane, and Stewart. They all "grew up pretty tall pretty quick," says Stewart, 31, who works as an administrative assistant for his sister at Think. When Shelley was 13, Bobbie started her real estate company, and that left Shelley in frequent charge of the boys.
"We were nightmares," Stewart recalls. "I know it had to be really tough on her. As I remember, she ruled not with an iron fist, but with long fingernails."
"I was practically a parent to my brothers," she says. "I was the eldest child, the responsible one. So probably somewhere in what I do is an opportunity for me to have a childhood."
She frequently points to the losses and injustices of growing up as a clue to her adult behavior. For example, there's the shameful memory of the sixth-grade PTA talent contest where, performing Joyce Kilmer's poem "Trees" in an overstarched voile Easter dress, Shelley forgot her lines. She left the stage in tears, swearing she'd never go to school again. "And I heard my parents outside my closed bedroom door that night," she recalls, "saying, 'Well, I guess she's just not talented.'
"Isn't that a classic? That was definitely a turning point in my life. I guess that might have inspired me to be an overachiever. I never felt the need to prove myself out of revenge; I wanted to contribute something, to make my life count. I didn't want to be just like everybody else in Houston who got married as soon as they got out of high school."
Duvall decided to be a scientist, having loved the subject since her days lying in the tall grass watching bugs and imagining what the world looked like to them. A solitary, good student ("When they asked for one notebook, I'd turn in three"), she was spurred by the fact that her father, a strict disciplinarian, didn't expect her to be anything more than a housewife. She earned straight A's in school up to 11th grade, when she discovered "emotions and boys." Stewart remembers her almost worshipfully from those days, when she had a "cool" longhaired boyfriend who drove a Mustang and had already begun to dress in an eclectic style that was no one's version of fashion but her own.
"She was always changing her hair, her looks," Stewart recalls. "She wore white go-go boots, a pageboy haircut in one period, tie-dye and flowing things in another. I heard she quit typing in high school to save her fingernails. And she wore huge false eyelashes; they looked like butterflies on her eyes."
Since her grades had dropped and the family didn't have much money anyway, Shelley attended the now-defunct South Texas Junior College in Houston, taking every science class offered. "But I dropped out," says Duvall, "after somebody held a vivisected monkey in front of my face."
If she didn't become a research scientist, at least she learned the scientific method. "Chemistry," she says, "has really paid off in terms of knowing logistics. How do you accomplish a project? Think of somewhere to start and then, like dominoes, knock 'em (the tasks) down one by one. I found out I had a knack for it, I guess."
Indeed, when she was "discovered" in Houston, it wasn't because of her acting ability, but for her business acumen. She was giving a party where fiance Bernard Sampson (they married in 1970, divorced in 1974) was showing his artwork, and three crew members of the Robert Altman film "Brewster McCloud" happened to be in attendance. Intrigued by Duvall's offbeat looks and hyper-enthusiasm, they invited her to bring Sampson's work to a supposed gathering of "art patrons," which was really a surreptitious casting call with Altman and producer Lou Adler in attendance.
"As I remember," says Adler, executive producer of Duvall's children's albums, "the paintings weren't great--but her sales pitch was. She had the most amazing amount of energy I'd ever seen in anyone. She looked like a flower; her face was painted with marks around her eyes to accent them. She was overwhelming."
Shelley remembers her outfit that day--patched blue jeans, a Mexican blouse, bells around her waist--and the feeling of dread when Bert Remsen, one of Altman's de facto repertory company, who was also serving as "Brewster" casting director, asked if she would like to appear in a movie. "I thought, 'Uh oh, a porno movie, my mom's going to kill me!' " Duvall remembers.
Nonetheless, she let them take a Polaroid, gave them the number of her father's law firm, and the rest is film history. Shelley was typecast as a birdlike Astrodome tour guide in "Brewster" ("One of my nicknames in school was Sparrowlegs"), and went on to become an essential constellation in the Altman universe, appearing in six other films--"McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "Thieves Like Us," "Nashville," "Buffalo Bill and the Indians," "Three Women" and "Popeye."
After she did "Thieves," the director dubbed her a "great" actress, and she began to think of herself as more than just someone who had lucked into a fabulous career. "That was a very, very"--she sighs quietly--"emotional moment for me. I guess it gave me the confidence to think I could go out and work for other directors as well."
The only problem was that, at first, other directors didn't call. She started to break away in 1975, when Joan Micklin Silver tapped her to play the lead in the PBS version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," and Duvall proved she wasn't a one-director fluke. Then, in 1976, she went to New York to do a cameo in "Annie Hall." She returned to California to film "Three Women," in what proved to be a breakthrough role. In the film, she created the pitifully eager-to-please Millie Lamoureaux, and since Altman started the picture with only 14 pages of script, Duvall spent lunch breaks skimming through the latest issues of Woman's Day and Apartment Life in order to extract dialogue. That's where she came up with the mouth-watering menu--pigs in a blanket, Sociables and Cheez Whiz, shrimp cocktail in a jar, s'mores--for the movie's infamous no-show dinner party scene. Her performance earned Duvall the best actress award at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival. Being called a "young Katharine Hepburn" by critic Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice, was no small ego boost either.
She had met Paul Simon when she was in New York, and after finishing "Three Women," she came back to Manhattan to live with him for the next two years.
"He was just so funny and intelligent and charming," says Duvall about the singer, with whom she has remained friends. But he didn't understand her perpetual youthfulness and tried to prod her into a more "adult" style. "Paul said, 'You dress like a kid, a little kid,' and I thought, 'He's right, I do.' I started losing confidence, so I went out and spent way too much money on clothes."
She switched from home-dyed painters' coveralls to Armani and Maud Frizon, and picked up a high falutin' New York lifestyle to match. As she told Cosmopolitan in a 1981 profile, "I was hanging out with the most sophisticated, most glamorous people . . . but I felt lost, bored, depressed, like Alice in Wonderland, although it wasn't such a wonderful, wonderful Wonderland, as Alice found out."
"When you grow up with a lot of land around you, you're not used to New York," Duvall says now. She didn't like the close quarters, the cold, the feeling of being a celebrity in a fishbowl, and she also began facing a delayed, painful reaction to her parent's unexpected and bitter divorce the year before (although she says she still loves her father, she rarely speaks to him). On top of that, she wasn't working, having turned down a couple of parts, including Altman's "A Wedding," which cooled their friendship for a while. She decided to go into psychoanalysis.
The day before her first session, she had a telling dream. "I was in a locker room, and Elaine, from Elaine's restaurant, had me on a gurney and was wrapping my head in white bandages, preparing me for an operation. I said something like, 'Is everything going to be OK?' And she said, 'Aw, don't worry about it. We're not going to hurt you. We're just going to rearrange things a little bit.' And then she wheeled me off onto the vivid green field of a football stadium."
Looking back on it, Duvall feels that her couple of years in analysis were "great acting lessons. To know yourself better is to know everyone else better." It made her more sensitive to human frailties, she says, and more accepting of the fact that people can't always stay together, no matter how hard they struggle to.
But that still didn't make it easy when Simon broke up with her at the airport as she was about to board the Concorde to London to begin her next major role, as the terrified wife and mother stalked by her mad husband in Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining." She cried all the way across the Atlantic, and that was just the beginning of the endless tears she would shed during the next months of filming.
"That was a life experience like the Vietnam War probably was for veterans," says Duvall in a low, exhausted voice, very different from her typical lilting tone. "It was grueling--six days a week, 12- to 16-hour days, half an hour off for lunch, for a year and one month. The role demanded that I cry for, whew, at least nine of those months. Jack (Nicholson) had to be angry all the time, and I had to be in hysterics all the time. It was very upsetting."
The role was a plum, and one of Duvall's unforgettable performances, but she had already begun to think about being more than just a hired hand in the movies. On "Annie Hall," when Woody Allen let her read only a couple pages of dialogue instead of the whole script, she had begun to wonder what it might be like to have a producer's control. Around that time, she bought the rights to Tom Robbins' "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" and wrote a screenplay for it ("One studio told me, 'Too quirky even for us,' and I had toned it down quite a lot!"). She gave up the rights after four years.
But it was in 1979 on the sunny Malta set of "Popeye," surrounded by the familial atmosphere of an Altman production after the nightmare of "The Shining," that Duvall began to read her beautiful, old illustrated copy of "The Frog Prince" and imagine what Robin "Popeye" Williams might do with that role.
IN HER LIVING ROOM, DUVALL LIGHTS A CIGARETTE (SHE STARTED smoking for "Thieves Like Us" and can't seem to quit), and the effect is a little astonishing. "It's like seeing your favorite Saturday morning cartoon character light up," says Johnson.
If Duvall were a character, she might be one invented by Lily Tomlin--unintentionally witty just by being herself. She segues, for example, from an erudite discussion of cable TV circuitry directly to her attraction to home shopping network deals.
"I'm such a sucker for those inventions," she says, as she sips a diet soft drink and puffs away. "I always take down the numbers, but I've never ordered anything. Oh, I take it back--I did order DD7, the miracle cleaner. It works great, although it makes you wonder--is it made from leftover napalm or something?"
Dan Gilroy passes by with a friend, lugging file cabinets into Duvall's home office, and flashes a wide grin. He's wearing green Converse high-tops and a rakish painter's cap. ("They're obviously a good match," says Shelley's brother Stewart. "They're sharing hats.")
They met just before Duvall cast "Mother Goose Rock 'n' Rhyme." Gilroy, a member of the rock band Breakfast Club, caught Duvall's eye first as a potential cast member. Despite his lack of acting experience and low marquee profile, she insisted that he'd be perfect for the lead role as Gordon Goose. He's a bit of a renaissance man; he sculpts in marble and paints, as well as acting, singing and writing songs.
"He's the most wonderful artist," Duvall raves, explaining that a typical evening might find them watching their big-screen TV in the living room while each worked on a canvas. She shows me one of her paintings--a classical landscape behind a portrait of a featureless woman. It's good.
It's amazing that Duvall finds any time for hobbies, since her life is brimming with work. When she settles the "first look" deal for Think, which now has a lean-and-mean staff of five, she hopes to focus less on selling, more on inventing. She likes nurturing talent, sort of playing a kinder, gentler Walt Disney. She credits her management style to Altman. On his films, he ran the show, but involved the entire cast and crew in the process. "It was like a family with him," says Bridget Terry, who worked with Altman before joining forces with Duvall. "Maybe that's where Shelley got her philosophy about collaboration."
"People will go, 'What has that person written before?' " says Duvall, "but I'll go, 'Let me read it!' Everybody has to start somewhere." She also casts with an eye toward untapped talent. "I don't feel there's a stigma about casting unknowns. Everybody acts in daily life."
Some of the talent Duvall has nurtured have gone on to big-bucks Hollywood productions, including director Tim Burton ("Beetlejuice," "Batman," "Edward Scissorhands") and Fred Fuchs, executive producer for Francis Ford Coppola.
Besides the film and TV projects Duvall has in development, she also wants to write and illustrate children's books and plans to design a line of toddler's clothing (Faerie Tailors, of course). As for acting, she's had discussions with CBS on developing a Saturday morning kids' show with herself in the host role a la Pee-wee Herman, of "Pee-wee's Playhouse." But what about serious acting? After all, a kids' show, or "Suburban Commando" for that matter, is no "Three Women."
"I think if there's anything that's suffered by her being a producer," says Lou Adler, "it's that she probably could have had a more prolific acting career. There was a point, coming off of 'The Shining,' where she was one of the actresses you'd reach out for."
"I think everyone probably thinks I'm too busy to act," says Duvall, adding that she'd love to work with Coppola or Martin Scorsese or James Cameron--if they'd just ask.
The one thing that remains puzzling about Duvall is that, despite her interest in children, she doesn't have any of her own. And despite the now-booming tick-tock of her biological clock, she doesn't seem particularly concerned. "I'd rather freeze an egg than have a child right now," she says. "There's just too much to do. I love creating programs for children and making a lot of children happy. In a way, I have more children than anybody could ever ask for."
THERE'S ONE MORE childhood event Duvall has never forgotten. She's sitting in her Think office, looking like Eliza Doolittle today in a waifish dress and flowered hat, surrounded by illustrated books and props from her previous productions.
"I must have been 4 or 5," she recalls, "and I wanted to meet Kittirick really bad. She was a woman dressed in a cat suit who hosted the afternoon cartoons, and she looked very cute with the ears and tail and everything. So my mother took me down to Channel 13 one day and I stood in line for two hours waiting to see Kittirick. Two people before me, she quit signing autographs.
"I cried and cried and cried for, like, three days. It made me feel that when I grew up and was ever anything like Kittirick, I would sign autographs until the last kid was gone. Kids never forget. I never forgot that."
So Shelley has remained accessible, not just to children, not just to other creative people, but to her childhood desires. She acts them out consciously, though, not letting them simply invade her work with an annoying, subterranean insistence.
"She's not coming from a neurotic point of view," says Dennis Johnson. "She doesn't have the mentality of most suppliers, who aren't sure who they are, and so they bring in all their neuroses with them."
Perhaps Duvall doesn't seem neurotic because she has reconciled her adult and child selves. She completes her thoughts about growing up: "You never outgrow your childhood hopes and fears and dreams," she says. "But there's greater satisfaction with yourself as you get older. Maybe not with things that have happened in life, but definitely with yourself.
"And that's what maturation is--becoming comfortable with yourself, liking yourself, being satisfied."
Thirty-five years after Kittirick so bitterly disappointed her, Shelley Duvall won the first award given by the L.A. Children's Theater for her contribution to children's entertainment. That night in November, 1990, at the Westwood Playhouse, friends like Dan, Cyndi Lauper and Little Richard acted out their version of Shelley as imaginative child, reading books and making up stories.
But the highlight of the evening came when, like a shadow, Kittirick appeared. Now a wizened woman in a tight, hooded black cat suit with a rhinestone collar, she handed Duvall, a head taller than she, an autographed photo.
Duvall's jaw dropped as she took the photo from the embarrassed woman. She bent down to hug her, then faced the audience with a radiant smile.
"I got it!" she crowed, holding the memory of childhood high overhead like an Oscar. "I got it!"
(Lettering by Margo Chase Design)