Shelley Duvall was once one of the biggest names in Hollywood, appearing in a wide range of motion pictures, from the family-friendly Popeye to the iconic horror hit The Shining. However, she was always hesitant about acting and never quite fell in love with the world of show business.
As the years passed, Duvall acted less frequently, eventually announcing her retirement in 2002. Since then, she has slipped into obscurity and struggled with mental health. This is the full story of the wonderful actress, her amazing career, and also her personal struggles.
Born in Fort Worth
The story of Shelley Duvall starts in Fort Worth, Texas. She was born there on July 7, 1949, named Shelley Alexis Duvall by her parents. Her mother, Bobbie Ruth Crawford, worked as a real estate broker, and her father, Robert “Bobby” Richardson Duvall, was a cattle rancher who later became a lawyer.
Shelley was Bobbie and Robert’s first child, but they went on to have three more children, giving little Shelley a trio of brothers named Scott, Shane, and Stewart. Shelley remembers moving around a lot in her childhood, living in different places around Texas before the family finally settled down in Houston when she was five.
An Artistic and Energetic Child
It was clear right from the start that there was something special about Shelley. She was an extremely energetic child, even being nicknamed “Manic Mouse” by her mother. She was also very artistic and creative, eager to make things and express herself in different ways.
In a 2012 interview, Duvall revealed, “I was a little terror sometimes! I used to run around a lot, tipping things over.” Fortunately, later on in her life she would discover acting and find a wonderful way to channel all that energy and artistic talent.
An Unfortunate Early Experience
Some actors develop a love of the stage very early on in their lives and almost seem destined to end up in show business, but that wasn’t the case for Shelley Duvall. In fact, her very first experience performing in front of people turned out to be a disaster.
The incident occurred in the sixth grade. Shelley had decided to take part in the school’s talent contest with a reading of Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees.” Sadly, she forgot her lines and left the stage in tears. Later she overheard her parents say outside her bedroom door, “I guess she’s just not talented.”
A Turning Point
In an interview much later in her life, Shelley recalls that poem incident as a turning point in her life. She says that hearing her parents call her untalented inspired her to prove herself and work hard to achieve something.
“I wanted to contribute something, to make my life count,” she said. “I didn’t want to be just like everybody else in Houston who got married as soon as they got out of high school.” And from that point on, she was determined to succeed.
A Passion for Science
As a child and teenager, Shelley clearly didn’t have much passion for acting or performing, but she did have a love of science. Even when she was very young, she liked to lie in the grass and look at the bugs, wondering how the world looked from their point of view.
In school, she always excelled in science, earning straight A’s all the way to the 11th grade before she started to get a little distracted with what she called “emotions and boys.” Even though her grades slipped a little, her love of science was strong, and she had a clear plan in mind to become a scientist.
Developing Her Style
It was toward the end of high school that Shelley started to forge her own unique sense of style. Her brother Stewart recalls those times, saying that Shelley dressed in an eclectic and unique way with her own special look and had a cool boyfriend with a Mustang.
In an interview, Stewart explained, “She was always changing her hair, her looks. She wore white go-go boots, a pageboy haircut in one period, tie-dye, and flowing things in another. . . . And she wore huge false eyelashes; they looked like butterflies on her eyes.”
The Science Plan Didn’t Work Out
Since her family couldn’t afford to send her to a fancy college, Shelley attended the local South Texas Junior College to study science. She took every class she could, but she ended up dropping out after seeing a vivisected monkey up close and personal.
So her dream of becoming a research scientist didn’t quite work out, but she still learned a lot and would later use the scientific methods and tricks she’d picked up to get through projects and accomplish a lot in her life.
Discovered Totally by Accident
The world might never have known Shelley Duvall if not for a random, chance encounter at a party that she and her fiancé, Bernard Sampson, were having. Sampson was showing off his art at the party, and a few crew members from a Robert Altman film called Brewster McCloud were in attendance.
The crew members were totally captivated by Shelley’s unique looks and energetic presence. With her large front teeth and big bright eyes, she had a face that really stood out, and the crew members secretly arranged to get Shelley to a casting call with Altman and producer Lou Adler.
The Casting Call
Lou Adler was immediately impressed with Duvall. “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.”
The casting director, Bert Remsen, was also impressed and asked Shelley if she’d be interested in appearing in a movie. Immediately, Shelley thought that something strange was going on and assumed that Remsen was talking about “a porno movie.” Still, she gave him her number, and from that moment, her life would never be the same.
Her Very First Role
Not too long after the meeting with Altman, Adler, and Remsen, Shelley got to work on her first movie role. She appeared in Brewster McCloud as Suzanne Davis, the primary love interest of the title character, Brewster.
Shelley was very hesitant about giving acting a try, but in the end, she decided to go along with it, saying, “I got tired of arguing and thought maybe I am an actress. They told me to come. I simply got on a plane and did it. I was swept away.” It was the first time she’d ever left Texas.
A Good Working Relationship
Robert Altman was immediately impressed with Duvall. He loved her unique physical appearance and energetic, exciting style of performing. So after Brewster McCloud, he decided to keep on working with Shelley, casting her in several more of his projects.
She went on to appear in many of his films, including McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us, Nashville, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, 3 Women, and Popeye. During that time, she built up her acting skills and started to become more and more well-known.
A Marriage and a Divorce
While Shelley’s professional life had taken an unexpected and incredible turn, her personal life was a little more up and down. She’d married her fiancé, Bernard Sampson, in 1970, just before her acting career began to take off.
Sadly, as Shelley got more and more into acting and had to travel from place to place, her relationship with her new husband started to break down. By 1974, the couple agreed that they could no longer make their marriage work and decided to get a divorce.
An Emotional Moment
Shelley’s first few roles were all with director Robert Altman. She’d appeared in Brewster McCloud, then as a mail-order bride in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, followed by a mistress in Thieves Like Us. And it was after the filming of Thieves Like Us that Shelley had a very “emotional moment.”
In an interview, Altman called her a “great actress.” Up to that point, Shelley hadn’t really been sure if she had any talent at all or whether she’d just been lucky. Once she heard such a wonderful compliment, she started to believe in herself, and it was then that she made the decision to branch out and work with other directors.
Her First Breakaway Role
It took a little while for Shelley to start being offered other roles outside of her Altman bubble. However, in 1975, Joan Micklin Silver asked Shelley to star in the lead role of a PBS version of Bernice Bobs Her Hair, the F. Scott Fitzgerald story.
Switching to the small screen and taking on a lead role, Duvall proved to everyone, including herself, that she was capable of working with other directors and diversifying into other kinds of acting. Not long after that, she got a cameo part in a Woody Allen film, which would prove to be another big turning point in her life.
Working with Woody and Meeting Someone Special
After filming Bernice Bobs Her Hair, Shelley set off for New York where she had been given a small part in Woody Allen’s classic, Annie Hall. Working with such an interesting director was another big step in Shelley’s development, and her trip to New York also introduced her to someone else.
While in the city, she met singer-songwriter Paul Simon. The pair hit it off right away and started a relationship. “He was just so funny and intelligent and charming,” explained Shelley in later interviews when asked what made her fall for Simon in the first place.
A Young Katharine Hepburn
After filming Annie Hall in New York, Duvall returned to California to appear in 3 Women, another Robert Altman film. And it was that film that announced Shelley’s talent to the world in a major way and helped her get some huge roles in the years that followed.
When filming for 3 Women began, the script was only 14 pages long. That meant Duvall and her co-stars had to improvise a lot of their lines, and Duvall did brilliantly. She’d spend her lunch breaks reading women’s magazines to get dialogue ideas. She put on a performance that had one critic calling her a “young Katharine Hepburn.”
Changes in Her Personal Life
Despite receiving rave reviews for her work in 3 Women, Shelley stayed away from acting for a couple years after that film. She even turned down another job with Altman due to some changes in her personal life brought on partly by her new relationship with Paul Simon.
Paul didn’t understand Shelley’s youthful vibe and tried to push her toward more of a mature style.”You dress like a kid, a little kid,” he told her. Shelley admits that because of that, “I started losing confidence, so I went out and spent way too much money on clothes.”
Feeling Like Alice
To try to fit in with the New York scene and please her boyfriend, Shelley switched from her classic, colorful looks to designer brand outfits. But even the most expensive Armani clothes and accessories couldn’t make her feel complete, and she started to become increasingly bored and depressed.
“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.” To make matters worse for Shelley, her parents had also recently gone through a bitter divorce.
The Pressure Piled Up
Her parents’ divorce, combined with pressure from her partner and a struggle to adapt to a strange new place all combined to make Shelley feel quite lonely and disillusioned with the state of her life. And she didn’t want to feel that way.
After a while, she decided to give therapy a try and got in touch with a local psychoanalyst. She spent a couple of years in therapy and found the experience very positive and enriching. She said, “To know yourself better is to know everyone else better.”
A Painful Breakup
Things were starting to look up for Shelley toward the end of the ’70s. Not only had her therapy helped her overcome some of the negative feelings she’d been experiencing, but she’d also been given a lead role in the new Stanley Kubrick film The Shining.
Sadly, all her positivity was about to come crumbling down in a big way. Just before she boarded a flight to London to start work on The Shining, Paul Simon announced that he was breaking up with her. He’d fallen in love with Shelley’s friend, actress Carrie Fisher, who would later marry Simon.
A Lot of Tears
After losing her boyfriend just before the start of a big acting job, Shelley found herself back in a very dark place. She recalls crying all the way across the Atlantic on her flight to London to start filming, and more tears were still to come.
The Shining would end up one of Shelley’s most memorable movie roles. However, making the movie was a terrible ordeal for the actress, and in one interview, she even compared it to the Vietnam War. “That was a life experience like the Vietnam War probably was for veterans,” she said.
A Long Production
Stanley Kubrick was well-known as a highly methodical director who took great pride in his work and went to painstaking lengths to ensure that every scene and every shot were just right. That meant the production of The Shining dragged on and on.
In fact, the main shoot took a year to complete, with many scenes repeated over and over again. In addition, the cast had to work long hours, with Duvall calling it “grueling—six days a week, 12- to 16-hour days, half an hour off for lunch, for a year and one month.”
Isolated and Abused
In order to get his cast to deliver the most authentic and visceral performances possible, Stanley Kubrick put the leads, Shelley Duvall and Jack Nicholson, under immense pressure. His treatment of Duvall in particular was said to be very cruel, with Kubrick intentionally antagonizing and isolating the actress.
On the set, Kubrick and Duvall argued frequently, but Kubrick kept up the pressure, always trying to squeeze more and more out of her. He even made her repeat the famous baseball bat scene 127 times so by the end, she was utterly exhausted and could barely hold the bat any longer.
Mixed Views on Kubrick
When asked about her time working with Stanley Kubrick, Shelley has given different answers over the years. Clearly, she was hurt and traumatized by the experience, even revealing that she presented Kubrick with clumps of her own hair that had fallen out due to the stress of making the movie.
However, on several occasions, Shelley has also complimented Kubrick’s approach, saying that his methods were part of “the genius of Stanley Kubrick. He gets it out of you. But it was very tough and grueling.”
An Unforgettable Performance
Putting the unethical nature of Kubrick’s methods aside, The Shining eventually came out and received rave reviews. At first, Duvall’s performance was criticized, and she was even nominated for a “Golden Raspberry” award. However, opinions on her performance soon changed.
As time went by, many critics and casual movie lovers alike agreed that Duvall’s incarnation of the terrorized and terrified Wendy Torrance was one of the film’s strongest aspects. Nowadays, her performance in the film is regarded as one of the greatest in horror film history.
Something Totally Different
While Duvall was in London working on The Shining, her old pal Robert Altman offered her a part in a very different kind of motion picture. He was making a live action version of Popeye with Robin Williams in the lead role. Altman thought Duvall would be perfect for the part of Olive Oyl.
At first, Duvall was hesitant to accept the part. She had been teased as a child due to her physical resemblance to Olive Oyl and didn’t necessarily want to relive those experiences all over again. However, in the end, she decided to accept the part.
A Much More Pleasant Experience
After going through such a grueling experience with Stanley Kubrick, Duvall was happy to reunite with Robert Altman and work on Popeye, a much more lighthearted and pleasant picture. She also developed a friendship with her co-star, Robin Williams.
Duvall was rewarded for her hard work with critical acclaim and positive reviews. Famed critic Roger Ebert wrote of Duvall, “Shelley Duvall is like a precious piece of china with a tinkling personality. She looks and sounds like almost nobody else.”
Moving into Production
After Popeye, Shelley Duvall played the role of Pansy in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. However, as the ’80s went on, she began to slowly step away from acting and into more of a producer’s role. She’d always wanted to see what it was like to have more control over a film or TV series.
She became the executive producer and the host of the children’s TV show Faerie Tale Theatre and starred in seven episodes of the show. Duvall got the idea for the program while reading a copy of The Frog Prince on the set of Popeye and wondering how Robin Williams would interpret the role of the prince.
The Kindhearted Producer
Shelley really enjoyed her work producing Faerie Tale Theatre and loved being able to create her own stories and have control over things such as casting decisions. She went on to produce a series called Tall Tales & Legends and even got herself an Emmy nomination for her work on the show.
She also became known for being a kind and generous producer, always willing to give unknown writers and creators a chance. In an interview, she revealed, “People will go, ‘What has that person written before?’ but I’ll go, ‘Let me read it!’ Everybody has to start somewhere.”
Inspiration from Altman
Shelley later credited Robert Altman for helping her forge her own production style and approach to project management. She always liked how Altman got the cast and crew involved in the process rather than taking total control.
Because of her gentle and inclusive approach, she was favorably compared with the likes of Walt Disney and enjoyed more success when she set up her own production company, Think Entertainment, in order to make movies and shows for cable channels. With Think, she made other series, including Nightmare Classics, and Shelley Duvall’s Bedtime Stories.
A New Love
Not only were things looking up for Shelley in her professional life, but she was also becoming happier in her personal life. In 1989, she met musician Dan Gilroy, famed as the lead singer of Breakfast Club.
Duvall and Gilroy met while working as co-stars on Mother Goose Rock ‘n’ Rhyme. Even though Gilroy had little acting experience, Duvall thought he’d be perfect for the lead role. The pair quickly fell in love, moving in together and spending their nights watching TV and painting canvases side by side.
A Full and Busy Life
Thanks to her new relationship and her burgeoning production work, Shelley was living a full and happy life in the ’80s. She had lots of plans at the time, from more film and TV projects to children’s books and even a line of toddler’s clothing she wanted to make.
In fact, she did so much work related to children that many people wondered why she didn’t have any of her own. In an interview, she revealed that while she loves children, she simply never had the time for one of her own, saying, “I’d rather freeze an egg than have a child right now. There’s just too much to do.”
A Lack of Acting
Even though Shelley was doing a lot of production work, her acting career had started to stagnate a little. Producer Lou Adler even said that her focus on production had damaged her acting career, saying that she “could have had a more prolific acting career” without it.
Adler said that after The Shining, Duvall was one of the most in-demand actresses in Hollywood, but she missed out on certain roles and opportunities because of her move into production. Still, she was very happy with what she was doing and had hopes of reviving her acting career later on.
Sporadic Roles in the ’80s and ’90s
Shelley Duvall’s acting career never quite reached the heights of her heyday in the late ’70s and early ’80s, even though she did finally return to acting and start to make some sporadic appearances here and there after the mid-’80s.
She appeared in the likes of Roxanne with Steve Martin, Suburban Commando with Hulk Hogan in 1991, and other ’90s films such as The Underneath and The Portrait of a Lady. Some of these films were successful, but Shelley never quite got the same reviews and reactions and slowly slipped into more minor roles.
Retiring in 2002
By the turn of the millennium, Shelley wasn’t doing a lot of acting anymore. She’d appeared in a mixture of films, from the family-friendly Casper Meets Wendy to the horror film The 4th Floor, but she was slowly moving away from acting all together, and in 2002, she formally retired.
Her final acting appearance was in the 2002 independent movie Manna from Heaven, a comedic fable in which Shelley played a detective. After 32 years in the world of acting and show business, Shelley Duvall retreated from public life.
A Private Life
In the years following her final film appearance, people saw very little of Shelley Duvall and didn’t know much about what she was doing, where she was living, or even if she was still in a relationship with her partner, Dan Gilroy.
It seemed that she might become one of the many former celebrities who shun the spotlight as they get older and live out their lives away from cameras and tabloid headlines. However, years later, Shelley’s name was once again on the TV screen, but in a very different light than anything her fans had seen before.
The Dr. Phil Interview
In 2016, fans of Shelley Duvall and lovers of her work in films such as The Shining and Popeye were surprised to see that the former actress had been invited to an episode of Dr. Phil to sit down and talk with the host about her mental health troubles.
Dr. Phil, otherwise known as Phil McGraw, is a TV personality and psychology expert with a long history of speaking to celebrities and helping those who struggle with all sorts of issues, from addiction to abuse. However, his interview with Shelley Duvall was one of his most controversial moments.
What Happened to Shelley Duvall?
The interview between Dr. Phil and Shelley Duvall shocked fans around the world. Not only did Shelley look drastically different than how she had last been seen on-screen, she was also clearly exhibiting signs of mental illness.
During the exchange, Shelley made several bizarre and disturbing claims. At one point, she revealed a mole on her shoulder and threatened to kill Dr. Phil if he tried to take it off, as well as saying that she thought Robin Williams was still alive, living as a “shapeshifter.”
Courting Controversy for Exploitation
Not only were audiences shocked by the interview, but many were disgusted and appalled with Dr. Phil for airing it in the first place. Many famous faces accused the TV host of exploiting Duvall for entertainment purposes.
Actress Mia Farrow tweeted about the episode, saying that there should be laws to stop “TV talk show predators” from exploiting people with mental illness. She encouraged fans to boycott the show. Ronan Farrow shared similar tweets, and Vivian Kubrick, daughter of Stanley Kubrick, wrote an open letter to Dr. Phil, criticizing his decision.
Dr. Phil Offered to Help
In spite of the controversy, there were some positives in the Dr. Phil episode. Dr. Phil offered Shelley some free treatment, saying that he would take her to see the best doctors he could find.
However, Shelley refused to sign any of the papers and accept the treatment. Dr. Phil later said that he’d arranged for some local professionals to treat Shelley at home using “alternative methods to treat her” instead of medication since she refused to take any pills.
A Director Tracked Her Down
Many people were shocked by Shelley’s appearance on Dr. Phil, and one person was even moved to track her down and find out more about what was really going on in her life. That man was Lee Unkrich, director of Toy Story 2 and a big fan of Duvall’s work.
In 2018, Unkrich managed to track Duvall down. He arrived at her home in Texas with a bunch of photos taken during the production of The Shining. Unkrich discovered that Shelley did, indeed, have mental health troubles, but she was still capable of holding conversations, talking about her career, and showing great pride in all she’d accomplished.
Setting the Record Straight
Inspired by Lee Unkrich, journalist Seth Abramovitch with The Hollywood Reporter also decided to track down Duvall and have an interview with her in 2021. Abramovitch stated that it “didn’t feel right for McGraw’s insensitive sideshow to be the final word on her legacy.”
He managed to find Shelley who was still living in a small town in Texas Hill Country. Now in her 70s, Duvall was able to use the interview to set the record straight and tell her story in her own words, showing a different side to what viewers had seen on Dr. Phil.
Her Eyes Still Sparkle
In the interview, Abramovitch stated that even though Duvall’s voice had changed and her physical appearance wasn’t entirely the same as it once was, her eyes still sparkled, “and her toothy grin is warm and familiar.” He also stated that she is much sharper and smarter than she had seemed on Dr. Phil.
In the interview, Duvall revealed that she regretted meeting with Dr. Phil, saying that her mother “didn’t like him.” Her partner, Dan Gilroy, said, “You shouldn’t have done that, Shelley.” Duvall summed it up by saying, “I found out the kind of person he is the hard way.”
Still Enjoying Life
From The Hollywood Reporter interview, we learn that Shelley Duvall may have her problems, but she is still living life as fully as she can. She’s still with her partner, Dan, and is surrounded by friendly and protective people in her Texas community.
She also has many good memories of her film and TV career, looking back fondly on some of the things she accomplished and even having some kind words to say about Stanley Kubrick. And since the Dr. Phil interview, several other friends from her past have reached out to show their love for her.
A Wonderful Performer and a Lively Soul
Shelley Duvall’s career may not have turned out exactly as fans may have imagined, and it’s clear that she may have some personal demons to deal with and mental health troubles to overcome, but her legacy can never be forgotten.
Through films like 3 Women, Popeye, and The Shining, as well as her wonderful production work and amazing efforts in children’s programming, she made a lot of people happy. She channeled all her energy and creativity into amazing things that made the world a better place, and for that, she deserves the utmost respect and admiration.