Shelley Duvall, 75


Shelley Duvall, the saucer-eyed, rail-thin waif who starred in seven films directed by her mentor, Robert Altman, and avoided the ax wielded by an unhinged Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, died Thursday. She was 75.

Duvall died in her sleep of complications from diabetes at her home in Blanco, Texas, Dan Gilroy, her life partner since 1989, told The Hollywood Reporter.

“My dear, sweet, wonderful life partner and friend left us. Too much suffering lately, now she’s free. Fly away, beautiful Shelley,” Gilroy said.

In November 2016, a disheveled Duvall appeared on an episode of the syndicated talk show Dr. Phil and revealed that she was suffering from mental illness. “I am very sick. I need help,” she said. Four years later, THR‘s Seth Abramovitch visited her for a memorable story.

Before she fled Hollywood for her native Texas in the mid-1990s, Duvall had a thriving career as a versatile, one-of-a-kind actress and head of her own production company, Think Entertainment, which created star-studded, innovative children’s programming for cable television that netted her two Emmy Award nominations.

While attending junior college in her hometown of Houston, Duvall was discovered by Altman staff members and talked into taking a screen test. She then made her onscreen debut as teenage seductress and Astrodome tour guide Suzanne Davis in Brewster McCloud (1970).

A decade later, Duvall sang and starred opposite Robin Williams as the iconic comic-strip character Olive Oyl, the strong-willed damsel in distress, in Altman’s live-action adaptation of Popeye.

In between, the childlike star collaborated with Altman as a mail-order bride in McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971); as the woman who has a Mississippi romance with bank robber Keith Carradine in Thieves Like Us (1974); as the groupie L.A. Joan, fond of hot pants and platform shoes, in Nashville (1975); as the wife of President Grover Cleveland in Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976); and as Millie Lamoureaux, a fantasizing attendant at a Palm Springs health spa for the elderly, in 3 Women (1977).

Asked by The New York Times in 1977 why she chose to keep working with Altman, she said: “He offers me damn good roles. None of them have been alike. He has a great confidence in me, and a trust and respect for me, and he doesn’t put any restrictions on me or intimidate me, and I love him.

“I remember the first advice he ever gave me: ‘Don’t take yourself seriously.’ Sometimes I find myself feeling self-centered, and then all of a sudden that bit of advice will pop into my head and I’ll laugh.”

Altman once noted that Duvall “was able to swing all sides of the pendulum: charming, silly, sophisticated, pathetic, even beautiful.”

She won the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for portraying Millie.

For the film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, Duvall said she was put to the test during the 13-month shoot in England. In the horror classic, she plays the besieged wife Wendy Torrance, who spends a harsh winter at the desolate Overlook Hotel with her writer husband (Nicholson) — who slowly goes mad — and their young son (Danny Lloyd).

Kubrick had her “crying 12 hours a day for weeks on end,” she said in a 1981 interview with People magazine. “I will never give that much again. If you want to get into pain and call it art, go ahead, but not with me.”

Before a scene, she told Abramovitch in January 2021, she would put on a Sony Walkman and “listen to sad songs. Or you just think about something very sad in your life or how much you miss your family or friends. But after a while, your body rebels. It says: ‘Stop doing this to me. I don’t want to cry every day.’ And sometimes just that thought alone would make me cry. To wake up on a Monday morning, so early, and realize that you had to cry all day because it was scheduled — I would just start crying. I’d be like, ‘Oh no, I can’t, I can’t.’ And yet I did it. I don’t know how I did it. Jack said that to me, too. He said, ‘I don’t know how you do it.’”

One report said that she was forced to perform her iconic scene with the baseball bat an exhausting 127 times.

Shelley Duvall with Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining.’

Courtesy Everett Collection

Memorable every time she showed up onscreen, Duvall also portrayed a spacy rock journalist in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977); appeared as Pansy in funny scenes with Michael Palin in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981); and played Steve Martin’s supportive pal Dixie in Roxanne (1987).

Roger Ebert wrote in 1980 that Duvall “looks and sounds like almost nobody else … and has possibly played more really different kinds of characters than almost any other young actress of the 1970s.

“In all of her roles, there is an openness about her, as if somehow nothing has come between her open face and our eyes — no camera, dialogue, makeup, method of acting — and she is just spontaneously being the character.”

She returned to acting in 2022 after two decades away with a role in The Forest Hills.

Shelley Alexis Duvall was born in Fort Worth on July 7, 1949, the oldest of four children (and the only daughter). Her parents, Bob, a cattle auctioneer turned attorney, and her mother, Bobbie, a realtor, brought the family to Houston when she was 5. She attended South Texas Junior College, where she studied to be a research scientist and was interested in nutrition.

At a party she threw for her fiancé, artist Bernard Sampson, she met members of Altman’s crew while they were in town filming Brewster McCloud. They brought her to meet the director and producer Lou Adler, and they offered the gawky, 20-year-old with an overbite a role in the movie.

Duvall, who had never traveled outside of Texas, turned them down at first but then agreed to take a screen test. “I got tired of arguing and thought, ‘Maybe I am an actress,’ ” she said.

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Shelley Duvall in Robert Altman’s ‘Thieves Like Us.’

Courtesy Everett Collection

Her résumé would go on to include F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Bernice Bobs Her Hair (1976) for PBS, Frankenweenie (1984), Changing Habits (1997), Home Fries (1998), Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady (1996), Suburban Commando (1991) and, in her last acting appearance for a while, Manna From Heaven (2002).

In 1981, Duvall recorded Sweet Dreams, an album of music for children, and a year later, Showtime bought her pitch that turned into 26 episodes of the Peabody Award-winning Faerie Tale Theatre, which she executive produced, narrated and appeared on.

Three years later, she created Tall Tales & Legends, a one-hour anthology series, also for Showtime, that featured adaptations of American folk tales.

On both shows, Duvall persuaded A-listers like Williams, Teri Garr, Eric Idle, Jeff Bridges, Mick Jagger, Liza Minnelli and Vanessa Redgrave to work for scale. Both series also were big sellers on video.

In 1987, she launched Think Entertainment, which specialized in family entertainment like Shelley Duvall’s Bedtime Stories (featuring the likes of Bette Midler, Michael J. Fox and Dudley Moore reciting classic children’s tales) and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and she produced telefilms including ABC’s Backfield in Motion, starring Roseanne and Tom Arnold.

Duvall married Sampson during the filming of Brewster McCloud, but they divorced after four years in 1974, soon after they arrived in Los Angeles.

She later dated musician Paul Simon, whom she met in New York around the time of Annie Hall (he also had a cameo in the movie). They lived together on Central Park West until he left her for her friend, Carrie Fisher. (She said he broke the news to her as she was about to board the Concorde to London to work on The Shining, and she cried during the entire flight.)

Duvall also lived with Stan Wilson, who played Oscar the barber in Popeye, before meeting singer-drummer Gilroy, a member of the pop group Breakfast Club who had been Madonna’s boyfriend. They fell for each other after starring in the 1990 Disney Channel movie Mother Goose Rock ‘n’ Rhyme.

Survivors include her brothers, Scott, Stewart and Shane.

Seth Abramovitch contributed to this report.



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