At first glance, it’s easy to see why Shelley Duvall is sometimes described as a larger-than-life Raggedy Ann. With her big brown eyes, reddish hair, and pinafore dresses, the comparison seems a natural. But when Duvall speaks, it is not with the singsongy tones of a pull-the-string doll that her appearance might lead you to expect or the practiced phrases of the dealmaker she has become. ”I think a person has to do things naturally,” Duvall says, in the lilting warm cadences of a born-and-bred Texan. ”Instinctively.”
As chairman and CEO of Studio City, Calif.-based Think Entertainment, the 42-year-old actress, best known for her performances as Olive Oyl in Robert Altman’s Popeye and Jack Nicholson’s timid wife in The Shining, is in the midst of writing three children’s books and plans to produce a Saturday- morning TV show. And at the end of this month, Duvall will be seen in Frogs, a WonderWorks production on PBS.
With her newest series, Shelley Duvall’s Bedtime Stories, Duvall tackles two new arenas: animation and modern children’s stories. To narrate her animated versions of contemporary children’s books, Duvall has assembled such high-profile performers as Bette Midler, John Candy, and Bonnie Raitt. In the May 19 episode, Martin Short gives voice to Carol and Donald Carrick’s Patrick’s Dinosaurs and What Happened to Patrick’s Dinosaurs.
Duvall’s first series for Showtime, the 26 episodes of Faerie Tale Theatre (1982-85), set the creative standard for all future Duvall productions and brought the actress-turned-producer clout in Hollywood. The series humorously updated storybook classics by casting celebrities in key roles: Robin Williams as the Frog Prince, Tatum O’Neal as Goldilocks, Paul ”Pee-wee Herman” Reubens as Pinocchio. Faerie Tale was followed by two more series for Showtime: the American-folk-tale-based Shelley Duvall’s Tall Tales and Legends (1985-1987), and the adult horror anthology Nightmare Classics (1988). Then came the 90-minute musical Mother Goose Rock ‘n Rhyme for the Disney Channel in 1990. Who else but Duvall could cast former beau Paul Simon as Simple Simon? (And then walk off into the sunset as Bo-Peep with current boyfriend Dan Gilroy, who played Gordon Goose in the show.)
Duvall was 20 and taking science classes at the now defunct South Texas Junior College in Houston when she was discovered by director Robert Altman. Lou Adler, who was executive producer on Duvall’s first film for Altman, Brewster McCloud (1970), remembers that ”she had more energy than a hurricane. She was all eyes. And very thin.” Adler is the executive producer of the Hello, I’m Shelley Duvall series (Duvall has sung on three albums so far) on his Ode 2 Kids music label. Adler says that his longtime friend has ”always been curious. The only difference between her then and now is that she tries to get the rights to everything she’s curious about.”
Growing up in Texas, Duvall aspired to be a research scientist. ”I’m still a chemist,” Duvall says. ”Only now I’m putting human elements together instead of the elements.” To Duvall, the camera is a powerful microscope. Through its magnifying lens you can see the darnedest things.