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SHELLEY DUVALL GROWS UP : There's a Lot of the Kid Left in the Tenacious Producer Who Put Cable on the Map and Breathed New Life into Children's TV

December 15, 1991|MICHELE KORT | Michele Kort is the associate editor of UCLA Magazine. She writes frequently about women 's sports; her favorite fairy tale is "Peter Pan."

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.

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