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."