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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."

Since her grades had dropped and the family didn't have much money anyway, Shelley attended the now-defunct South Texas Junior College in Houston, taking every science class offered. "But I dropped out," says Duvall, "after somebody held a vivisected monkey in front of my face."

If she didn't become a research scientist, at least she learned the scientific method. "Chemistry," she says, "has really paid off in terms of knowing logistics. How do you accomplish a project? Think of somewhere to start and then, like dominoes, knock 'em (the tasks) down one by one. I found out I had a knack for it, I guess."

Indeed, when she was "discovered" in Houston, it wasn't because of her acting ability, but for her business acumen. She was giving a party where fiance Bernard Sampson (they married in 1970, divorced in 1974) was showing his artwork, and three crew members of the Robert Altman film "Brewster McCloud" happened to be in attendance. Intrigued by Duvall's offbeat looks and hyper-enthusiasm, they invited her to bring Sampson's work to a supposed gathering of "art patrons," which was really a surreptitious casting call with Altman and producer Lou Adler in attendance.

"As I remember," says Adler, executive producer of Duvall's children's albums, "the paintings weren't great--but her sales pitch was. 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."

Shelley remembers her outfit that day--patched blue jeans, a Mexican blouse, bells around her waist--and the feeling of dread when Bert Remsen, one of Altman's de facto repertory company, who was also serving as "Brewster" casting director, asked if she would like to appear in a movie. "I thought, 'Uh oh, a porno movie, my mom's going to kill me!' " Duvall remembers.

Nonetheless, she let them take a Polaroid, gave them the number of her father's law firm, and the rest is film history. Shelley was typecast as a birdlike Astrodome tour guide in "Brewster" ("One of my nicknames in school was Sparrowlegs"), and went on to become an essential constellation in the Altman universe, appearing in six other films--"McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "Thieves Like Us," "Nashville," "Buffalo Bill and the Indians," "Three Women" and "Popeye."

After she did "Thieves," the director dubbed her a "great" actress, and she began to think of herself as more than just someone who had lucked into a fabulous career. "That was a very, very"--she sighs quietly--"emotional moment for me. I guess it gave me the confidence to think I could go out and work for other directors as well."

The only problem was that, at first, other directors didn't call. She started to break away in 1975, when Joan Micklin Silver tapped her to play the lead in the PBS version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," and Duvall proved she wasn't a one-director fluke. Then, in 1976, she went to New York to do a cameo in "Annie Hall." She returned to California to film "Three Women," in what proved to be a breakthrough role. In the film, she created the pitifully eager-to-please Millie Lamoureaux, and since Altman started the picture with only 14 pages of script, Duvall spent lunch breaks skimming through the latest issues of Woman's Day and Apartment Life in order to extract dialogue. That's where she came up with the mouth-watering menu--pigs in a blanket, Sociables and Cheez Whiz, shrimp cocktail in a jar, s'mores--for the movie's infamous no-show dinner party scene. Her performance earned Duvall the best actress award at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival. Being called a "young Katharine Hepburn" by critic Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice, was no small ego boost either.

She had met Paul Simon when she was in New York, and after finishing "Three Women," she came back to Manhattan to live with him for the next two years.

"He was just so funny and intelligent and charming," says Duvall about the singer, with whom she has remained friends. But he didn't understand her perpetual youthfulness and tried to prod her into a more "adult" style. "Paul said, 'You dress like a kid, a little kid,' and I thought, 'He's right, I do.' I started losing confidence, so I went out and spent way too much money on clothes."

She switched from home-dyed painters' coveralls to Armani and Maud Frizon, and picked up a high falutin' New York lifestyle to match. As she told Cosmopolitan in a 1981 profile, "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."

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