Searching for Shelley Duvall: The Reclusive Icon on Fleeing Hollywood and the Scars of Making ‘The Shining’
After leaving L.A., and making only one public appearance since, on a widely condemned mental illness episode of 'Dr. Phil,' the complicated actress sat down for a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter about her legacy and the trauma of the Stanley Kubrick film.
Out on the tranquil banks of a river in Texas Hill Country, Shelley Duvall pulls up in a white Toyota 4Runner. Her favorite place to sit is in the driver’s seat. It’s also the only place to sit: The rest of the car is filled from floor to roof with a crush of acquisitions, including a bucket of plastic silverware, a jar of Green Giant sliced mushrooms and a bouquet of silk roses. Duvall, 71, passes entire days in her car, chatting with locals and snacking on takeout food. She shares a home in the area with Dan Gilroy, 76, a member of the early Madonna band Breakfast Club. Gilroy was briefly romantically linked to the singer but has been with Duvall since 1989, the two having fallen in love while co-starring in the Disney Channel movie Mother Goose Rock ‘n’ Rhyme. Produced by Duvall, it featured an all-star cast (including Duvall’s former boyfriend Paul Simon) and has become an abiding cultural touchstone among millennials.
There’s little chance that any passersby would recognize Duvall as Little Bo Peep from that movie — or, for that matter, as Wendy Torrance from The Shining, the part for which she is best known. Her hair has thinned and grayed, her breathy, Minnie Mouse voice gone gravelly (she chain-smokes Parliaments) and her trademark stick figure — the one she used to full advantage playing Olive Oyl in Robert Altman’s Popeye — has filled out. But there are tells. Her eyes still sparkle, even from a distance. And her toothy grin is warm and familiar.
Duvall arrives making jokes and raving about the cherry scones at the cafe next door. A waitress skips down the steps with one in hand and passes it to her through the car window. “Heaven,” Duvall says as she takes a bite. Later, the waitress, Kristina Keller, a 50-something with a Texas twang, pulls me aside. “I’m not sure who you are,” she says. “But out here amongst these rural Hill Country communities, we look out for each other and we take care of each other. Does that make sense?”
The locals are fond of Duvall, to them more of an eccentric aunt than faded movie star. They’re also protective of her — particularly since 2016, when Phil McGraw and his Dr. Phil crew descended on the town to shoot a disturbing interview with Duvall, during which she babbled free-associative nonsense and disclosed paranoid fantasies. (Among them, she insisted her Popeye co-star Robin Williams, who died by suicide in 2014 after suffering from delusions, was still alive and “a shapeshifter.”) The episode was met with near-universal condemnation of Dr. Phil. “Everybody was appalled,” Keller recalls. “It just came across as craven and sensational.”
For Duvall’s many fans — and even her closest Hollywood friends — that shocking Dr. Phil appearance was the first they’d seen or heard from her since she fled Hollywood during the mid-1990s. The circumstances around that move remain unclear. She was at that point coming off a run as a highly successful and prolific producer who’d trailblazed cable TV with her offbeat approach to children’s programming. It all began with Faerie Tale Theatre, a very ahead-of-its-time anthology series that ran from 1982 to 1987 and saw major stars like Mick Jagger, Jeff Bridges and Carrie Fisher performing in classic stories directed by the likes of Tim Burton and Francis Ford Coppola. Every aspect of the show was overseen by Duvall.
Among those watching Dr. Phil that day was Lee Unkrich, the director of such Oscar-winning Pixar films as Toy Story 3 and Coco. Unkrich, 53, also is the world’s foremost Shining aficionado and is currently putting the final touches on a Taschen book about the making of the Stanley Kubrick horror classic. He had been searching for Duvall for years, to no avail; what he saw dismayed him. “Unfortunately, on Dr. Phil, the world saw what it’s like to have untreated mental illness,” Unkrich says. It’s the enduring stigma around it, he adds, “that has helped make Shelley mostly forgotten by Hollywood.”
Undaunted, Unkrich continued his search for Duvall, whose location was never disclosed by the Dr. Phil show. He finally located her in Texas two years ago and made a pilgrimage to show her a trove of Shining photos from Kubrick’s archive: “I was really curious to see how she would react and the stories that it might draw out of her.” Unkrich was pleased to find that the Duvall on Dr. Phil was just one part of a bigger picture. Yes, she could be gripped by anxiety attacks or meander into unsettling descriptions of alien-surveillance programs. But she also could converse for long, coherent stretches and conjure up the slightest details about her life and of her career, of which she remains very proud.
I made the same pilgrimage to meet Duvall on a warm January morning in 2021, unsure of what I would find when I got there. I only knew that it didn’t feel right for McGraw’s insensitive sideshow to be the final word on her legacy. Her mood ebbed and flowed throughout the day, but, like Unkrich, I found her memory to be sharp and her stories engrossing.
At one point, as I stood a pandemic-safe distance from her car window grilling her about Altman and Kubrick and her Shining co-star Jack Nicholson, Duvall narrowed her gaze and asked, “What’s your angle?” The question — pointed and savvy — made me laugh. It was clear she could still play the game, rendering me a little tongue-tied in the process.
Apart from her two decades in Hollywood, Duvall has spent her life in the same 200-mile Texas radius. She was born in Fort Worth on July 7, 1949, to Bob and Bobbie Duvall. After having three more children, all boys, the couple eventually settled in Houston. Her father was a cattle auctioneer who later became a criminal lawyer. Her mother was a successful real estate agent. “She founded her own company in Houston — Space City Realty,” Duvall notes proudly. “NASA was just being built.” Duvall’s father died in 1995 at age 74; her mother died only last March after contracting the COVID-19 virus. “Just after she turned 92,” she says. “That was a big one.” As for her three younger brothers, Scott, Shane and Stewart, “I don’t know where they are. They’re always off doing something. Shane’s on a fishing boat. Stewart sings with a friend of his named Mitch. Classic, huh?”
In high school, Duvall was a straight-A student who envisioned one day becoming a scientist. Around the 11th grade, however, her grades began to slip as she discovered a taste for boys — she dated a long-haired greaser who drove a Mustang — and developed an iconoclastic style (white go-go boots, a pageboy haircut and giant false eyelashes). Her science dreams ended when she dropped out of South Texas Junior College in Houston after witnessing a monkey vivisection. “So I went to work at Foley’s department store. Ladies would come up to the counter, and I’d tie scarves for them and show them how to look pretty. I’d come home smelling like a lily,” she says, puffing on a cigarette. “And I did some modeling — not much.” It was enough, however, to introduce her to her first (and only) husband — a pretty, long-haired artist named Bernard Sampson. “We met at a benefit for the astronauts that crashed,” Duvall remembers, referring to the 1967 Apollo 1 disaster. “I was modeling a Rudi Gernreich bathing suit, the kind with the cutouts.”
It was in service of Sampson’s career that Duvall made the contact that would change her life. They were living at Sampson’s parents’ house at the time, and Duvall threw a party there in the hope of selling some of his works and making enough money to move out. Among the attendees were three crewmembers of Brewster McCloud, Altman’s follow-up to his 1970 comedy hit M*A*S*H. Taken with Duvall’s looks and amused by her enthusiastic sales pitch, they played along, telling her to bring the paintings over to a couple of “art patrons” — what actually was a covert audition for Altman and Lou Adler, his producer.
Wearing an embroidered Mexican blouse and patched blue jeans with bells tied to her waist, a stack of paintings tucked under her arm, Duvall was dropped off by her mom at a building in downtown Houston. “She had the most amazing amount of energy I’d ever seen in anyone. She looked like a flower,” Adler would later say. At first, she thought she’d stumbled into a porn shoot. But after they convinced her of Altman’s bona fides, she submitted to a Polaroid test and, later, at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s request, a screen test shot in the rose garden near the Houston Zoo. “I was leaning on this statue of a male angel,” Duvall recalls, peering out through her windshield, as if the scene was playing out in front of her. “It’s still there — the bronze statue and the rose garden. And I got the part.”
That first role in Brewster McCloud — she played a birdlike Houston Astrodome tour guide in the strange, ornithological fantasy — led to a fruitful collaborative partnership with Altman, who cast her in six more of his films: McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Thieves Like Us (1974), Nashville (1975), Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976), 3 Women (1977) and Popeye (1980). By Thieves, Duvall had graduated to star billing, playing Keechie, a garage owner’s daughter in Depression-era Mississippi who falls for an escaped convict, played by Keith Carradine. “What she was doing in Altman movies like Thieves was just transcendent,” says Lily Tomlin, 81, who appeared with Duvall in Nashville. (Duvall played a preening country music groupie, Tomlin a gospel singer raising two deaf kids.) “She’s sitting on the porch drinking a Coke in a swing, and Keith Carradine is coming on to her, and she’s so innocent. The way she played that — so sweet and funny and heartbreaking. It just killed me.” Like so many others, Tomlin long ago lost touch with Duvall. “I tried to find her for a minute when I first heard that she was gone off some place. I think I had a [project] idea for her at the time,” Tomlin says. “But I didn’t really put a lot of sweat into it. I wish I had now.”
It was Thieves Like Us that led Altman to pull Duvall aside and tell her she was “a great actress,” which gave her the confidence to envision working with other directors. She enjoyed her first taste of the limelight around then. “Lou Adler had me fly to L.A.,” she says, “and I did an interview with the L.A. Times. Charles Champlin — he was the head of the Sunday entertainment section — wrote an incredible story. The picture took up half the page, and the headline was, ‘Don’t Ever Change.’ ” In 1974, Duvall and Sampson, married since 1970, decided to relocate to L.A. for her career, moving into a “tiny little cabin over a one-car garage” near the Griffith Park Observatory. Their marriage did not last the year.
The film business, after several decades of decline, was radically reinventing itself as the auteur-driven, anti-formulaic “New Hollywood.” And Duvall, as the idiosyncratic muse to one of the movement’s most admired directors, was sweetly positioned at the center of this creative whirlwind. She befriended Carol Kane, who proposed they pay a visit to an actor friend’s house. “She took me over there, and I met Jack [Nicholson] and Roman Polanski,” Duvall says. Warren Beatty also was there, but she already had met him on the set of McCabe & Mrs. Miller. “It wasn’t a party. They were just waiting for the basketball game to start.” It would be five more years before Duvall and Nicholson would face off in what would become a career calling card for both of them. But her first impression of her future co-star was that Nicholson was “funny and charming and smart and interesting to talk to — like all the men in that circle of friends.”
Duvall recalls those early L.A. days as “fun but quiet,” as the calls from other directors never seemed to come. “I did begin to meet interesting people,” she says. “There was a whole group of starving actors that had parties. Each person would bring a dish of food.” There also were fancier affairs held at the homes of players like Superman director Richard Donner, thrown “just to look at the young actresses and actors. Some became famous. Like, there was this carpenter guy who got a big job building a waterfall for the home of a studio executive. Every time the executive would have a party, everybody saw the waterfall.” The carpenter? Harrison Ford.
She went to New York City in 1976 for a small but memorable role in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (she played a Rolling Stone reporter who keeps calling the Maharishi “transplendent”). It was on that film that she met and began dating Paul Simon (he played a record producer in the movie). They then spent a few months apart while she worked on 3 Women for Altman, a dreamlike, avant-garde film — Altman said it had come to him fully formed in his sleep, cast included — that for Duvall would be a major breakthrough.
Filmed over six weeks in Palm Springs, it told the story of Millie Lammoreaux (Duvall), a clueless and vain health spa worker who takes a co-worker named Pinkie (played by Sissy Spacek, fresh off 1976’s Carrie) as a roommate. The two women then embark on a bizarre, co-dependent relationship. “We never knew where it was heading,” says Spacek, 71. “Every morning we would get pages for what we were shooting that day, and we always shot in sequence, which was just a wonderful thing.” Spacek describes Duvall as “an extraordinary” co-star. “She was funny, kind, everybody adored her. She was always prepared, always in good humor, and took her work really seriously.” The hard work paid off: Duvall’s performance dazzled critics. (“There is an openness about her,” Roger Ebert wrote. “As if somehow nothing has come between her open face and our eyes — no camera, dialogue, makeup, method of acting — and she is spontaneously being the character.”) Duvall won the best actress award at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival. “I was with her,” Spacek recalls. “It was amazing. She blew it out of the water.”
The climax of 3 Women is a graphic scene in which a feckless Millie is forced to deliver a stillborn baby as Pinkie looks on, defying Millie’s pleas to fetch a doctor. There is a raw, unnerving horror to it — and it convinced Kubrick to cast Duvall as the wife in his adaptation of a Stephen King novel set in a haunted hotel in the Colorado Rockies. She got the offer in a call from Kubrick himself (“He said I was great at crying”), whom she had never met. There was no script; he sent her a copy of King’s novel, The Shining, and told her to read it.
Duvall was living with Simon in Manhattan at the time. “I was at a really scary scene, and I didn’t hear Paul come in. He snuck up behind and went, ‘Bla!‘ I went, ‘Ahhh!‘ I got really mad at him. I said, ‘Why did you do that?’ ” Though they had been living together for two years, they had been growing apart. A month later, on New Year’s Day 1979, as Duvall was about to board a Concorde jet to London to begin filming The Shining, Simon broke up with her at the airport. She cried for the entire journey across the Atlantic — what, it turns out, would be just a warm-up for the emotional marathon that lay ahead. When she arrived in London, Kubrick met his star with his daughter Vivian in tow. “We had a nice dinner, and that was it,” Duvall says. “The rest of the time we were at work.”
Where 3 Women took six weeks to shoot from start to finish, The Shining took 56. That was partly because of a fire at EMI Elstree Studios in February 1979 that badly damaged the Overlook Hotel set — at the time the largest ever constructed there — requiring it to be rebuilt. But it was mostly because of Kubrick’s famously exacting process. The schedule was grueling, with the director filming six days a week, up to 16 hours a day. For much of that time, Duvall needed to work herself up to a state of absolute hysteria playing the wife of a writer (Nicholson) who goes insane inside a snowed-in resort hotel, eventually trying to hack up his family with an axe. Unlike Nicholson, who rented a home in London that he shared with Anjelica Huston, his girlfriend at the time, Duvall rented a flat by the studio in Hertfordshire, where she lived for the length of the shoot with only a dog and two birds as companions. “Nobody does that,” says Huston, 69. “You go back and forth from London, even though you could get stuck in two-hour traffic going in and out. But Shelley did that for a good year and a half. She got herself an apartment and lived there because she was just terribly dedicated and didn’t want to shortchange herself or anyone else by not giving over fully to her commitment.”
Duvall says, “[Kubrick] doesn’t print anything until at least the 35th take. Thirty-five takes, running and crying and carrying a little boy, it gets hard. And full performance from the first rehearsal. That’s difficult.” Before a scene, 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.’ “
Asked whether she felt Kubrick had been unusually cruel or abusive to her in order to elicit her performance, as has been written, Duvall replies: “He’s got that streak in him. He definitely has that. But I think mostly because people have been that way to him at some time in the past. His first two films were Killer’s Kiss and The Killing.” I pressed her on what she meant by that: Was Kubrick more Jack Torrance than Dick Hallorann, the kindly chef played by Scatman Crothers? “No. He was very warm and friendly to me,” she says. “He spent a lot of time with Jack and me. He just wanted to sit down and talk for hours while the crew waited. And the crew would say, ‘Stanley, we have about 60 people waiting.’ But it was very important work.”
But as Huston remembers it, the director — and Nicholson — could be unduly rough on Duvall. “I got the feeling, certainly through what Jack was saying at the time, that Shelley was having a hard time just dealing with the emotional content of the piece,” she says. “And they didn’t seem to be all that sympathetic. It seemed to be a little bit like the boys were ganging up. That might have been completely my misread on the situation, but I just felt it. And when I saw her during those days, she seemed generally a bit tortured, shook up. I don’t think anyone was being particularly careful of her.” Still, Huston admits there is no denying the ferocious power of the final product. “She actually carried the movie on her back if you look at it,” Huston says. “Jack wavers between sort of comedic and terrifying, and Kubrick was Kubrick at his most mysterious, interesting and powerful. But it must have been something for her to be in the middle of that mix. And she took it on. She was, I think, incredibly brave.”
There is a sequence in The Shining that is in the Guinness World Records for “most retakes for one scene with dialogue.” The scene features Crothers and Danny Lloyd, the young actor who played Danny Torrance, discussing the ability to “shine,” a psychic gift that allows the boy to envision the hotel’s horrific past. Kubrick had the actors do it 148 times. But another far more demanding scene — the staircase scene — was shot 127 times. “It was a difficult scene, but it turned out to be one of the best scenes in the film,” Duvall says. “I’d like to watch the movie again. I haven’t seen it in a long time.”
At her suggestion, I google the scene, perch my iPhone on her dashboard and press play. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the experience of watching 71-year-old Duvall watching her 30-year-old self meekly swing a bat at Nicholson as he threatened to “bash [her] brains in.”
“Why are you crying?” I ask Duvall.
“Because we filmed that for about three weeks,” she replies. “Every day. It was very hard. Jack was so good — so damn scary. I can only imagine how many women go through this kind of thing.”
Why Duvall left behind the 3-acre hillside property she shared with Gilroy — along with 36 birds, eight dogs and two cats — in Studio City 27 years ago and resettled in Texas remains something of a mystery. (Gilroy declined to be interviewed for this story, and the couple asked that I not visit their home.) Intentionally or not, Duvall is adept at deflecting from the topic. There are rumors the Northridge earthquake on Jan. 17, 1994, which caused extensive damage to her house, was the final straw. I asked her whether that was true.
“Yeah. They wear you out, man,” she says.
“No, the people. Afterwards, it’s like FEMA, then the next guys, and the next guys. Engineers one day, insurance people the next. Sometimes at the same time …”
What’s clear is that Duvall came to Austin later that year to shoot a small part in The Underneath, a Steven Soderbergh crime drama. She was having financial issues at the time but is vague about what led to them. “It’s not just owning something that makes money,” she says. “You have to also control it. You have to make sure it’s a good deal.” She figured she’d do the film then head to Houston “because my mother said she might be able to help me. She said, ‘You know, you do so many things, why don’t … you do some art?’ And I kept thinking, ‘Yeah, Joni Mitchell gets $40,000 a painting. I might as well try.’ ” The paintings never materialized, but Duvall never left Texas. For the next two decades, she fell completely off the map.
That is until 2016, when she was contacted by a Dr. Phil producer. She grows visibly distressed at the mention of McGraw’s name. “I found out the kind of person he is the hard way,” Duvall says. “My mother didn’t like him, either. A lot of people, like Dan, said, ‘You shouldn’t have done that, Shelley.’ ” (She had submitted to the interview without Gilroy’s knowledge.) After the broadcast and ensuing backlash, McGraw made repeated attempts at contacting Duvall: “He started calling my mother. She told him, ‘Don’t call my daughter anymore.’ But he started calling my mother all the time trying to get her to let me talk to him again.”
(A spokesperson for the Dr. Phil show replies: “We view every Dr. Phil episode, including Miss Duvall and her struggle with mental illness, as an opportunity to share relatable, useful information and perspective with our audiences. We don’t attach the stigma associated with mental illness which many do. With no one else offering help, our goal was to document the struggle and bring amazing resources to change her trajectory as we have for so many over 19 years. Unfortunately, she declined our initial offer for inpatient treatment that would have included full physical and mental evaluations, giving her a chance to privately manage her challenges. After many months of follow-up, in collaboration with her mother, she ultimately refused assistance. We were of course very disappointed, but those offers for help remain open today.”)
In 2018, Duvall was paid a visit by Ryan Obermeyer, an artist from nearby Austin who grew up with Faerie Tale Theatre and was concerned for her welfare. “I brought a postcard of one of my paintings with my phone number on it and left it with Dan,” says Obermeyer, 39. “She called me 10 minutes later saying she’d love a visit.” That led to regular lunches and an unlikely friendship. Duvall had amassed from her career a collection of memorabilia — Kubrick had gifted her the “July 4th Ball — 1921” photo that serves as The Shining‘s closing shot — most of which has gone missing. Obermeyer suspects she failed to pay the rent on a storage locker and the contents were sold at auction. He found some of Duvall’s personal letters on eBay and bought them back for her. He also tries his best to connect Duvall to old friends. For example, in 2019, he facilitated a surprise FaceTime call with Paul Reubens, who played Pinocchio on Faerie Tale Theatre, for Duvall’s 70th birthday. To commemorate that milestone, Obermeyer also threw her a party at her favorite restaurant, Red Lobster, and invited a handful of her most die-hard fans. “One guy even came from Australia,” he says. “We had a ‘Faerie Tale’ cake.”
At one point during our time together, Duvall shares a childhood memory of Houston’s one and only snow day: “They let school out. Everybody couldn’t wait to get home. We all built snowmen in the front yard. The thing is, by the time we built the snowman, everything else was green again. Because we’d used up all the snow.” The image has stuck with me ever since: that of a wide-eyed little girl from Texas caught up in a rare and magical moment, and using it to build something wonderful for herself, only to look around and realize everything had gone back to how it was, and had always been.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.