Like a genie out of a bottle, the idea materialized for Shelley Duvall while she was filming Popeye in Malta in 1980. For entertainment in her idle hours off camera she had brought with her some of the illustrated fairy-tale books she has been collecting since her adolescence. As she read, she matched up her Popeye co-star with a storybook character. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have Robin Williams play the Frog Prince?’ ” she recalls.
What started as a game of make-believe soon developed into a project that Duvall became determined to make happen. Best known for her performances in such Robert Altman movies as Nashville and 3 Women and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Duvall, 34, has now established herself as one of the canniest producers in the business. Her Faerie Tale Theatre has already finished taping 1550-minute episodes for Showtime (a pay-TV service), starring such luminaries as Mick Jagger, Joan Collins and Christopher Reeve. To keep each episode within a budget of about $400,000, most of the actors agree to work for the union’s minimum scale of $1,000 a week (a few top stars draw up to $3,500). This week Faerie Tale Theatre will present Jack and the Beanstalk, starring Dennis Christopher, Elliott Gould and Jean Stapleton.
In Hollywood, turning out high-quality pictures on low budgets is almost as difficult as turning frogs into princes. But Shelley perseveres, often working 15-hour days. Down-playing her achievement, she insists, “I knew it was a great idea, but anyone with instinct and talent could do it.” As an actress, Duvall knows that she can lure top performers by offering them first-class directors and stellar casts. She also supplies such personal touches as an on-the-set masseur three days a week and flowers in the dressing rooms. But much of her appeal is personal. With her fragile frame and idiosyncratic dress (she appeared on the set one day in a lime green muu-muu, ballet slippers and a pair of bright, floppy socks), Shelley is not the standard Hollywood mogul. “I’ve been told I inspire trust in others,” she says.
Most actors view their two-week commitment (one for rehearsal and one for taping) as a working vacation. “It’s like the old days when money was second to a great part,” says Vincent Price, who narrates the upcoming Snow White, the 13th in the series. Observes Redgrave, the wicked stepmother of Snow White (Elizabeth McGovern): “It’s a hell of a lot of hard work, but it’s been an enormous pleasure.”
Duvall agrees. Convinced that fairy tales presented “with a sophisticated sense of humor” could fill a gaping need for “children’s entertainment that is acceptable and interesting for the whole family,” she first took her project to the Walt Disney organization. Although they were interested, they wouldn’t grant Duvall the complete creative control that she demanded. “I realized that I would be a figurehead rather than a decision maker, and I said no,” she remembers. Depressed by the collapse of nine months of negotiations, Duvall still refused to give up. She never considered trying the major networks—”I know they would want me to hire some major star who just wasn’t right for the role,” she says. Instead, she cut a deal with cable’s Showtime Entertainment and Gaylord Productions, which allowed her to make all the artistic decisions.
Business acumen comes naturally to Shelley. Her father is a Houston lawyer and her mother sells commercial real estate, while her three younger brothers have al! worked in the oil business (the youngest, Stewart, 24, is now Shelley’s production assistant). Divorced about 12 years ago after a four-year marriage to artist Bernard Sampson, Shelley had a two-year relationship with Paul Simon (she later introduced him to his recent bride, Carrie Fisher), but these days, she says, “I have no steady beau. My work is all-consuming. My focus is on friends now.” (Most of her pals are musicians.) Sharing her two-bedroom, ranch-style home is a sizable menagerie of 12 finches, two Cairn terriers, one cat, nine goldfish and seven hermit crabs. When she has free time—which is almost never—she enjoys shopping for antique clothes and furniture.
Duvall’s future plans include a film of Tom Robbins’ hilariously bawdy Even Cowgirls Get the Blues; she will produce, co-write and star in the movie. Much of her Faerie Tale crew will accompany her to Texas to make Cowgirls. “Shelley is the best producer I have worked with in the 14 years I’ve been directing movies,” says Cowgirls director Peter Medak, who directed two Faerie Tale shows. “She’s very determined, and she understands what filmmaking is.” Duvall’s commitment to her dream has paid off. “My success so far,” she exults, “is like a fairy-tale happy ending.”