“Oh, we went to a party, found a girl, and you’ve got to meet her. She is special!” Robert Altman remembered being told after screenwriter Brian McKay and assistant director Tommy Thompson returned from an engagement celebration for a local artist in Houston. They were in the lone star state location scouting for Altman’s upcoming film Brewster McCloud. At the time Shelley Duvall was studying nutrition and diet therapy at South Texas Junior College and working as a cosmetics salesperson at Northwest Mall’s Foley’s department store. Without formal acting experience or training, Altman cast her in the key role of the Houston Astrodome tour guide Suzanne Davis and a star was born. Over the next two decades, she would go on to appear in classic films such as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Robert Altman’s Nashville and 3 Women, and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Besides a successful film career she created, hosted, executive produced, (and even wrote the theme music) for the award-winning live-action children’s anthology series Faerie Tale Theatre.
In 1993 Shelley sold the rights to Faerie Tale Theatre to a small British entertainment company after she began to struggle financially. As an independent producer, Duvall was finding it increasingly difficult to fund new projects with tight credit and mounting production costs due to the recession. She was forced to lay off over a dozen employees that worked out of her production company, Think Entertainment, whose offices were located on the second floor of a nondescript San Fernando valley strip mall over a Chinese restaurant and a dry cleaner. Shelley retired as a producer but continued taking acting parts. In 1994 her Studio City home was damaged in the Northridge earthquake and she relocated to the small city of Blanco, TX (approximately 50 miles north San Antonio and 50 miles west of Austin) which boasted a population of 1,500 residents.
While she remained single without any children, Shelley moved into a modest ranch in Blanco with her collection of exotic birds and reptiles that she had begun acquiring in Los Angeles. “At home, it’s a menagerie: 70 birds, all different kinds, ten dogs, one cat, a leopard tortoise, a rabbit, four iguanas, and two desert lizards,” she said during her interview on the Marilu Henner Show in 1994. Shelley continued to accept acting roles and television appearances throughout the late ‘90s but in the early 2000’s the roles got smaller before dwindling completely. Her 2000 independent film Dreams in the Attic which shot in and around Houston and Galveston was pitched to Disney but never sold or released. Duvall’s final acting performance was in the outsider film Manna from Heaven in 2002.
In 2009, the National Enquirer traveled to Blanco to locate and interview Shelley after some local residents reported that she was “wandering around town by herself, looking disheveled, muttering to herself and talking about aliens living in her body.” Despite the fact that Shelley granted the Enquirer a completely sound, in-person interview, the tabloid published a cruel and heartless exposé based on reports from neighbors. “She flashes her car lights at night to communicate with space aliens, believes a hole in her backyard is a portal to another dimension and lives in fear of aliens who are out to get her.” An owner of a local hardware store was quoted as saying: “One time she came in and asked for dirt and boards to block up a hole in her backyard because, she said, ‘That’s a portal into another dimension. That’s where the aliens are coming in.’”
Fans, friends, and film lovers around the world refused to believe the “tabloid nonsense.” The following year, Shelley put the reports of her paranoid delusions to rest by granting an interview with the Mondo Film & Video Guide where she appeared as normal and self-aware as ever. In the 2010 interview, she talked in depth about her career and playfully poked fun at her current living situation. “I have a quiet life now. I have a lot of animals on my property and look after them, not a crazy cat lady yet though!! I write a lot of poetry, would love to publish a book of my work one day!” Interviewer Justin Bozung then addressed rumors of her extremely reclusive behavior to which Shelley responded. “I wouldn’t say I became a recluse, if you Google the meaning it sounds much worse! I just took ‘time out,’ I’ve been acting for over thirty-five years, it does take a lot out of you. I just needed some me time, and I’ve loved it! People seem to think I’ve turned into a recluse who never leaves the house and doesn’t communicate with the outside world, that’s just not true. I struggled to get a decent acting role for years, before finally giving it a rest for awhile. Would be great to start all over again, if the right role came along.”
It seemed that the Shelley Duvall delusion rumors were simply a false alarm and tabloid exploitation. However, over the course of 2012-2013 dozens and dozens of reports from Blanco residents began to fill internet message boards claiming that she was in need of some serious help.
“I knew Shelley in Blanco, Texas. I had several restaurants and she would come in often. She was a bit off but still very sweet. She would come in the kitchen and want me to cook things we didn’t feature and speak of dinner parties at Faye Dunaway’s house. But she would also speak of the people that were watching her from inside of the soda fountain. And her SUV – I don’t know how she saw out the back – it was always piled to the top with stuff.”
“Two days ago she stopped me in the parking lot to tell me that she is missing her green t-shirt and that she hasn’t seen it in a few days. In the meantime, she has this huge lizard sitting on the dash of her car, so I asked her about the lizard and she told me that people are feeding lizards pennies and that that is criminal and they should be prosecuted! Later she went into the store and told one of the girls that she is not a turkey or a chicken and that people should quit sticking things in her.”
As a life-long Shelley fan, I simply refused to believe these types of stories. While visiting Austin, TX in February 2015 I began planning a one-hour road trip to Blanco where I hoped to locate Shelley in an effort to see if she was okay and offer any help or assistance to her. After sharing my plans with friends in Austin I was immediately shot down and told that it was a bad idea. Supposedly, a group of fans from the Alamo Drafthouse with a similar plan showed up on her doorstep with BBQ supplies, hoping for the off chance that they would be invited into her home. Shelley answered the door and greeted them, while friendly at first, once she realized the group’s motivation she kindly asked them to respect her privacy and leave her property. The group hoped to return to Austin with an amazing Shelley Duvall story, but instead returned with a depressing reality and declined to discuss their experience with others.
In November 2016, Shelley was flown to Los Angeles for an exclusive interview with Dr. Phil, her first televised interview in sixteen years. In the hour-long program, the full scope of Shelley’s mental illness was revealed with her delusions and distorted perceptions put on full display for all to see. Fans were shocked and heartbroken as she referred to Robin Williams (who died in 2014) as “alive and shapeshifting.” She openly acknowledged the “alien implants” in her leg and discussed her fear of the Sheriff of Nottingham. When Dr. Phil asked her “Will you let me get you to the doctor so I can get you checked out?” Shelley responded, “If you so much as attempt to get my moon mole, I’ll fucking kill you.” After the interview, the show’s producers escorted Shelley to a treatment facility in Calabasas but after three days she refused to take any medications and she would not sign the paperwork required to treat her. The producers safely returned her to her family at home and claim to be “working directly with Shelley’s mother and are providing Shelley treatment from a group of local professionals who, due to her refusal to take medication, will use alternative methods to treat her.”
Controversy began when a promo for the episode aired, highlighting Shelley’s most shocking moments from the interview underneath a dramatic and unsettling musical score. While Dr. Phil did promise to help Shelley and get her treatment, it was clear that her mental illness was being sensationalized to boost ratings, and their motivation to “shock the audience” was as desperate as any issue of the National Enquirer. In a surprising turn of events, Stanley Kubrick’s daughter, Vivian Kubrick, who never knew Duvall personally, took to Twitter to air her disgust and called for a boycott over the program two days before it aired. “Dear Dr. Phil, You are putting Shelley Duvall ‘on show’ while she is suffering from a pitiable state of ill health. Unquestionably, this is purely a form of lurid and exploitative entertainment - it’s appallingly cruel. Shelley Duvall was a movie star ... whatever dignity a mere unfortunate creature might have in this world, is denied her by your displaying her in this way. I recoil in complete disgust. I hope others will join me in boycotting your utterly heartless form of entertainment, because it has nothing to do with compassionate healing. Sincerely disgusted, Vivian Kubrick.”
The same day the episode aired on Nov. 18th Vivian Kubrick launched a GoFundMe campaign for Shelley Duvall attempting to raise $100,000, but fans immediately began questioning her motivation. Why would Vivian Kubrick, a known Scientologist who severed ties with her family seventeen years ago, raise money for psychiatric and mental-health treatment when her religion strictly forbids it? As hundreds of donations began coming in, more and more fans began raising questions. The GoFundMe campaign’s location was listed as Clearwater, FL, which happens to be the headquarters of the Church of Scientology. Over the next several days Vivian began actively policing the GoFundMe page, blocking any user who asked questions about where their contributions were going or the specifics of what kind of treatment Shelley would be receiving. Actress Candy Clark (American Graffiti, The Man Who Fell to Earth) posted to her official Facebook page on Nov. 19th urging people not to donate. “Bogus ‘help Shelley Duvall’ page started by estranged daughter of the late Stanley Kubrick. Any time questions are brought up as to where the money will go, by me and others, our comments are promptly deleted. Money will probably not go to help Shelley. I have put in a complaint to the go-fund me site.”
Three days later, Vivian pulled the plug on the GoFundMe campaign and provided the following explanation on Twitter: “Shelley Duvall’s family are unable to accept large donations for the present,” elaborating that outside donations would affect her SAG-AFTRA and government benefits. The Hollywood Reporter immediately followed up on Kubrick’s explanation, reaching out to several Hollywood labor experts who all agreed that Shelley’s SAG-AFTRA benefits would be completely unaffected by the GoFundMe campaign. Nevertheless, over 660 donations (including a $500 donation from actress Jennifer Tilly) were refunded, and later that very same day Vivian Kubrick posted: “I’m taking a nice break from Twitter for the next few months.” Then, the controversial episode suddenly disappeared from Dr. Phil’s online episode guide without a trace. Weird. The Actors Fund of America, a charitable organization that helps performers in the entertainment industry is currently working to provide financial aid to Shelley Duvall and any other help she might need.