In one of The Shining’s most memorable scenes, Jack Nicholson’s writer-gone-mad advances on his terrified wife Wendy, played by Shelley Duvall. Jack is terrific — both scary and comedic as he threatens to “bash [her] brains in” — but Shelley, who flails at him with a baseball bat as she backs up the stairs, holds her own.
Wide-eyed, trembling and crying, her terror pulses through the scene, which she and Jack shot a whopping 127 times over three weeks. “It was very hard. Jack was so good — so damn scary,” Shelley, 71, previously shared with The Hollywood Reporter.
The Popeye alum didn’t set out to be famous, but her large, expressive eyes and ability to wear her heart on her sleeve helped her forge a career in Hollywood as an actress and producer. Then, she disappeared for two decades.
She re-emerged in 2016 when The Dr. Phil Show aired a rambling interview with Shelley and suggested that she suffered from an untreated mental illness. “I found out the kind of person he is the hard way,” Shelley said. (A spokesperson for Dr. Phil said the show tried to arrange in-patient treatment for Shelley, who declined.)
Today, Shelley lives in her native Texas with her longtime boyfriend, musician Dan Gilroy, 76. To locals, she’s a familiar sight driving her cluttered white Toyota 4Runner, chatting with friends, chain-smoking Parliaments and stopping by her favorite local haunts for a pastry.
It’s a long way from Hollywood, where Shelley landed by accident in the 1970s. “If I hadn’t gotten into show business, I’d probably be working in microbiology or metabolics,” said the star, who fell in love with science in 4th grade.
Instead, she met director Robert Altman, who changed her life by putting her in his movie Brewster McCloud in 1970. It led to other roles and opened the door to Hollywood’s A-list. Her friend, actress Carol Kane, took her to the gathering where she met Jack, her future costar in The Shining.
Warren Beatty and director Roman Polanski were also there. “It wasn’t a party. They were just waiting for the basketball game to start,” explained Shelley, who remembered Jack as “funny and charming and smart and interesting to talk to — like all the men in that circle of friends.”
In the 1980s, Shelley became the successful producer of Faerie Tale Theatre, a ground-breaking children’s program. She was living with her current boyfriend, Dan, when the Northridge earthquake damaged their home extensively in 1994.
Trying to get financial help to repair it became a huge burden. “[It was] engineers one day, insurance people the next,” recalled Shelley, who left for Texas hoping to start a new life as a painter.
This new career hasn’t materialized yet, but Shelley isn’t unhappy. Among her new friends are artist Ryan Obermeyer, who has helped her reconnect with people from her past, and Kristina Keller, a waitress. “Out here,” Kristina told THR, “we look out for each other and we take care of each other.”