Obvious History: Shelley Duvall was propositioned at 17 to be in a porno

Published May 10, 2018

In collaboration with @velvetcokeObvious History is a weekly series which unearths forgotten moments in pop culture’s past, where the famous and the fascinating collided.

Wide-eyed, shrill-voiced Texan Shelley Duvall never set out to be an actor. The story of how she became one—best known for her charged and breathless performances in Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud [1970], Popeye [1980] and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining [1980]—was the paragon of a Hollywood ruse.

When she was a teen, Duvall was approached to be in a porn film while out shopping at a drug store. Horrified, she turned the prospect down. The second time she was asked to be in a film, only a few years later, Duvall thought it was another seedy swindle—but it turned out to be a career-making proposal.

Duvall was 20 years old, living in her hometown of Houston, and studying at South Texas Junior College. She had never set foot outside of Texas. At the time, Duvall was dating Bernard Sampson, an artist whom she championed to anyone who would listen. She would frequently host parties at Sampson’s parents’ house where “it wasn’t unusual for people to come to the party that I didn’t know,” she said in an interview at Cannes.

One of the parties was crashed by three associates of director Robert Altman, who led Duvall to believe they were charmed by her boyfriend’s art, and not her prepossessing combo of an overbite and enthusiasm. The men were in town as Altman’s nuclear comedy Brewster McCloud, already in production, was shooting in Houston on location. However, they hadn’t yet filled the role of the Astrodome tour guide.

“It’s a long story but I’ll tell you,” Duvall told Interview in September 1977 of that fateful meeting. “I was living with my artist boyfriend at his parents’ house in Houston and we had a lot of parties and people would come who we didn’t know and his parents’ friends would come—they were really good parents—and one day I was giving a party and these three gentlemen came in and I said, ‘Come in, fix yourself a drink, make yourself at home,’ and I continued showing all my friends Bernard’s new paintings, telling them what the artist was thinking. And they said they had some friends who were patrons of the arts who’d like to see the paintings so I made an appointment, brought the paintings up and showed them one by one. I lugged 35 paintings up there. And instead of selling some paintings I wound up getting into a movie.”

Her initial fears, however, were that it was another skin flick. “They said, ‘How would you like to be in a movie?’ and I thought, ‘Oh, no, a porno film,’ because I’d been approached for that when I was 17 in a drugstore.”

“The guy left me with the bill for the Coca-Cola,” she continued. “So this time I said, ‘No, thank you,’ and they called my parents’ house and got hold of me and after a while we became such good friends that I had no fear. I said, ‘I’m not an actress.’ They said, ‘Yes, you are.’ Finally, I said, ‘All right, if you think I’m an actress I guess I am.’ So by the time we got through arguing they had my telephone number and we became friends over the next month. Then we started shooting. It seemed to all be very easy.”

Duvall took her first plane flight to Hollywood, where Brewster McCloud was in production, and signed a five-year, three-picture deal.