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Shelley Duvall, 'The Shining' star, dies at age 75


In Stanley Kubrick's movie "The Shining," it's actor Shelley Duvall who really sells the terror. Her wide eyes and horrified screams make that movie work. Duvall died this morning in her home in Texas after complications related to diabetes, according to her longtime partner, Dan Gilroy. She was 75 years old. And while "The Shining" was her best-known role, NPR's Andrew Limbong reports she had a remarkable career, especially for someone who didn't want to be an actor in the first place.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Yes, Shelley Duvall's performance as Wendy Torrance in "The Shining" is known for those big, expressive, horrifying scenes of her screaming and crying. And we'll get to those, but there's maybe nothing scarier than the scene early on in the movie where she's recounting the time her husband dislocated her son's shoulder.


SHELLEY DUVALL: (As Wendy Torrance) Just one of those things, you know, purely an accident. My husband had been drinking.

LIMBONG: She's holding a cigarette with an impossibly long ash on the tip, and her eyes are sad and scared and betray the fact that she barely believes what she's saying.


DUVALL: (As Wendy Torrance) Anyway, something good did come out of it all because he said, Wendy, I'm never going to touch another drop. And if I do, you can leave me. And he didn't. And he hasn't had any alcohol in five months.

LIMBONG: Of course, we all know how it turns out. And in that incredibly famous scene where Jack Nicholson's Jack Torrance takes an axe to the door she's hiding behind...


JACK NICHOLSON: (As Jack Torrance) Here's Johnny.

LIMBONG: ...It's those same eyes that the audience is transfixed by, except this time, Wendy's holding a knife.


DUVALL: (As Wendy Torrance, yelling).

NICHOLSON: (As Jack Torrance, yelling).

LIMBONG: For Duvall, it was a difficult shoot. Here she is talking to WHYY's Fresh Air in 1992.


DUVALL: So for nine months out of that one year and one month of shooting, I had to be crying and hysterical and hyperventilating. And that's physically almost impossible to do. I did do it. I don't think that I could ever do it again.

LIMBONG: Duvall was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1949. She didn't grow up with dreams of being an actor. Instead, when she was 20, she was dating an artist, and she was showing some of his paintings to these guys who said they were interested.


DUVALL: And instead of saying at the end of my speech - instead of saying, we want this one and this one and this one, they said, quote-unquote, "how would you like to be in a movie?" And I thought, uh-oh. Oh, no - porno. So I started packing up. I was scared to death. I thought, oh, my gosh, my mother's go to kill me. My father is gonna kill me. I'm really scared.

LIMBONG: It turns out they were working for the famed director Robert Altman, who was working on his movie "Brewster McCloud," about a young man who lives in the Houston Astrodome and wants to build wings and fly. Duvall plays a tour guide who he falls for.


DUVALL: (As Suzanne) You've got real wings that work and that you can really fly with?

BUD CORT: (As Brewster) Mmm hmm.

DUVALL: (As Suzanne) You're kidding.

LIMBONG: Duvall ended up making seven movies with Robert Altman. It was a wide range of movies, too, from the adult drama "3 Women" to the movie musical version of "Popeye" playing Olive Oyl opposite Robin Williams.


DUVALL: (As Olive Oyl, singing) He needs me. He needs me. He needs me. He needs me. He needs me. He needs me.

LIMBONG: By the '90s, she worked mostly behind the camera, producing movies and TV shows for children. In that Fresh Air interview, she said she stepped back from acting because she wanted to put down roots, and she had animals to tend to - dogs, cats, lizards and 70 birds.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.