Shelley Duvall Comes Home to the Movie Roost in Roxanne

updated 07/27/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/27/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Just a glimpse of those impossibly wide eyes, that tooth-filled grin and that ponytail, perched like a Tower of Pisa, is enough to elicit a shock of recognition. Yes, it's Shelley Duvall, fetching, cartoon-limbed actress and extremely shrewd TV producer. Of course, it has been five years since she gave up being the former for the latter, creating Showtime's innovative and highly lauded Faerie Tale Theatre. But now she's back in feature films, appearing with Steve Martin in the best romantic comedy of this and many summers, Roxanne.

Though Duvall's screen time is short, her part is pivotal to the updated Cyrano de Bergerac plot. She plays Dixie Smith, the coffee-shop owner and confidante-at-large who facilitates the match between Roxanne (Daryl Hannah), a stunning astronomer, and C.D. Bales (Martin), a small-town fire chief with a nose the size of Pinocchio's in mid-lie. While Duvall allows that her character "is close to my heart," it isn't a role she had to fight and scrape for. "It was just offered to me," she says. "I didn't even have to audition for it. I know Steve socially, and he suggested it to me. I did it just to work with him—and just to see if I could still act."

Why has Duvall, 38, been away from acting for so long? In large part, as she admits, "I had to wean myself away from Robert Altman." It was adventurous, idiosyncratic director Altman who took Duvall from obscurity in Houston and cast her in seven films, including Nashville, Three Women and Popeye. Although she made Annie Hall for Woody Allen and The Shining for Stanley Kubrick, Duvall was stamped with the Altman imprint. "Robert was a brilliant, dynamic maverick," she says, "but he made it hard to get other roles. People later said they thought I was under exclusive contract to him."

Duvall began breaking free while she was playing Olive Oyl in Popeye. Shooting on Malta in 1980, she spent her spare hours reading fairy tales and thinking about setting up her own production company. "Producing allows you to take control of your life," Duvall says. "You don't have that kind of control in acting. You don't have to wait for someone to offer you a part. You can get things going by yourself." You can also make a nice buck. Faerie Tale Theatre, which Duvall started producing five years ago for a relatively inexpensive $400,000 per episode, is about to be sold in a lucrative syndication deal.

Making a megabuck profit helps you feel like you're standing on your own. Having a good love life doesn't hurt either. Along with 28 birds, five dogs and one cat, Duvall shares her five-bedroom Studio City home with Kim Cranston, 35, son of California Sen. Alan Cranston. "Shelley is very alive and excited about life," says Kim, a soft-spoken political activist who has lived with her for 2½ years. "Those are qualities I try to develop in myself. She connects with people. She has a very tender side."

Those are the qualities Duvall has always displayed onscreen—warmth combined with a madcap imagination. Seeing her again in Roxanne is like getting a visit from an old, slightly scattered friend. Her stop-off, alas, is only temporary. There are nothing but production deals in her immediate future—at least one film each for the companies of Ron Howard and Norman Lear. "I like producing better," says Duvall. "Acting doesn't promote sanity. I don't ever want to lose my joy in life. I guess I've got a bit of the Peter Pan syndrome. I don't ever want to lose my innocence or my dreams." It's a safe bet that she never will.

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