Shelley Duvall's unexpected career as a film actress led to an even more surprising career as a producer of quality children's television programming, with some ancillary audio recordings spinning off from that. She was the daughter of Houston attorney Robert Duvall and his wife Bobby, and, at age 20, was selling cosmetics in a shopping mall when she met director Robert Altman, who was in town to shooting Brewster McCloud at the Astrodome. Altman and other members of the production team had been invited to a party to celebrate her engagement to artist Bernard Sampson, Jr. Altman cast the thin, bucktoothed, and big-eyed young woman in a small part in the film as tour guide Suzanne. He then put her in his next film, McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), again in a small part. He did not use her in his next two films, but she began to find other parts, guest-starring on an episode of the television series Cannon in 1973. In 1974, Altman co-starred her in Thieves Like Us opposite Keith Carradine. It was her first performance to attract significant critical notice. "She looks like no one else and she acts like no one else," wrote Pauline Kael. "Shelley Duvall may not be an actress, exactly, but she seems able to be herself on the screen in a way that nobody has ever been before. She doesn't appear to project -- she's just there." Altman again gave Duvall small roles in his films Nashville (1975) and Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976). After a small part in Woody Allen's Annie Hall (1977), she co-starred in Altman's 3 Women (1977), a performance that won her the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival. Her next film appearance did not occur until 1980, when she co-starred with Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining; later that same year, she played Olive Oyl opposite Robin Williams in Altman's Popeye.
A small part in Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits (1981) foreshadowed Duvall's move into children's entertainment. Founding her own companies, Platypus Productions and Think Entertainment (and later Amarillo Productions), in 1982 she contracted with the Showtime cable network to executive produce a series of one-hour adaptations of classic children's stories called Faerie Tale Theatre. The series, which ran through 1987, included 27 episodes that often featured well-known actors and directors. She herself appeared in such episodes as Rapunzel and Rumpelstiltskin. In 1985, she launched a second Showtime series, Shelley Duvall's Tall Tales and Legends, which ran through 1988, following the same format as the earlier series, but taking its stories from American folklore. She appeared in Darlin' Clementine in this series. Subsequent series included Nightmare Classics (1989) and Bedtime Stories (1992).
Duvall returned to the big screen in a featured role in the Steve Martin vehicle Roxanne (1987) and appeared in the Hulk Hogan comedy Suburban Commando (1991), but she did not take up full-time acting again until the mid-'90s. Since then, she has been fairly busy playing character parts in such theatrical releases as The Underneath (1995), The Portrait of a Lady (1996), Changing Habits (1996), Home Fries (1998), and The 4th Floor (1999), in addition to frequent television work and some straight-to-video releases.