Actress Shelley Duvall was so obsessed with fairy tales that she was known to travel across the world with suitcases full of antique books. In the early ’80s, she convinced Showtime, then a fledgling network, to let her produce a series called Faerie Tale Theatre. Each episode was a different tale starring superstars such as Mick Jagger, Robin Williams, Jeff Bridges and Gena Rowlands, and directed by the likes of Tim Burton or Francis Ford Coppola.
Packed with adult humor, and embracing the scarier aspects of fairy tales, the series was like the anti-Disney. Now, about twenty-five years after they originally aired, all twenty-six episodes are available in a DVD box set. Babble talked to Bridget Terry, who produced the series with Duvall, about the show’s misbehaving actors, insane costumes, and wild cast parties. – Marisa Meltzer
How did you get involved with the project?
I was the marketing director for Robert Altman. Shelly was part of his stock company — she had done four movies with him. We became great friends over in Malta, where she was playing Olive Oyl in Popeye. There really wasn’t much to do there. The last part of the movie was shot on the Mediterranean, and there were all these storms, so we’d go out to shoot, the water would pick up, and we’d have to go back in. We were fighting boredom, so we’d decide to just have a party. Shelley is in another world sometimes, and you’d be at her apartment in Malta, sitting around talking, drinking a little wine, and she’d show you these stories. She had schlepped all these fabulous antique books with her to Malta.
That makes sense, because I’ve always thought the series seemed like something that began as a drunken idea.
It was fun to sit around and bullshit about it, but Shelley was really serious. She’d put the creative elements together in between takes of Olive Oyl, asking the hair designers if they could make a wig three blocks long for Rapunzel. We decided we’d be good producers together. I think Robin Williams was really surprised when he got the call: “Remember when we talked about you playing the Frog Prince in Malta? Well, we got the money and we’re doing it!”
“Cinderella” with Jennifer Beals and Matthew Broderick
You had so many famous people in the series.
Showtime gave us an A-list of actors and a B-list, and we had to have either one “A” or two “B”s. So, for Snow White, we could have Vanessa Redgrave, who was on the A-list and Elizabeth McGovern, who no one had heard of. Snow White was one of my favorites. Elizabeth looks exactly like Snow White. She had just fallen in love with Sean Penn, and he was on the set all the time. Vincent Price was in it as the talking mirror.
Who was on your wish-list to appear?
We begged Mick Jagger to do The Nightingale. Shelley had always wanted him to play the emperor. He was with Jerry Hall then, and Shelley had grown up with Jerry and her sisters, and we went through her. And we had to cast Jerry in two small parts in the series in return. Part of Mick’s costume were these eight-inch nails, since emperors never did anything themselves. Our wardrobe lady lived and breathed the Rolling Stones. With those nails, she had to help him go to the bathroom. I’m sure she’s still dining out on that Mick Jagger story.
Was everyone such a good sport?
In Beauty and the Beast, we had a hard time with Klaus Kinski. Susan Sarandon played Beauty, and at one point, he was walking down the hallway carrying her for a scene, and Roger Vadim, our director, yelled “cut,” and he just dropped her. It was really tense between them. Later, when he turns into a prince, he brought in Thomas Gainsborough’s painting “Blue Boy,” and said he wanted to look exactly like that. We brought in rubber bands to pull his skin back to make him look . . . more princely. We’re filming and we do this effect where he turns from the beast into the prince and Susan Sarandon’s line is, “Are such miracles possible?” She couldn’t say the line without cracking up. He was getting angrier and angrier and the bands holding his skin back started popping.
“Sleeping Beauty” with Christopher Reeve, Beverly D’Angelo and Bernadette Peters
When I was a kid watching it, my favorite episode was Hansel and Gretel. The casting of Joan Collins as the dual role of witch/stepmother was brilliant.
We read a lot of Bruno Bettelheim and his take on fairy tales. So for Hansel and Gretel, we thought about whether the candy house and the witch were part of the kids’ imagination because they had such a mean stepmother. The first witch/stepmother to be cast was Ann Bancroft. She ended up calling in sick — I’m not sure if it was the fear of that witch makeup or being that evil. We offered it to Joan Collins and she said, “Sure, I’m used to being a bitch.”
Do you think the episodes hold up now?
We wanted to put double entendres in there so your parents would laugh as hard as you do. We were inspired by Rocky and Bullwinkle and Monty Python, but the combination of stars and classic stories, and the irreverent take on fairy tales has found its way to mega budget projects, like the Shrek movies. I think bringing the adult movie star into the kid’s arena is something we put out there.
I watched the DVD extra of the Grimm Party, which has actual footage of a cast party. People are dressed as princesses or in giant furry animal costumes or are wearing Ray Bans indoors. My theory is that you guys would go straight from filming to Studio 54, with your costumes still on, to party all night.
[Laughs] On the Rox, more like it, since we were in Los Angeles. We worked long hours, so most of the partying was in and around the soundstage or next door at a Mexican restaurant. The rehearsal weeks were fun, but during the shooting weeks, it was hard. Francis Ford Coppola said it was the hardest he’d ever worked when he directed Rip Van Winkle! For two weeks of work, the highest payment any actor got was $7,500, and it was a lot of fourteen-hours days, often with prosthetic makeup, so you had to be doing it for the kids. But we had a lot of fun on the set. It was all make believe.
Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre: The Complete Collection (2008) is available on Amazon.