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Adrienne Shelly

Adrienne Shelly

Adrienne Levine (June 24, 1966 – November 1, 2006), better known by the stage name Adrienne Shelly (sometimes credited as Adrienne Shelley), was an American actress, film director and screenwriter. She became known for roles in independent films such as 1989's The Unbelievable Truth and 1990's Trust. She wrote, co-starred in, and directed the 2007 posthumously-released film Waitress.

On November 1, 2006, Shelly was found dead, hanging in the shower of her Greenwich Village work studio apartment. The initial examination of the scene did not reveal any suspicious circumstances, and police apparently believed it to be a suicide. Her husband insisted she would never have taken her own life, and brought about a re-examination of the bathroom that disclosed a suspect footprint. Police arrested a construction worker who confessed to killing Shelly and making it look as if she had committed suicide.

Shelly's husband established the Adrienne Shelly Foundation, which awards scholarships, production grants, finishing funds, and living stipends to artists. In her honor, the Women Film Critics Circle gives an annual Adrienne Shelly Award to the film that it finds "most passionately opposes violence against women."

Adrienne Shelly
Adrienne Levine[1]

(1966-06-24)June 24, 1966
Queens, New York City, New York, U.S.
DiedNovember 1, 2006(2006-11-01)(aged 40)
Greenwich Village, Manhattan, New York City, New York, U.S.
Cause of deathHomicide by hanging
OccupationActress, director, screenwriter
Years active1989–2006
Spouse(s)Andy Ostroy (m. 1994)
ChildrenSophie Ostroy (b. 2003)[2]

Early life

Shelly was born Adrienne Levine in Queens, New York, to Sheldon M. Levine and Elaine Langbaum. She had two brothers, Jeff and Mark, and was raised on Long Island. She began performing when she was about 10[3] at Stagedoor Manor Performing Arts Training Center. Shelly made her professional debut in a summer stock production of the musical Annie[4] while a student at Jericho High School[1] in Jericho, New York. She went on to Boston University, majoring in film production, but dropped out after her junior year and moved to Manhattan.[5]

Personal life

Shelly, who took her professional surname after her late father's given name,[4] was married to Andy Ostroy, the chairman and CEO of the marketing firm Belardi/Ostroy.[6] They had a daughter, Sophie (born 2003), who was two years old at the time of her mother's death.[7] Shelly described herself as an "optimistic agnostic."[3]


Shelly's career breakthrough as an actress came when she was cast by independent filmmaker Hal Hartley as the lead in The Unbelievable Truth (1989) and Trust (1990).[8][9] Trust was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, where Hartley's script tied for the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.[10] Shelly also guest-starred in a number of television series including Law & Order, Oz and Homicide: Life on the Street, and played major roles in over two dozen off-Broadway plays, often at Manhattan's Workhouse Theater.[5] In 2005 she appeared in the film Factotum starring Matt Dillon.

During the 1990s, Shelly had segued toward a behind-the-camera career. She wrote and directed 1999's I'll Take You There, in which she appeared along with Ally Sheedy. She won a U.S. Comedy Arts Festival Film Discovery Jury Award in 2000 for direction of the film, and Prize of the City of Setúbal: Special Mention, at the Festróia (Tróia International Film Festival) held in Setúbal, Portugal, for best director.[9][11] Her final work was writing, directing, co-set- and costume-designing, and acting in the film Waitress, starring Keri Russell and Nathan Fillion,[12][13] which premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.[14] Shelly's daughter, Sophie, has a cameo at the end of the film.[13]


Shelly was found dead at approximately 5:45 p.m on November 1, 2006. Her husband, Andy Ostroy, discovered her body in the Abingdon Square apartment in Manhattan's West Village that she used as an office.[6] Ostroy had dropped her off at 9:30 a.m. He had become concerned because Shelly had not been in contact that day and went to the building, asking the doorman to accompany him to the apartment. They found her body hanging from a shower rod in the bathtub with a bedsheet around her neck.[6][15]

Despite the door not having been locked and money reportedly missing from her wallet, New York City Police Department apparently believed Shelly had taken her own life. An autopsy found she had died as a result of neck compression.[16] Ostroy insisted that his wife was happy in her personal and professional life, and in any case would never have committed suicide leaving her two and a half year old daughter motherless. His protests over the following days caused a more careful re-examination of the bathroom, which revealed there was a sneaker print in gypsum dust on the toilet beside where her body had been found. The suspect print was matched to a set of other shoe prints in the building, where construction work had been done the day of Shelly's death.[16][17]

On November 6, 2006, the press reported the arrest of a 19-year-old construction worker, Diego Pillco, who according to police had confessed on tape to attacking Shelly, and then staging the fake suicide by hanging her.[18][19][20][21] Pillco's original version of what happened was that when Shelly asked if the noise could be kept down, he threw a hammer at her and, afraid she would make a complaint that might result in his deportation, followed her back to her apartment, where the petite 40-year-old hit him, and was killed by a fall during a struggle. Subsequently, Pillco gave a completely different account in which he said while on a break he had noticed Shelly returning to her apartment and followed her. After assaulting her and rendering her unconscious, he killed her by staging the fake suicide. The second version was consistent with the lack of dust on Shelly's shoes (which she was not wearing when found) and seemed to be a confession to murder, but prosecutors reportedly thought if charged with murder Pillco might return to his original account and a jury trial could find him guilty of a lesser charge.[22] The medical examiner determined that Shelly was still alive when hanged.[23] Pillco pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 25 years in prison without parole.[24]

At Pillco's sentencing on March 13, 2008, Shelly's husband, along with family members, said that they would never forgive him.[25] Andy Ostroy said of Pillco "...you are nothing more than a coldblooded killer" and that he hoped he would "rot in jail".[25]

In remembering Shelly, Ostroy said that "Adrienne was the kindest, warmest, most loving, generous person I knew. She was incredibly smart, funny and talented, a bright light with an infectious laugh and huge smile that radiated inner and outer beauty... she was my best friend, and the person with whom I was supposed to grow old".[25]


According to an acquaintance, Pillco said after eight months he still owed a debt on the $12,000 he had paid to be smuggled into the US, and he lived in the basement of a building owned by his employer. One of Shelly's neighbors told reporters that Pillco's stare had made the neighbor feel uncomfortable when she walked past him.[26] Shelly's husband sued contractor Bradford General Contractors, which had hired Pillco.[27] The complaint alleged that Shelly would still be alive if the contracting firm had not hired him.[27] Ostroy also sought to hold the owners and management of the building liable for Shelly's murder.[27] According to a New York Post article, among other allegations, the complaint stated that "'Pillco was an undocumented immigrant...' as were his co-workers,[27] and that "it was in Bradford General Contractors' interest not to have 'police and immigration officials [called] to the job site' because that would have ground their work to a halt".[27] On July 7, 2011, the lawsuit was dismissed by Judge Louis York. The court determined that Ostroy had not established legal grounds to hold the contractor liable, writing "While this court sympathizes with [Ostroy's] loss, plaintiffs have not presented sufficient legal grounds upon which to hold Bradford ... liable for Pillco's vicious crime",[28] and that there was likewise insufficient evidence presented to find that either the building's management agents or its owners "had reason to believe that Pillco was a dangerous person who should not have been allowed to work at the premises"[28] in order to find them vicariously liable. Ostroy was said to be considering an appeal.[28]


Shelly in 1992 on the set of Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me

Shelly in 1992 on the set of Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me

Following his wife's death, Ostroy established the Adrienne Shelly Foundation,[29] a non-profit organization that awards scholarships, production grants, finishing funds and living stipends through its partnerships with academic and filmmaking institutions NYU, Columbia University, Women in Film, IFP, AFI, Sundance Institute, Tribeca Film Institute and the Nantucket Film Festival. One of its grant recipients, Cynthia Wade, won an Academy Award in 2008 for Freeheld, a short-subject documentary which the Foundation helped fund. As part of its annual awards, the Women Film Critics Circle gives the Adrienne Shelly Award to the film that "most passionately opposes violence against women".[30]

On February 16, 2007, the NBC crime drama series Law & Order broadcast an episode, "Melting Pot", that was a thinly-veiled dramatization of Shelly's murder.[31][32] Shelly herself had guest-starred on the show in the 2000 episode "High & Low".[33]

Shelly's film, Waitress, had been accepted into the 2007 Sundance Film Festival[34] before her murder. The film, starring Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion, Cheryl Hines, Jeremy Sisto, Andy Griffith and Shelly herself, was bought during the festival by Fox Searchlight Pictures for an amount between $4 million and $5 million (news accounts on the actual amount vary), and the film realized a final box-office draw of more than $19 million.[35] Waitress maintains a 90% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.[36]

Waitress and its cast have together won five film awards and received other nominations in various categories, including an Audience award for a feature film at the Newport Beach Film Festival, where cast member Nathan Fillion also received a Feature Film award for his role in the film; the Jury Prize at the Sarasota Film Festival for narrative feature; the Wyatt Award by the Southeastern Film Critics Association Awards; and nominations for a Humanitas Prize and an Independent Spirit Award for best screenplay.[37]

Ostroy produced Serious Moonlight, a film written by Shelly and directed by Hines. The film stars Meg Ryan, Timothy Hutton, Kristen Bell, and Justin Long. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2009 and was released later that year in December.

Ostroy also spearheaded a move to establish a memorial to his wife. On August 3, 2009, the Adrienne Shelly Garden was dedicated on the Southeast side of Abingdon Square Park in NYC at 8th Avenue and West 12th Street. It faces 15 Abingdon Square, the building where Shelly died.[38]

The musical Waitress, based on the motion picture written by Shelly, opened on August 1, 2015, at the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) at Harvard University. It was directed by Diane Paulus and featured a book by Jessie Nelson and music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles. It starred Jessie Mueller, winner of a Tony Award for her portrayal of Carole King in the musical Beautiful. After a sold out limited engagement, the show moved to Broadway, starting in previews March 25, 2016, and officially opening April 24, 2016.[39]


1989The Unbelievable TruthAudry
1990TrustMaria Coughlin
1990Lonely in AmericaWoman in Laundromat
1992Big Girls Don't Cry... They Get EvenStephanie
1992Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss MeDannie
1993HexedGloria O'Connor
1994Opera No. 1Fairy #2
1994Sleeping with StrangersJenny
1994Homicide: Life on the StreetTanya QuinnEpisode: "A Many Splendored Thing"
1994Teresa's TattooTeresa / Gloria
1994The Road KillersRed
1994Sleep with MePamela
1997The Regulars
1997Sudden ManhattanDonnaWriter and director
1997Early EditionEmma ShawEpisode: "Phantom at the Opera"
1998OzSarahEpisode: "Ancient Tribes"
1998Wrestling with AlligatorsMary
1999I'll Take You ThereLucyWriter and director
Festroia International Film Festival Prize of the City of Setúbal - Special Mention
The Comedy Festival Film Discovery Jury Award for Best Director
2000Dead DogMrs. Marquet
2000Law & OrderWendy AlstonEpisode: "High & Low"
2000The Shadows of Bob and ZeldaZelda
2001The Atlantis ConspiracySamanthaTV movie
2001Revolution #9Kim Kelly
2004Tiger: His Fall & RiseTerry
2007WaitressDawnWriter, director, and co-star
Sarasota Film Festival Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature
Nominated — Humanitas Prize for Sundance Film Category
Nominated — Independent Spirit Award for Best Screenplay
1994Urban LegendWriter & Director26-minute short film[40]
1997Lois Lives a LittleWriter & Director
1997Sudden ManhattanWriter & Director
2000The Shadows of Bob and ZeldaWriter & Director
2009Serious MoonlightWriter


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