Adrienne Shelly

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Adrienne Shelly
Adrienne Shelly as Dannie.jpg
Shelly in 1992
Adrienne Levine

(1966-06-24)June 24, 1966
Queens, New York City, U.S.
DiedNovember 1, 2006(2006-11-01) (aged 40)
West Village, Manhattan, New York City, U.S.
Cause of deathMurder by strangulation and hanging
Other namesAdrienne Shelley
OccupationActress, director, screenwriter
Years active1989–2006
Height5 ft 2 in (157 cm)
Andy Ostroy
(m. 1994)

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 Hal Hartley's The Unbelievable Truth (1989) and Trust (1990). 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 West 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 shoe print. Police arrested Diego Pillco, a 19-year-old 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."

Early life[edit]

Shelly was born Adrienne Levine in Queens to Sheldon Levine and Elaine Langbaum.[2] 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[2] 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]


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).[6][7] Trust was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, where Hartley's script tied for the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.[8] 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.[7][9] Her final work was writing, directing, co-set- and costume-designing, and acting in the film Waitress, starring Keri Russell and Nathan Fillion,[10][11] which premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.[12] Shelly's daughter, Sophie, has a cameo at the end of the film.[11]

Personal life[edit]

Shelly, who took her professional surname from her late father's given name,[4] was married to Andy Ostroy, the chairman and CEO of the marketing firm Belardi/Ostroy.[13] They had a daughter, Sophie (born 2003), who was two years old at the time of her mother's death.[14] Shelly had written the film Waitress during the time she was pregnant with her daughter, Sophie.[15] Shelly described herself as an "optimistic agnostic."[3]

Murder and investigation[edit]

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.[16] 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 bed sheet around her neck.[16][17]

Although the door was unlocked and money was reportedly missing from her wallet, the NYPD apparently believed Shelly had taken her own life. An autopsy found she had died as a result of neck compression.[18] 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 a sneaker print in gypsum dust on the toilet beside where her body had been found. The 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.[18][19]

On November 6, 2006, the press reported the arrest of Diego Pillco, a 19-year-old construction worker from Ecuador, who according to police had confessed on tape to attacking Shelly, and then staging the fake suicide by hanging her.[20][21][22][23] Pillco's original version of what happened was that when Shelly had demanded the construction noise be kept down, he threw a hammer at her in frustration. Afraid she might make a complaint that could result in his deportation, he followed her back to her apartment. The petite 40-year-old reportedly slapped Pillco after he had grabbed her at her apartment door, where Pillco said that he then retaliated by punching her in the face, knocking her to the ground where she hit her head and fell unconscious.[24][25] Believing that he had killed Shelly, he said he then hanged Shelly to make it appear a suicide. This original version of events by Pillco were not supported due to the lack of severe head trauma or the ruling of neck compression as the cause of Shelly's death.[26]

Pillco gave a completely different account during trial in 2008, in which he was returning to work after a lunch break, noticed Shelly returning to her apartment in an elevator, and decided to follow and rob her.[27] Pillco said he waited on the upstairs landing of Shelly's apartment floor as she entered her apartment and left the door open, and then intruded to steal from her purse.[28] Pillco then said that after Shelly caught him and threatened to call police, he grabbed the phone and covered her mouth to quiet Shelly's screaming when she saw him reaching after her.[29][30] After rendering Shelly unconscious during the ensuing struggle, Pillco then proceeded to bind a nearby bed sheet around Shelly's neck and begin strangling her.[31] He then dragged her body to the apartment bathroom where he hung her body from the shower rod to make her death look like a 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.[29] Conclusively, the medical examiner determined that Shelly was still alive when hanged.[32] Pillco pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 25 years in prison without parole.[33] He is scheduled to be deported to Ecuador upon his release from prison.[29]

At Pillco's sentencing on March 13, 2008, Shelly's husband, along with family members, said that they would never forgive him.[34] Andy Ostroy said of Pillco " are nothing more than a cold-blooded killer" and that he hoped he would "rot in jail."[34]

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."[34]


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.[35] Shelly's husband sued contractor Bradford General Contractors, which had hired Pillco.[36] The complaint alleged that Shelly would still be alive if the contracting firm had not hired him.[37] Ostroy also sought to hold the owners and management of the building liable for Shelly's murder.[37] According to a New York Post article, among other allegations, the complaint stated that "'Pillco was an undocumented immigrant...' as were his co-workers,[37] 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."[37] 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,"[38] 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"[38] in order to find them vicariously liable. Ostroy was said to be considering an appeal.[38]


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

Following his wife's death, Ostroy established the Adrienne Shelly Foundation,[39] a nonprofit 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 that the Foundation had 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."[40]

On February 16, 2007, the NBC crime drama series Law & Order broadcast a season 17 episode titled, "Melting Pot", which was a loose dramatization of Shelly's murder.[41][42] Shelly herself had guest starred on the show in the 2000 episode "High & Low".[43] The plot of "Melting Pot" contains an alteration of the events wherein the murder is committed by the employer of the undocumented construction worker in an attempt to protect his lucrative business.

Shelly's film Waitress was accepted into the 2007 Sundance Film Festival before her murder.[44] 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.[45] Waitress maintains a 90% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.[46]

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.[47]

A commemorative plaque within the Adrienne Shelly Garden at Abingdon Square Park

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.[citation needed]

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 at 8th Avenue and West 12th Street. It faces 15 Abingdon Square, the building where Shelly died.[48]

The musical Waitress, based on the motion picture written by Shelly, opened on August 1, 2015, at the American Repertory Theater 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.[49] The production closed on January 5, 2020, after 33 previews and 1,544 performances.[citation needed]

Shelly's murder and police investigation is dramatized in season 4, episode 2 of the Investigation Discovery television series, The Perfect Murder.[50] She is portrayed by actress Emily Stokes.


Year Title Role Notes
1989 The Unbelievable Truth Audry
1990 Trust Maria Coughlin
Lonely in America Woman in Laundromat
1992 Big Girls Don't Cry... They Get Even Stephanie
Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me Dannie
1993 Hexed Gloria O'Connor
1994 Opera No. 1 Fairy #2 Short film
Kalamazoo Short film
Sleeping with Strangers Jenny
Homicide: Life on the Street Tanya Quinn Episode: "A Many Splendored Thing"
Teresa's Tattoo Teresa / Gloria
The Road Killers Red
Sleep with Me Pamela
1996 Sudden Manhattan Donna Writer and director
1997 The Regulars Short film
Grind Janey
Early Edition Emma Shaw Episode: "Phantom at the Opera"
1998 Oz Sarah Episode: "Ancient Tribes"
Wrestling with Alligators Mary
1999 I'll Take You There Lucy Writer and director
Festroia International Film Festival Prize of the City of Setúbal - Special Mention
The Comedy Festival Film Discovery Jury Award for Best Director
2000 Dead Dog Mrs. Marquet
Law & Order Wendy Alston Episode: "High & Low"
The Shadows of Bob and Zelda Zelda Short film
2001 The Atlantis Conspiracy Samantha TV movie
Revolution #9 Kim Kelly
2004 Tiger: His Fall & Rise Terry Short film
2005 Factotum Jerry
2007 Waitress Dawn Posthumous release

Final film appearance
Writer, 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

Year Title Role Notes
1994 Urban Legend Writer & Director 26-minute short film[51]
1997 Lois Lives a Little Writer & Director
Sudden Manhattan Writer & Director
2000 The Shadows of Bob and Zelda Writer & Director
2009 Serious Moonlight Writer


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