Shepherd was born February 18, 1950, in Memphis, Tennessee, the daughter of Patty (née Shobe), a homemaker, and William Jennings Shepherd, who managed a home appliance business. Cybill was named using a name blend that referred to her grandfather Cy and her father Bill. While attending East High School, Shepherd won the “Miss Teenage Memphis” title and represented the city at the 1966 Miss Teenage America pageant at age 16, where she won the congeniality award. She competed at the 1968 “Model of the Year” contest at age 18, making her a fashion star of the 1960s and resulting in fashion model assignments through high school and afterward.
According to Shepherd’s autobiography, a 1970 Glamour magazine cover caught the eye of film director Peter Bogdanovich. His then-wife, Polly Platt, claimed that when she saw the cover in a check-out line in a Ralphs grocery store in southern California, he said “That’s Jacy,” referring to the role Bogdanovich was casting—and ultimately given to Shepherd—in The Last Picture Show (1971).
Her first film was The Last Picture Show, also starring Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms. The film became a critical and box office hit, earning eight Academy Awards nominations and winning two. Shepherd was nominated for a Golden Globe. Shepherd was cast opposite Charles Grodin in The Heartbreak Kid (1972). She played Kelly, a young woman for whom Grodin’s character falls while on his honeymoon in Miami. Directed by Elaine May, it was another critical and box office hit. Also in 1972, Shepherd posed as a Kodak Girl for the camera manufacturer’s then-ubiquitous cardboard displays.
In 1974, Shepherd again teamed up with Peter Bogdanovich for the title role in Daisy Miller, based on the Henry James novella. The film—a period piece set in Europe—was a box office failure. That same year, she launched a singing career, releasing a studio album Cybill Does It…To Cole Porter for MCA Records. It was panned by Village Voice critic Robert Christgau, who wrote: “Her voice is surprisingly pleasant, but you’d never know how these songs sparkle. Since Cole didn’t like to . . . do it with (or ‘to’) women very much, maybe the ‘do’ is as hostile as it sounds.”
In 1975, she made her next film, At Long Last Love, a musical that was directed by Bogdanovich, but, like Daisy Miller, it flopped. Shepherd returned with good reviews for her work in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). According to Shepherd, Scorsese had requested a “Cybill Shepherd type” for the role. She portrayed an ethereal beauty with whom Robert De Niro’s character, Travis Bickle, becomes enthralled.
A series of less-successful roles followed, including The Lady Vanishes, a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 film of the same name. Already sitting in on an acting class taught by Stella Adler, Shepherd was offered work at a dinner theater in Norfolk, Virginia, and turned to friend Orson Welles for advice. He encouraged her to get experience on stage in front of an audience, anywhere but New York or Los Angeles, away from the harsh big-city critics and so she moved back to her home town of Memphis to work in regional theatre.