Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2014

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Never Out of Characters

Never Out of Characters
Posing on the set of “The Velocity of Autumn,” in which she starred at Washington, D.C.'s, Arena Stage last fall

The sister-in-law of Clyde in “Bonnie & Clyde” in the '60s and the mother of “Roseanne” in the '90s, Oscar-winning actress Estelle Parsons '49 is still winning roles and ovations at age 86

by Chris Nashawaty '91


At an age when most of her contemporaries would be all too happy to call it a day and coast on their Broadway accomplishments, lolling over leisurely lunches under their pen-and-ink caricatures at Sardi's, Estelle Parsons won't slow down. Actually, won't is the wrong word. She can't.

Last fall, the legendary 86-year-old actress directed a fiery one-man show about race at the Actors Studio in New York called “Rhapsody in Black,” she hopped onto a plane to Texas to shoot a scene with her old pal Al Pacino for his upcoming film “Manglehorn,” and she received rave reviews for her feisty, go-for-broke performance on stage in “The Velocity of Autumn” in Washington, D.C.

“The truth is, I like working and I don't find real life all that interesting,” says Parsons with an exhausted wave of her hand. “Plus, I have trouble saying no.”

Not that she'll get the chance to say it any time soon. Parsons has already signed on to reprise her “Autumn” role when the emotional tinderbox drama about an elderly woman who would rather blow up her home than move out comes to Broadway for an open-ended run in April.

During a sliver-thin break in her hectic schedule on a November afternoon, Parsons welcomes a visitor to her airy penthouse apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side with the cheery warmth of an innkeeper. The building is one of those classic New York City doorman jobs with a polished brass-and-dark-oak lobby and, higher up, sweeping vistas of the Hudson River. After making small talk about her years at Connecticut College and commenting on how her current view reminds her of the sight of the Long Island Sound from the New London campus, she settles into an overstuffed cream-colored sofa in the living room. She musses her stylishly short grey hair, takes a frothy-lipped sip of cappuccino, and only then reluctantly discusses her six-decade career. Unlike most actors, talking about herself isn't something that comes naturally to Parsons.

“It's a little strange and ridiculous, isn't it?” she asks, uncorking an infectious laugh.

Here's the thing: You can ask Parsons questions — questions about her unlikely path to the theater, about her four Tony nominations, about her Oscar-winning performance in 1967's “Bonnie and Clyde,” and about what's ironically become her most recognized role, playing the zany, scene-stealing grandmother on the hit TV show “Roseanne.” And she'll answer you. Sort of. But, to her, such inquiries are mere points of departure. Launching pads for blunt, unguarded backstage anecdotes that make a theater-world outsider feel as though he's being welcomed into an exclusive club by the grandest of grande dames.

Honestly, though, it's more entertaining just to listen to Parsons talk in her salty Yankee accent. About anything. About her early years singing the blues with a young pianist named Jack Lemmon, about the nervous wreck in her acting classes named Marilyn Monroe, and about the $30 off-the-rack dress she wore to the Oscars the evening she won her Best Supporting Actress statuette. Soaking in these stories, you can't help but get the impression that this is a woman who has done it all. She's sparred onstage and onscreen with the greatest heavyweights of her generation and, more often than not, come out on top.

Although she was too young to recognize it at the time, Parsons was destined for a performing life from the time she could walk and talk. Growing up in Marblehead, Mass., the youngest of two daughters in an old-line Yankee family, she started a harmonica band in kindergarten, wrote her first play in the second grade, and began acting in community theater at 6.

“I was an accomplished actor at a very young age,” she says matter-of-factly. “I knew when people laughed, I could hear them gasping, I could hear them crying. I knew all of that early on.”

In 1945 Parsons enrolled at Connecticut College, where she led a double life — and a double octet — singing in local bars and nightspots like the Lighthouse Inn.

“There were a lot of New York people who would come, agents and managers, who would say, 'Here's my card. Why don't you come to New York?'”

It was clear to everyone that she was on her way to becoming a professional singer. Everyone, that is, except her father.

“It just wasn't what young women from respected New England families did,” she says.

After a brief, one-year, stint at Boston University studying law, Parsons went back to Marblehead to enter local politics. Then, in 1950, either by destiny or dumb luck, something happened that would alter the mapped-out course of her life.

“Someone's Cadillac had broken down and they asked if I could drive them back to New York City,” Parsons recalls. “When I got there, I met up with a college friend who had married a VP at NBC. And he said they were starting a morning television show and that I should meet the producer.”

Just 22, Parsons was hired as a production assistant on the fledgling Today show. Back then, live television was still in its infancy. It was pioneer days. Stories were reported on the fly as copy was ripped off the newswire. Parsons was quickly promoted to a staff writing position. Then she was tapped to become network television's first female political reporter.

“Barbara Walters was dying to get on the show,” she says.

When she's asked if she realized at the time that she was a trailblazer for women, she roars with laughter. “I didn't care. It was my 9 to 5. I was too busy singing with bands on the the side. That's what really interested me.”

So after five years at NBC, Parsons quit. “I just gave it up,” she says. “Can you imagine? I'm on TV, everyone's talking about me, and I said, 'Thank you, that's enough of that!'” She flashes a frisky grin. “I guess I'm a crazy person.”

In 1956, Parsons landed a part in the ensemble of Ethel Merman's long-running musical “Happy Hunting.” She was also moonlighting as a cabaret singer with her best friend, an up-and-coming actor and accomplished blues pianist whom she still calls “Jackie Lemmon.”

“People smoked in those days,” she says. “And you'd get home from work at two in the morning and your clothes would reek of smoke. I loved it! I kept thinking to myself, How could a little girl from Marblehead sing the blues? It just seemed so outrageous!”

Back then, at the beginning of her acting career, Parsons admits she had trouble with the insecurity of her chosen profession.

“You're rejected all the time,” she says. “You never know if you're any good. It's a crazy business. You never know where your next job is coming from.” But Parsons wouldn't have to wait very long for her next part. Many of the shows she appeared in in the late '50s were flops, but she never had trouble landing the next gig.

Parsons admits that from the beginning she never saw herself as the leading-lady type in the theater. Which is fine by her.

“Those parts are boring,” she says. “And I didn't look like the typical leading lady. I was a little bit chunky. It wasn't for me. I'm more of a tragic comedienne.”

It's a niche that served her well in the '60s, when she appeared in Broadway productions like Bertold Brecht's “Mother Courage,” “Ready When You Are, C.B.!,” “Malcolm” and “The East Wind.” By that time Parsons had enrolled in the famed Actors Studio — a hothouse of intense preparation and discipline where she studied under Lee Strasberg and auditioned for the legendary director Elia Kazan, honing her craft and tapping into the raw emotional life she led at home. Her first husband had essentially left her with two kids to raise on her own.

It was there that she first met director Arthur Penn. She desperately wanted to work with him, suspecting that he could bring the best out of her. Then, in 1965, while doing summer theater in Stockbridge, Mass., with a crew of ambitious and ferociously talented rising stars — including Viveca Lindfors, Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman — Penn asked Parsons to be in his next film, “Bonnie and Clyde.”

“I wasn't the least bit interested,” she says of the movie that would turn her into a household name. “I wasn't interested in anything but the theater. You come out and mesmerize and hold in your hand 500 or 1,000 people. You've done something you can be proud of, whereas movies, you go in at 6 in the morning and you're there until 6 at night, and what have you got? It's like working in a factory! I'm not interested in money or fame, I'm just interested in entertaining people.” She pauses. “And even that, I'm not that interested in.”

Still, the prospect of working with Penn was too juicy to pass up. So Parsons signed on to play Blanche, the prim, shrill, tragic sister-in-law of Warren Beatty's bank-robbing Depression-era folk hero, Clyde Barrow. The film, which was released in 1967, was a hit. Actually, it was more than that. It sparked a revolution, ushering in a new wave of films and filmmakers that spoke to the counterculture generation.

The film's doomed romance, outlaw spirit, and shockingly nihilistic violence was a blast of fresh air. And Parsons' nuanced, jeweler-precise performance was rewarded with a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination.

For Oscar night, Parsons took a one-day leave of absence from her Broadway play, Tennessee Williams' “The Seven Descents of Myrtle” (for which she earned a Tony nomination), and flew out to L.A., carrying little more than a $30 dress she bought on 81st Street.
“I wasn't going to go,” she says. “I didn't give a s--t about that stuff, and I don't like big crowds. But Warren sent me a ticket….”

It's a good thing she decided to go. Parsons won the Oscar.

“It was great,” she says. “It was like getting a piece of candy when you're a kid. Although I couldn't say that, because out in Hollywood it's actually meaningful to people.”
? The following year Parsons was nominated again, this time for her indelible supporting turn in Paul Newman's “Rachel, Rachel,” an emotionally harrowing drama about a single New England school teacher (played by Joanne Woodward) grappling with loneliness.

Talking about the film — although she could be talking about any of the dozens of roles she's played over the years — Parsons says, “I was just trying to become another person. That's why I do this, I like to create people. Probably because I find life really terrible and I want to be someone else. I go by houses and I think, 'What must it be like to be the person who lives there?' I'm always thinking of being someone else.”

In all of Parsons' greatest and most iconic performances, whether it's her Tony-nominated turns as the tortured alcoholic in 1971's “And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little,” the power-mad school teacher in 1977's “Miss Margarida's Way,” or the aging sister grappling with change in 2002's “Morning's at Seven,” she possesses the rare gift of making you forget that you're watching someone acting. She seems to inhabit the body, the mannerisms and the soul of her characters with the spooky ease of a magician performing a sleight-of-hand trick.

“Estelle lives to work on the stage,” says her “Velocity of Autumn” costar Stephen Spinella. “She's so smart and so fast. Usually you lose that kind of speed when you get older but not her.”

Spinella recalls an early preview performance of the play when both of them forgot their lines. “She just stopped and said, 'I have no idea where we are.' So she just went back to the beginning and started over again and that night ended up being fantastic. She's completely fearless.”

Parsons may be fearless, but she's not shy about her deep disgust for television. So it was a bit surprising when, in 1989, she joined the cast of the hit TV show “Roseanne.” Parsons appeared in more than 50 episodes of the blue-collar comedy series as Beverly Harris, the pretentious and slightly daffy mother of Roseanne Barr and Laurie Metcalf's characters.

At the time, Parsons had taken a step back from acting to take care of her adopted son, who was dyslexic. The job allowed her to more or less create her own schedule, flying out to Hollywood for a few days every month and leaving her son in the care of her second husband, Manhattan attorney Peter Zimroth.

“I stopped working in the theater and it broke my heart,” says Parsons. “Someone would call me up and say 'Please do this,' and it would be something I wanted to do, but I couldn't do eight shows a week. Then Roseanne called and it was just wonderful. I just loved her.”
For her part, Barr says she would have bent over backwards to accommodate Parsons.

“We cast Estelle because she is one of the greatest actors who ever lived,” says Barr. “Laurie Metcalf and I were thinking of who could play a three-dimensional character, so, of course, her name came up. All of the cast would watch Estelle like we watched a master painter — the way she would deliver the lines was always perfection. We all liked learning from watching her — a master class every week on layering subtext and integrity.”

Hearing Barr's words read back to her, Parsons giggles and her face turns a deep shade of scarlet.

“She said all of that? Can you send that to me? My husband will love it! He needs to know what a talent I am!”

Something tells us that like so many of Parsons' lucky audience members over the years, he already knows.

Chris Nashawaty '91 is a film critic at Entertainment Weekly magazine. His book “Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman, King of the B Movie,” was published last fall.


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