Great Old Broad Series: Estelle Parsons

Last Sunday's screening at New Haven's Lyric Hall of the documentary "Broads,"that features salty, outspoken interviews with actresses of a certain age remind me of some of my own favorite interviews of like-minded dames.

I'll post a series of these interviews in the next week or so. Hope you enjoy them as much as I did writing them. On Friday there was my1992 interview with Maureen Stapleton. On Saturday, my 1998 piece on Cloris Leachman, a 2001 interview was posted Sunday with Elizabeth Ashley; on Monday my 2008 piece on Elaine Stritch; on Tuesday my 2008 piece on Olympia Dukakis. Today, my 1998 piece on Estelle Parsons.

By FRANK RIZZO

Estelle Parsons lives in the moment.
    And when you enter her world, you live in the moment, too.
    You enter her world with caution, for the woman possesses a devastating tongue and a willingness to use it. You enter it with anticipation, for she is scathingly funny, smart and bold. But most of all, you enter it with respect and a little awe because the woman has paid her dues -- with interest -- working in film, television and theater for nearly half a century.
    ``It's just being part of an actor to live in the moment on stage,'' says Parsons, who is also artistic director of The Actors Studio (``a kind of gym for actors,'' she says). ``That's what acting is. Living in the moment. That's what's wrong with theater people coming out of [master of fine arts] programs. They don't really learn to live in the moment. They've learned to plan. But what you do on stage, well that's it, man.''
    Sitting down over dinner recently at the Civic Cafe on Trumbull Street in downtown Hartford, it becomes clear the actress is a straight-talking, no-nonsense New England Yankee. Talking to her is a wild ride of opinions, analyses and revelations, but it's not for the faint-hearted, because you're never sure whether air bags will deploy at conversational impact. Still, it's worth the trip.
    Parsons, who turns 71 this month, is now at Hartford Stage performing in one of the most demanding parts of her career, playing the happy, chatty and slightly batty Winnie in Samuel Beckett's ``Happy Days.'' The show, which continues through Nov. 22, is directed by Richard Block, who founded the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Co-starring is Frank Raiter.
    Parsons played the role two years ago in Chicago's Irish Repertory Theatre, but briefly, compared with Hartford Stage's longer run. It's a tour-de-force endeavor for the actress, who spends the first half of the play buried to her waist in a mound of earth, and the second half buried to her neck.
    But it's Beckett. It's ``Happy Days.'' It's theater.
    ``I'm madly in love with this woman,'' says Hartford Stage artistic director Michael Wilson, who asked Parsons to do ``Happy Days'' here. ``She's worked so incredibly hard in this role, and she is just fearless. She is someone who works from the guts.''
    Much of what would impress most people about Parsons' career leaves the actress unfazed.
    On her Oscar for playing the hysterical Blanche in Arthur Penn's ``Bonnie and Clyde'' in 1967: ``Didn't mean a thing to me.'' On her role as Bev, Roseanne's exasperating mother on TV's ``Roseanne'': the job was ``convenient.'' As the first female political commentator in the early days of television on the ``Today'' show, she says she ``never thought about it one way or the other.'' Her writings on travel for The New York Times and her adaptations of plays were diversions. (``I don't like working alone.'')
    But acting in the theater, ``in the moment when it's alive and then it's gone,'' well, that's another story. One that began in Marblehead, Mass., where she was the daughter of a distinguished family whose New England roots go back to 1632.
   
    Student Of Politics
   
Growing up, she often appeared in school shows and community theater productions, where she found a special fondness for singing. But when it came time to go to college, she turned to her family's long tradition in law and politics by studying political science at Connecticut College for Women, where her sister had attended. (``I was not strong on courage then,'' she says of her decision not to strike out on her own.) She then went to law school at Boston University and thought about going into politics, even serving on Marblehead's planning board for a time. But she was turned off by law schools for treating women like second-class citizens.
    ``I thought, `Get me out of this profession. Even if I should succeed, it would be so lonely.' ''
    When she was in her early 20s, the theatrical gods seemed to intervene. She went to New York by accident when a family friend's car broke down while visiting Massachusetts, and she agreed to drive the auto back to Manhattan. When in New York, a friend of a college chum asked her if she would be interested in working on a new morning television program, called ``Today,'' they were creating with Dave Garroway.
    Her father warned her, ``You know we Parsons don't leave home.''
    But she did -- and soon found herself as part of one of television's pioneering teams, producing featuresand writing.She became the first female political reporter on network television. But to Parsons, ``it was just a 9 to 5 job. It was fun, but let's face it, television is a superficial medium.'' In the evenings and on weekends, she pursued her passion, singing in clubs and later performing in Julius Monk's Upstairs at the Downstairs revues, musicals (``Happy Hunting'' with Ethel Merman, ``Whoop-Up'') and plays.
   
    Seeking The Right Directors
   
When asked when she felt she was on the road to a career, she laughs and sighs. ``Nooooooo, I never did feel like that. I like to do what I like to do. I never had any interest in getting anywhere or succeeding, and I have no interest in money. I just wanted to do what I wanted to do, like finding directors who I wanted to work with.''
    One of them was Arthur Penn, who directed her in ``The Skin of Our Teeth'' one summer in the Berkshires. She says the reason she took the role in ``Bonnie and Clyde'' was because of Penn, who helped make Parsons feel she was ``in the right business after all. Everything fell into place after him.''
    But as for movie fame, Hollywood dough and Oscar wins, she shrugs it all off.
    ``I didn't care,'' she says, her voice rising to fingernails-on-the-chalkboard frequency. ``I didn't care about movies. I don't care about the movies. I'm not particularly interested in movies. I hate mechanical media. I just like to work on stage. I like human beings. I'm only interested in the theater. I've never been interested in anything else.''
    On the night of the 1967 Oscars, she intended to be on stage in New York where she was starring in Tennessee Williams' play ``The Seven Descents of Myrtle.''
    ``And [producer] David Merrick said to me, `You're going to the Oscars.' And I said, `No, I'm not. I have a show that night, are you kidding? Why in God's name would I come out there [Los Angeles]? I'm in a Broadway show!' And Merrick said, `I'm putting your understudy on that night and if you stay here you won't have anything to do.' So I flew out, and yeah, it was really fun to win and hear your name and walk up the aisle and it was very sweet to win, like getting a piece of candy. But I couldn't have cared less. I did the film because I wanted to work with Arthur.''
   
    ``Movie Offers Galore''
   
Parson's opinion didn't change, even after she was nominated for an Oscar the next year for her work in the film ``Rachel, Rachel.''
    She was back in New York, doing the Brecht-Weill musical ``Mahagonny'' at a small off-Broadway theater.
    ``I was getting movie offers galore. Movie directors were coming on their knees to me to play leading roles which then went to Julie Harris or Julie Christie or whoever else. I said, `Forget it. I'm in this show.' And they said, `But the show is terrible.' Barbra Streisand came to my dressing room and said, `Why are you doing this?' I said, `Why am I doing this? It's Kurt Weill! It's Brecht! It's a 32-piece orchestra!' It was also a disaster. We previewed for four months, and when it opened it played for a weekend.
    ``I turned down so many good movies. Sometimes when I get depressed, I think about all my friends -- men, of course -- who are big movie stars, and I think, `Why didn't you do all those movies?' But then I don't think I could live with myself. I can't take that way of life. There's no feedback. I don't call that acting. But in the theater, you get in front of that black hole -- in front of 500 people and then you've got to come up with something. That's a real challenge.''
    Parsons's stage career, which earned her three Tony award nominations, includes work in ``Miss Margarida's Way,'' ``The Pirates of Penzance,'' ``And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little,'' ``Galileo'' and ``The Norman Conquests.'' Films include ``Boys on the Side,'' ``Don't Drink the Water,'' ``I Never Sang for My Father,'' ``The Watermelon Man,'' ``For Pete's Sake,'' ``Dick Tracy'' and ``Looking for Richard.''
    Her appearances on TV's top-rated ``Roseanne'' came at a time of her life when she wanted less work in order to be with her family, which includes her lawyer husband, two twin daughters, now 33, and a 15-year-old son.
    ``I just did the shows when I felt like it and they let me do that,'' she says. ``It was good for me because I couldn't work six nights in the theater at the time.''
    She had a fine working relationship with the star of the television series who was often portrayed as temperamental.
    ``She loved me and we had a very good time'' Parsons says of Roseanne, ``and she wanted everyone to be better than she was. That's a sign of something. I think it may have been difficult for the people who were there all the time. But for me, I just came in and had a wonderful time.''
   
    The Draining Side Of Theater
   
But even the theater sometimes gets her down.
    ``It ain't what it used to be,'' she says. ``The theater used to be full of love and it's not anymore. And if actors don't feel love, they feel judgment. Oh, I'm being so rude. I don't know. It's the play. It's too hard. Nobody should do it. I shouldn't be doing it. But it's such a good play for me to do. It's really perfect for me. It uses all my brain as well as my comic ability. It's a tremendously challenging piece. It's like learning a piece of music, only harder. I want to make the play an experience where you would not notice the time go by. I wanted to see if this piece could be an exciting evening for an audience and not, `It's Samuel Beckett. Oh, yes, that idea is very interesting.' I want to make it a theatrical event, an exciting evening.''
    Suddenly, a waiter arrives with dessert selections and asks her, ``How do you like acting?''
    She looks up and says matter-of-factly, ``Yes, I love it or I wouldn't do it.''
    ``I was thinking about getting into it,'' says the waiter. ``I've always thought of doing something like that.''
    ``Well, try it,'' Parson says in a rallying voice that could lead the cavalry. ``You might be glad you did.''
    When he is gone, she sighs and attributes her emotions to the stresses of the role.
    ``Don't say anything about what an awful witch I am,'' she says at the end of the dinner. ``Just say I'm such a semi-fun person and I love Hartford and I'm so excited about the play.''
    And, for the moment, in the moment, it's true.