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The Curtain Raiser: At 86, Estelle Parsons Is on a Role

Estelle Parsons has no intention of resting on any Lifetime Achievement laurels.
Estelle Parsons has no intention of resting on any Lifetime Achievement laurels.
Jena Cumbo

Who turns down an all-expenses-paid trip to the Riviera? Estelle Parsons did — and her fateful decision resulted in one of the most enduring and adventuresome careers in the American theater.

It happened like this:

"When I came to New York, I fell into a job as a production assistant at the Today show," explains Parsons. "For five years I was very successful at NBC. Then in 1956, they wanted me to cover Grace Kelly's wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco. I knew this was the plum assignment of the year, but I had just had twins, and I didn't want to go. So the producer and I mutually agreed that it would be a good idea if I left Today. There I was without a job, and my husband said, 'You've always talked about going on the stage, so why don't you?' " Parsons auditioned for Happy Hunting, a splashy new Broadway musical that begins (where else?) in Monaco during the week of Kelly's wedding.

"I was hired as a singer," Parsons says. "When we took the show out of town, they made me a reporter. Then they didn't like the other reporter, so they fired him and gave me his lines, too." For the next 11 months, she shared the stage with the legendary Ethel Merman: "I loved to watch her. In addition to her huge talent, she was highly disciplined and very moving in her portrayal. Twenty years later, I went to a fundraiser for the Big Apple Circus. I walked into this Park Avenue apartment and there was Ethel Merman standing by the mantelpiece. She saw me and said, 'Oh, Estelle, I was in a show with you!' I laughed, because she had that so wrong. I was lucky to start my career in a show with her."

Happy Hunting was but the beginning. Fifty-eight years, 30 Broadway productions, and uncounted Off-Broadway and regional-theater offerings later, Parsons is still going strong at age 86. In addition to her extensive stage and screen résumé, she has been tireless in finding work for others. In the 1980s, she helmed a Shakespeare company composed of young actors for Public Theater producer Joseph Papp. During her tenure as head of the Actors Studio (1998–2003), she organized readings of all 23 plays that the seminal Group Theatre collective had produced in the 1930s. "I wanted to give all the actors there a chance to act," she says, adding, "I never shy away from big projects. It's good to take on big things. The theater is not rocket science."

One of Parsons's earliest challenges occurred in 1962, when she moved from musicals to drama with William Hanley's Mrs. Dally Has a Lover at the Cherry Lane Theatre. "This will sound funny," she says, "but I was 34, and my big concern was that I might not be able to play a woman of 39." She needn't have worried: "Mrs. Dally put me on the acting map. All the limousines came down to the Cherry Lane. Then I was at a dinner party. [Group Theatre co-founders, along with Cheryl Crawford] Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman were there. I walked into the living room and overheard Clurman saying to Lee, 'You better take her into the [Actors] Studio. She's going to have a big career.'"

But not overnight. There were five years of scrounge-around pickup jobs. Productions like the 23-performance run of Next Time I'll Sing to You with fellow newcomers Harris Yulin and James Earl Jones, and understudying Anne Bancroft in a short-lived staging of Mother Courage and Her Children.

Along the way, Parsons learned to speak up for herself. In his memoir Kiss Me Like a Stranger, Gene Wilder recounts the summer he and Parsons performed with Carol Channing in a tour of The Millionairess. Wilder and Parsons were both three years away from their career-changing roles in Bonnie and Clyde. Nevertheless, when Channing hadn't memorized her role by the second city on the tour, a flinty Parsons confronted the star: "Either you know your lines by tomorrow night, or I'm not going onstage." The next night, Channing was word-perfect.

Parsons won the Oscar for Bonnie and Clyde in 1968, and soon became wary of the options that opened for her. "In my entire life," she says, "I don't think I ever chose a movie job over a theater job. I had no interest in movies, either before or after Bonnie and Clyde. I did that film because I wanted to work with Arthur Penn, but I had turned down movies before Bonnie and Clyde, and I turned down lots more after. I find that when people only want to hire you because you're famous, they tend to offer you roles you've already played, and there's not much satisfaction in that."

Her scores of TV and film jobs — those who don't remember her from Bonnie and Clyde might recognize her as Beverly, Roseanne Barr's mother on the comedian's eponymous sitcom — had to be wedged in between stage productions. Over the years, she has appeared in plays (and the occasional film) by Edward Albee, Robert Anderson, Alan Ayckbourn, Bertolt Brecht, Michael Cristofer, Horton Foote, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, David Lindsay-Abaire, Arthur Miller, Paul Osborn, Murray Schisgal, Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, and Paul Zindel. "Oh, God, that's so exciting," Parsons exclaims when she hears the names ticked off. "That is an incredible list." She takes a breath, then continues: "At the same time, I've often said I've spent my life doing bad plays. The truth is, I don't really care whether the plays are good or bad. I'm only interested in the characters."

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As her stature grew, tales about Parsons's brashness became legion. Stories like this one from William Biff McGuire, who has acted with Parsons three times, including a 2002 Broadway revival of Paul Osborn's Morning's at Seven: "On opening night, we were onstage waiting for the curtain to go up. I was sitting on a chair and Estelle was sitting on the porch eating a banana. Suddenly she said, 'Hold the curtain! This banana is bruised.' The stage managers were running around trying to get her a banana out of the prop room that wasn't bruised. I thought to myself, I wish the curtain would go up right now, so people could see what's going on back here. But I enjoy working with her. Estelle makes everything come to life."

Never more so than in June 2008, when 80-year-old Parsons succeeded Deanna Dunagan as Violet Weston, matriarch of the dysfunctional Weston clan in Tracy Letts's August: Osage County. It was as if Parsons's entire life's work had been on a trajectory to this withering yet artfully simple portrayal.

"Playing that role was an amazing experience," she says today, "but I have to tell you, I didn't have any idea of what I was doing on that stage. All I knew was, I was working. I was in the moment, and during every single moment, something that I had done with Lee [Strasberg] at the Studio would come to me. But trying to understand what I was doing was beyond me. I only knew I was working very, very hard — whatever that means. I don't even know what that means. Some performances cannot be explained."

After nearly a year on Broadway, Parsons helmed the national tour of August: Osage County. Many pundits assumed the tour would be a kind of victory lap, because at age 82 where do you go after Osage County? Parsons went to London to act with Simon Russell Beale in a sellout revival of Ira Levin's thriller Deathtrap. Then she spent most of 2012 cavorting her way through the Gershwin musical Nice Work If You Can Get It.

Last month she shared the Booth Theatre stage with Stephen Spinella in Eric Coble's The Velocity of Autumn. The two-character comedy closed after two weeks. "The play had a lot of strikes against it before we even started," Parsons concedes, "because it's about aging, a subject people don't really want to deal with. I understand that older people become invisible, because I'm old and I'm invisible. Hardly anyone knows who I am any more. But The Velocity of Autumn is a play that the audience got totally wrapped up in. They talked back to us, and they cheered when we were going to blow ourselves up. There was a lot of crazy stuff going on with that audience."

In spite of the abbreviated run, her performance earned Parsons a Tony nomination.

As for the future, only one thing is certain. "I don't stop. I like to work. And if I'm not working commercially, I work at the studio," she says. "My objectives today are the same as they were when I was a child of seven, acting in a community theater in Lynn, Massachusetts: to speak loud enough, to understand what the writer is trying to say, and then to convey the writer's message to the audience. The audience is everything to me. We're in the theater to entertain people. We're there to give viewers the experience of the text that we have uncovered. And if we do that properly, the audience will respond. We hear them laugh. We hear them cry. We hear them cough when they're trying not to cry. I ask you: What could be more edifying than that?"

Parsons at the Obie Awards on Monday, May 19, with her Lifetime Achievement award.
Sandy Honig

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