A LIFE IN THE THEATRE: Estelle Parsons, a Four-Time Tony Nominee, Is Back on Broadway
By Mervyn Rothstein
Meet octogenarian actress Estelle Parsons, the "Bonnie and Clyde" Oscar winner currently tying up loose ends of the plot in Broadway's Nice Work If You Can Get It.
"I love to entertain people," Estelle Parsons says. "I love to make them laugh and cry, maybe because I did that as a child. I'd hear the pocketbooks open, and they were getting out their handkerchiefs to sniffle. And I'd also hear the laughter."
Parsons, 84, has been entertaining audiences throughout her 60-year career in stage, film and television. She won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1968 for Bonnie and Clyde and was nominated the next year for Rachel, Rachel. She has been nominated for four Tony Awards that span 34 years — for Tennessee Williams' The Seven Descents of Myrtle (1968), And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little (1971), Miss Margarida's Way (1978) and Morning's at Seven (2002). On television, she was Roseanne Barr's mother in "Roseanne."
She has also directed (those credits include Salome, with Al Pacino, on Broadway in 2003, and Shakespeare with Joseph Papp in the 1980s) and for five years was artistic director of the Actors Studio. Her other recent Broadway shows include August: Osage County and, with Frances McDormand, Good People. She is now at the Imperial Theatre with Matthew Broderick and Kelli O'Hara in the Gershwin-based musical Nice Work If You Can Get It.
Parsons grew up in Marblehead, MA, and began performing at age six in community theatre. But as she grew up, her father "was very against" her being in the theatre. (Her father was never really happy with her theatre career, she says, until she "won the Academy Award. Then a smile.")
So after college, she studied law at Boston University. Her father was a politician, and she thought she might follow him into politics — she was even elected to the local planning board.
But the political life was not for her. She came to New York in the early 1950s and worked on NBC's "Today" show as a producer, writer and commentator. Singing was her primary goal, and while at NBC, she performed with bands. She married and had twin daughters. She auditioned for a Broadway musical — Happy Hunting, starring Ethel Merman — and got the job.
"Then I did a couple of unsuccessful musicals, though they were successful for me." One was called Whoop-Up. "I was standing by for the leading lady, who was often out, and I was playing it and stopping the show. So though I was only a standby, it showed me I really had some chops."
She performed with Lotte Lenya in The Threepenny Opera. In 1962 she had her first successful dramatic role, in Mrs. Dally Has a Lover. "I was on my way as an actress, which had never entered my mind."
In 1968, at Oscar time, she was in The Seven Descents of Myrtle. "I wasn't going to go to the Oscar ceremony, and Warren Beatty said, 'I'm sending you a ticket,' and [producer] David Merrick said, 'I'm putting your understudy on, so you might as well go.' I'm glad I went, because it was a lovely experience."
Her role in Nice Work If You Can Get It is supporting, but the musical is "so funny," she says. "I come in at the end and solve all the problems and give it a happy ending."
Parsons shows no interest in retiring. "I'm working on an experimental King Lear to see how the play works with a queen instead of a king. I don't want to do it as a trick. Shakespeare is full of great roles for men, the world is full of great roles for men, and they're hard to come by for women."
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