Estelle Parsons has always found something interesting to do. Eighty years ago at her local community theater, she starred as a boy who’s transformed into a princess. Now in Eric Coble’s The Velocity of Autumn, she’s playing a woman who threatens to blow up herself and her entire Brooklyn block if she’s not allowed to live and die as she pleases. In between, Parsons “showed up on time and ready to work.” That’s about as much credit as she’ll take for her success. She’s got a New Englander’s distaste for self-aggrandizement, or as she says: “I’m repressed.” The 86-year-old may not admit it, but she’s a trailblazer.
Parsons was one of only two women in her class at Boston University Law School and was in the first group of women to be accepted to Harvard Law School. At 21, she was the youngest person, and first woman, to be elected to the Marblehead Planning Board, and as the first “Today girl,” she was also television’s first female political reporter. In film, she won an Academy Award for her first major role in Bonnie & Clyde, and was nominated for her subsequent film, Rachel, Rachel, though cinephiles may also know her as much for her BAFTA-nominated turn in Melvin Van Peebles’s groundbreaking The Watermelon Man.
Before The Velocity of Autumn went into previews at Broadway’s Booth Theatre, Ms. Parsons spoke with me about her work, what drew her to acting, and retirement.
You had a penchant for making history.
Well, I never had any desire to break barriers. It was enough just to get through the day. I never wanted to do anything but act and sing. But it seemed crazy to say that. So I tried everything else. Being a lawyer had too much to do with reality. People’s lives are in your hands. I thought I’d go into politics. I’d helped in my father’s campaigns when he was in the state legislature. But it was a man’s world, so I thought, “Get me out of here.” It would have been a lonely life.
Your first job in show business was at NBC’s Today.
I was still living with my family. A friend’s car had broken down, so I drove her to New York and looked up my roommate’s sister. She was married to a VP at NBC who said they were starting a morning show. They liked that I knew about a lot of different fields. I’d spent six months during the war with the Woman’s Land Army in England in addition to everything else. I was hired as a production assistant. There were only eight of us on staff. When I called my father, he said, “We Parsons don’t leave home.” Our family had been in New England since 1632. I said, “I’ll only be gone six months.” I was there five years. One day, Dave Garroway [the host] was supposed to interview the author of The Origin of the Human Race. I gave him the research and he said, “You know more about this book than I do. You do it.” I started doing features reporting, then politics. But when I was offered to cover the Grace Kelly wedding, which was the big story of the year, I was married, had twin girls, and I didn’t want to leave them. It was time to go. So I left for a chorus job in Happy Hunting with Ethel Merman.
Where you played a reporter covering the Princess Grace wedding!
Yes, isn’t that funny? My dream was to be another Ethel Merman. I loved that spirit, where you get up there and get it out. So I was doing these musicals, but they weren’t very good. Then I fell into doing plays. I did a one-act, Mrs. Dally Takes a Lover, and for the most part didn’t stop working. With most directors it was “move here, move there.” And that didn’t fit with my sense of any truth. But when I was doing Skin of Our Teeth, Arthur Penn had us read a scene together and then act it in our own words. Suddenly I could bring myself into it. That’s when I knew I was in the right business.
What did your father think of your career?
I knew I was disappointing him, all the way through, living in New York, acting. That made life difficult for me. He was happy, though, when I won the Academy Award. And I could relax. People in the business felt, “Well, I guess she can do this.” I started working with Joe Papp at the Public Theater. I was one of several people he nourished as an artist. There’s no one like that anymore. Directors thought I was too contemporary for Shakespeare, but he thought I could do anything and tried to get me jobs.
I’d started directing and Joe saw an Antony and Cleopatra I did that was multicultural and bilingual. He asked me to run a school program for him. But it isn’t good for actors to play just for students, so we played for them during the week and families on the weekend. We had Spanish, French, Japanese actors. We’d start in their original language. I expected them to bring themselves. It’s the only worthwhile thing I’ve done in my life. A black dude sitting in the back row could look up on the stage, see an interracial couple, and get a different view of what life could be. Then I adopted a boy and stopped everything else for five years. Everything that could happen to a kid happened to him, so I made sure we did what needed to be done for him. I’d had twin girls, but felt more of a sense of responsibility with him, since we chose him.
And you came back with Roseanne.
Yes, it kept me in the public eye. But I only had to work four days a month. And when I was away, my husband and son could bond. The show was more like stage than film. The actors are there for the beginning, middle, and end. For a while I got too caught up in trying to be funny. But the character was interesting. She was all the parts of your mother you want to get away from.
And then you returned to the theater, directing Salome with Al Pacino and Jessica Chastain, being nominated for your fourth Tony with Morning’s at Seven, taking over on Broadway in August: Osage County, and then doing the tour. How did Velocity of Autumn come your way?
Our director, Molly Smith, thought I should do it and sent it along. I read five pages and thought this woman is interesting. Most old lady parts are naïve, undeveloped. And that’s true for a lot of older women as well. Friends from college who call about reunions talk to me like I’m from outer space. They’ve never worked; they’ve been helpmates to some man. This is someone I’ve never played. She’s been an adventurer; she’s an alone kind of person. It’s always about the character for me; I’ve never worried too much about the rest of a piece. So we forged ahead with it in Baltimore and audiences just ate it up. You can feel that from the stage. It’ll be interesting to see how New York responds.
You’re playing a 79-year-old woman making choices about the end of her life. You’re 86. I don’t want to be indelicate, but have you thought about how and when you’d retire?
Look, this woman’s had it. She’s totally overcome by physical disabilities and pain. She can’t paint anymore. So she’s ready to go. I’ve been blessed: Long life is from the Swedish part of my family. But I’ll probably have to face hard questions sooner or later. I’m working on a King Lear project with Lear as a woman. But I don’t want to do things beyond my stamina. I was 82 when I did August: Osage County. First I thought I can’t do that, but I could. Still, when the worries get stronger than the pleasure, I’ll stop. I love travel. I love to be out in the woods. I like directing. I just care that I’m a good person and follow my impulses in life. There will always be things for me to get out there and do.