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.