November 20, 1927– Estelle Parsons
Instead of slowing down, as Parsons approached her 90th birthday she began branching out, taking on the role of Assistant Artistic Director of the famed Actors Studio, an organization for professional actors, theatre directors and playwrights, founded in 1947. It’s the place where Lee Strasberg taught Konstantin Stanislavski’s “The Method” to Edward Albee, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, Dustin Hoffman, and Marilyn Monroe. It’s also where Kevin Spacey did some of his first groping. It is currently run by Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel.
Parsons is also still acting; her most recent theatre role was a little more than a year ago, in the Off-Broadway premiere of Israel Horovitz’s Out Of The Mouths Of Babes.
Parsons was the first female political reporter on network television with a five-year stint on NBC’s The Today Show in the early 1950s. She must have made a convincing reporter, because she made her Broadway debut as a reporter in the musical “Happy Hunting” (1956) starring the great Ethel Merman. Parsons won a Theatre World Award for the title role in William Hanley’s talky drama Mrs. Dally Has A Lover (1962).
She has nearly 100 stage credits. In 1964, Parsons won an Obie Award for her performance in an Off-Broadway production of Jane Bowles’ In the Summer House. Parsons has received four Tony Award nominations: Tennessee William’s The Seven Descents Of Myrtle (1968), Paul Zindel’s And Miss Reardon Drinks A Little (1971), Roberto Athayde’s Miss Margarida’s Way (1978), and Paul Osborn’s Morning’s At Seven (2002). She played Ruth in Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance with Linda Ronstadt and Kevin Kline on Broadway in 1981, and a year-long run in Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize winning August: Osage County in 2009-2010. In 2011, she was a part of the ensemble, including Frances McDormand, of Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire at Manhattan Theatre Club, and the musical Nice Work If You Can Get It featuring songs by George and Ira Gershwin.
Parson’s first Hollywood film role, the shrewish Blanche Barrow in Arthur Penn’s landmark Bonnie And Clyde (1967) established her as a top screen character actor. I caught this great film on TCM recently, and I was amazed how good it is, and shocked by the poetic violence. Parsons is simply astonishing as her Blanche becomes hysterical with bullets whizzing by and then heartbreakingly grief-stricken after the shoot-out that blinded her in one eye and left her husband Buck (Gene Hackman) dead. She then unwittingly provided law enforcement with the information that leads to the end of Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde (Warren Beatty). It is a tour de force performance that brought her an Academy Award. Her second film performance, as Joanne Woodward’s schoolteacher colleague in Paul Newman’s directing debut, Rachel, Rachel (1968), gave her anothr Oscar nomination.
Of her many film roles, I especially love her sensitive work as Hackman’s sister and Melvyn Douglas’ daughter in I Never Sang For My Father (1970), her hilarious supporting work opposite Barbra Streisand in the now neglected For Pete’s Sake (1974), and as Mrs. Truehart in Dick Tracy (1990), reteamed with Warren Beatty, who both starred and directed. I liked her a bunch in Herbert Ross’ gay-themed Boys On The Side (1995), as Queen Margaret in Pacino’s inventive documentary about acting in Shakespeare, Looking For Richard (1996).
But, I love her the most for her recurring role as Beverly Harris, the busybody mother of Roseanne and Jackie, on the classic ABC sitcom Roseanne (1989-1997), which despite all her stage and screen credits, is undoubtedly what provided Parsons with the greatest exposure of her distinguished career. During the show’s final season, her Beverly comes out as a lesbian, according to one of Roseanne’s fictional twists on the family, along with winning the lottery. This is revealed in the finale where Roseanne states that her mother is not a lesbian but that her sister is; she just thought it’d be interesting to put a radical twist on the character of her Mother, who lived her life according to her husband’s rules, and because she wished her mother had a better sense of herself as a woman. Bev’s relationship with her own mother (played by Shelly Winters) is very similar to the one her daughters have with her. Got that? It was all rather confusing, even for a hard core fan like me.
ABC has been rather quiet about on how Roseanne will look when it returns next spring, more than 20 years after it signed off. I do know that John Goodman’s character, Dan Conner, won’t be dead anymore. That’s a change from the finale, when it was revealed that Dan had died of a heart attack. The finale also revealed that Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) was a lesbian, and that Darlene (Sara Gilbert) and the good Becky (Sarah Chalke) actually had each other’s significant other. No word yet if Parsons will return, but that would be too perfect. At its height, Roseanne was the number one show in the USA. Barr’s real-life brother and sister are gay, which inspired her to push for introducing gay characters and issues into her show. Sandra Bernhard’s Nancy Bartlett was the first regular lesbian character on American television. Barr: “My show seeks to portray various slices of real life, and homosexuals are a reality.”
Last year, Parsons had an especially funny, yet poignant story arc as Babe, an old friend of both Grace And Frankie who decides when and how she is going to leave this world.
In summer 2016, fell ill midway through a performance of Out Of The Mouths Of Babes, debilitated by the heat. Her doctor advised her against returning to the show. But currently, at 90-years-old, she seems to be fine. Parsons:
“I have a trainer once a week. I swim once or twice, 30 minutes, and I do the bike every day, half hour. And once or twice a week, I do a Pilates class.”
Despite her success, Parsons says she didn’t think of herself as an actor until late in life:
“I never wanted to be famous. I just wanted to be left alone. My image of myself was living all alone and having a driver.”