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William S. Gooch Talks With Estelle Parsons

Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Warren Beatty,
Faye Dunaway and Michael J. Pollard
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

The Indefatigable Estelle Parsons: Mixing it up and Doing it Her Way

Whether she is acting in a play or film, directing or staging great classics like Salome or Antony and Cleopatra, Estelle Parsons always puts her wise, inimitable stamp on a show. Most contemporary audiences remember her as Beverly, Roseanne Connor’s funny, prim-and-proper mom from the hit sitcom, Roseanne. However, this great lady of stage and film has thrilled audience for decades in such works as Bonnie and Clyde, For Pete’s Sake, Watermelon Man, And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little and Miss Margarida’s Way, to name just a few. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Estelle always infuses each new project with joy, passion and energy. With Estelle, art that reflects the diversity in life is always more interesting and illuminating. So, keep mixing it up, Estelle, we love you for your humor, we love you for your passion, we love you for your integrity. In a nutshell, we just love ya.

William S. Gooch: Why did you become an actress?

Estelle Parsons: I come from an old New England family, a family of lawyers, in fact. Anyway, I went to law school and there were so many men and so few women in my class at the time. I thought to myself, this profession would be terrible to be in because I would be so lonely. I had been acting in community theatre since I was six years old, and I thought if I become an actress, a man can't replace me, which was an appealing idea. However, I didn’t become an actress right away. I came to New York and worked on The Today Show prior to doing stage work.

William S. Gooch: How did you get to work on The Today Show?

Estelle Parsons: I knew somebody at NBC when NBC was just developing the idea for the show. Can you believe that back then nobody thought the show would last? [laughter] Anyway, I got a job on the new show and I helped with production. I was also a features editor and a news writer. It was the pioneer days of television.

William S. Gooch: How did you segue your job at The Today Show into an acting career?

Estelle Parsons: I was never interested in The Today Show as something to do with my life. I hated interviewing people. I interviewed Eleanor Roosevelt and Marilyn Monroe, and being from New England, I wasn’t comfortable asking people personal questions. Then I got married and had kids. I was getting plum assignments, flying all over the country, and I thought to myself, "This is ridiculous, I don’t want this job." So, I quit The Today Show and started auditioning for stage work.

William S. Gooch: Was Tennessee Williams’ The Seven Descents of Myrtle—for which you were nominated for a Tony®Award in 1968—your first Tennessee Williams’ play?

Estelle Parsons: It was my only first and only Tennessee Williams’ play, and I won the Academy® Award for Bonnie and Clyde while I was in the play. The producers were hoping that my Oscar win would help the play at the box office, but the play still had a very short run.

William S. Gooch: What was it like being in a Tennessee Williams’ play?

Estelle Parsons: It was great. Tennessee was around all the time and great to hang out with. Back then, shows always opened out of town, so you had more time to get to know the people in the cast than you do today. Tennessee Williams was a wonderful, generous, sweet man with very strong opinions about what should happen on stage.

William S. Gooch: In the late 1960’s you were portraying edgy, twisted women—Blanche Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde and Myrtle in The Seven Descents of Myrtle. Why do you think you were being cast as these off-centered women?

Estelle Parsons: I don’t know really know why I was cast that way. But you know in Hollywood everyone is a product, and you get typecast. I cannot tell you how many scripts I got that had characters similar to Blanche Barrow. I really prefer being on the stage and entertaining live people. I am not interested in being in front of a camera all the time. But, you have to do film and television work to keep your face in front of the public.

William S. Gooch: Most people recognize you as Beverly, Roseanne Connor’s mother on the hit sitcom Roseanne? What was it like being on Roseanne?

Estelle Parsons: Oh, it was great. Roseanne loves talented people and she thought I was a real funny lady. I don’t why I am funny, but I come across that way a lot.

William S. Gooch: A Night in Taos, by Maxwell Anderson is the play that you are currently directing [the run of the play is over]. Why did you choose this period piece as a play you wanted to direct?

Estelle Parsons: Well, I ran a multiracial theatre group for Joseph Papp. I was doing Antony and Cleopatra and had this fantastic Puerto Rican actor, Francisco Prado, and I realized how great it is to have people from other cultures bring their points of view to the classics. I knew about A Night in Taos because we had done a reading of it when I ran the Actor’s Studio. Earle Hyman and Marian Colon directed the reading. The reading was wonderful and I thought it would be great to do a full production of the play. I always think of theatre as an art form and I wanted to do a production of A Night in Taos at the Museo del Barrio. I thought it would be a lot of fun to do it there because it is a Hispanic story that would appeal to Hispanic audiences. Well, we couldn’t get it going there. And so INTAR Theatre decided to produce it at the Theatre for the New City.

William S. Gooch: In the staging you placed many of the minor characters around the stage, seated on benches, like a Greek chorus. Why that type of staging?

Estelle Parsons: I have no idea how it came to me, but I wanted to get away from the proscenium type of theatre. I thought the staging I used would give more a sense of intimacy and immediacy. I wanted the play to be more of an action drama because the circumstances of the play lent itself to a lot of action. I always think of this play as a boxing ring. Also, I am always trying to interest people in the theater, and I think it would be more interesting to have the actors get up from their seats and do their scene, instead of coming in from the wings which seems more staged or artificial.

William S. Gooch: I noticed that you have a multiracial cast in this production, which is different from the all-white cast of the original production. Did you purposely cast the production that way?

Estelle Parsons: I reached out to people who physically showed the diversity you probably saw in Taos in the 1840s.

William S. Gooch: Why do you think this particular Maxwell Anderson play could resonate with audiences today?

Estelle Parsons: Maxwell Anderson is a brilliant writer and the characters are so well constructed. Every scene is an enormous challenge to work on. The scene starts, goes somewhere, climaxes and moves on to the next scene. I don’t know how it connects to contemporary culture, but there is a scene where the gringos come on stage captured with nooses around their necks. That scene in the play does remind me of scenes from the Iraq War where some of the American soldiers are captured and put on video.

William S. Gooch: What is next for Estelle Parsons?

Estelle Parsons: Well, you will never believe it, but I am in the new musical, Uncivil Wars, by David Gordon that will be premiering at The Kitchen in December. It is based on a Berthold Brecht play.

William S. Gooch: This was an honor Ms. Parsons, and a lot of fun.

Estelle Parsons: Thank you. Yes, it was fun.



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