Broadway Stardom? That's Fine, but Estelle Parsons Would Rather Take a Hike

Even Estelle admits, I’d never want my children exposed to Miss Margarida’

In the Darwinian scheme of things, Estelle Parsons’ acting career has certainly evolved since—as the original Today Show “girl”—she shared a set with chimpanzee J. Fred Muggs. Her problem now is Homo sapiens. “I always wanted to work with Marlon Brando,” Estelle admits, “until I realized my attraction was basically sexual. I didn’t want to act with Brando. I wanted to go to bed with him.”

Parsons is subjected to no such temptation in the cast of her current Broadway triumph, Miss Margarida’s Way. Aside from a dilapidated skeleton that she embraces passionately, Parsons is the cast. As Brazilian playwright Roberto Athayde’s tyrannical, sexually repressed schoolmarm with a soul of chalk dust, Parsons screeches obscenities, hectors the audience (“All you kids wanna do is grab my tits, right?”) and turns the Ambassador Theatre into an eighth-grade police state.

For all her present acclaim, not to mention an Oscar, two Off-Broadway Obies and two Tony nominations that she has won in 15 plays and eight movies, Parsons insists, “I don’t think I was meant to be an actress. I’ve never really been that interested in it. I’ve done it for the money.” Still, she turns down lucrative TV roles (she loathes L.A.) and commercialized theater and says, “I’d do Shakespeare for cab fare.” Miss Margarida’s Way, in fact, started at producer Joe Papp’s nonprofit New York Shakespeare Festival before moving uptown.

Parsons’ intolerance for Hollywood extends to some of its most famous citizens. She enjoyed working with Gene Hackman in Bonnie and Clyde (“He puts his talent and energy first, his ego second”), but recalls For Pete’s Sake with Barbra Streisand with disgust. “I’ve worked with difficult people, but she defies all. Her cruelty to co-workers, her director and writers is unforgivable. It’s sad.”

To escape the claustrophobic show business world, Parsons heads for the hills—and, on one occasion, Alaska’s 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, where she backpacked last year. She has also climbed in the French Alps, canoed in Canada’s Algonquin Provincial Park and filled her closets with a wardrobe that’s less Geoffrey Beene than L. L. Bean. “I thrive outdoors,” she says. “I’d never sleep in a building if I didn’t have to.”

For 20 years she has lived on Manhattan’s West Side, the last four with Peter Zimroth, 35, an NYU law professor and assistant district attorney. Of their 14-year age difference, Estelle argues, “Why is it acceptable for an older man to go with a younger woman and not the other way around? At times we feel we should consider marrying people our own age. When Peter is 40 I’ll be 55. But my mother was 10 years older than my father, and their marriage worked out all right.”

That was in Marblehead, Mass., where Estelle was the second daughter of a lawyer father and Swedish court-reporter mother. At 4 she played a frog—”or was it a bee?”—with the Lynn Tavern Players, and at 13 fell for a neighbor, actor-to-be Jack Lemmon. (“He was 16, my first kiss, my first everything.”) After high school she sang with bands and spent six wartime months harvesting crops in England with the Women’s Land Army.

Back home, Parsons earned a B.A. from Connecticut College, spent a year at Boston University Law School, then struck out for New York to try cabaret singing. Instead she wheedled a job on Today reviewing books and reading weather reports with Dave Garroway. Five years later Estelle was fired for refusing to cover Grace Kelly’s wedding. “I was married at that time, with twin babies, and had no desire to travel to Monaco.” Her marriage to the late writer Richard (The Haphazard Gourmet) Gehman fizzled in 1958—”He was an absolute maniac; he used to lock me in the house to prevent me from going to work.” Parsons wound up in Freudian analysis “with two children to support.” (Her 22-year-old daughters are now in college: Abbie at Barnard and Martha at Sarah Lawrence.)

Success has brought Parsons independence, if not wealth. “I can’t be bothered with material possessions, rugs, clothes,” she says. “I love to read, to think and be outdoors.” But to finance a new nightclub act of Brecht-Weill songs and her share of a hideaway she and Zimroth are building on 16 acres in upstate New York, Parsons is considering returning to movies in Hair. “My ideal, however, is to make a big fat commercial,” she admits. “Tide was going to pay me $250,000 last year. For one day’s work. Imagine! Then they went with an unknown. I cried for a week.”

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