A big happy birthday to Estelle Parsons, who turns 95 today (I hope; I’m pre-writing this) and is still working! Yes, she plays Roseanne’s Mom on the show The Conners, which I didn’t know existed, but I do remember watching Roseanne back whenever that was.
Estelle was born in Lynn, Lynn, the City of Sin (MA) probably right around the time that saying was originally being bandied about. She has claimed that fellow Massachusetts native Jack Lemmon was her first boyfriend back in the 1940s when they were both teenagers. I don’t know how she pulled this off since she went to a girls’ boarding school in Maine and Jack went to a prep school outside of Boston, but whatever. Estelle went to Connecticut College and Jack went to Harvard…I can’t focus on this anymore.
Estelle moved to the Big Apple and scored a gig on the Today TV show in its infancy, as a writer and a producer. I’m beginning to think that the Today show was once the best place for an ambitious woman to work in TV, before it descended into the Jeff Zucker/Matt Lauer era. She left and made her Broadway debut in the ensemble cast in the Ethel Merman/Fernando Lamas bomb Happy Hunting. She did more theater work in the 1960s, I’ll just copy and paste this:
In 1964, Parsons won an Obie Award for Best Actress for her performance in two Off-Broadway plays, Next Time I’ll Sing to You and In the Summer House. In 1967, she starred with Stacy Keach in the premiere of Joseph Heller’s play We Bombed in New Haven at the Yale Repertory Theater. [And then tons more theater work, including playing Lady Macbeth in the 1978 run of the Kauai Community Players production. What a sweet gig, to get to spend a season in Kauai in 1978.]
The 60s also saw her take to the Silver Screen and in 1967 she scored a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Blanche Darrow in Bonnie and Clyde, and got a nom for 1968’s Rachel, Rachel. That is a wild movie, very much a product of its time. Estelle plays the title character’s Lesbian best friend. Rachel is played by Joanne Woodward and her hubs Paul Newman was the producer.
And more movies, including 1974’s For Pete’s Sake with Barbra Streisand, 1990’s Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty AND Madonna, when Madonna mania was a thing) and 1995’s little-remembered but now that I know about it I must find it Boys on the Side.
On the TeeVee she showed up all over the place in one-off appearances, in Love American Style, All in the Family, Archie Bunker’s Place, Frasier, and of course, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. And, as I mentioned, at some point within the last four years she showed up in six episodes of The Conners, which is amazing. She and Betty White are twins of a different mother.
On the home front, Estelle’s personal life has been fairly serene. She has two children from her first husband, an author named Richard Gehman, but that marriage only lasted five years. Sprots fans might recognize this name: her daughter had a son named Eben Britton, who was a guard/tackle for the Chicago Bears and the Jacksonville Jaguars. Her second husband, whom she married in 1983, was actually kind of famous, locally: he was Assistant District Attorney Peter Zimroth, who became the court-appointed monitor to oversee New York City Police Department’s “controversial” (to say the least) “stop and frisk” practices.
When she’s not working, working, working, apparently Estelle enjoys a good seafood gumbo. This is much easier to make than Lainie Kazan’s bouillabaisse, if you don’t mind shucking oysters or have access to a source that will provide them for you.
Estelle Parsons’s Seafood Gumbo
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 tbsp. flour
1 cup chopped, white onion
1/2 cup minced parsley
2 quarts hot water
Liquid from 1 pint oysters
Pinch cayenne (or few drops Tabasco)
2 bay leaves
Salt, freshly ground pepper
Good pinch celery salt
1 1/2 lbs. raw shrimp, shelled and deveined
1 pint shucked oysters
1 tbsp. filé (available in specialty food shops) [I know. I had never heard of this either. It’s dried, ground sassafras leaves and is what makes gumbo gumbo. Apparently according to other sources you can sub in okra or even cornstarch; it’s in there as a thickener.]
1. In heavy kettle, heat vegetable oil. Blend in flour, stirring constantly until mixture (called roux) is brown. Add chopped onion, parsley, water, liquid from oysters, cayenne (or Tabasco), bay leaves, celery salt, salt and pepper to taste. Cook uncovered 35 mins.
2. Add shrimp, cook 15 mins. longer. Just before serving, add shucked oysters and filé. Heat through. Serve in pot in which it is cooked to preserve the natural flavors. Serve with mounds of hot cooked rice. Serves eight.