Actress Estelle Parsons Tackles Her Toughest Role: At 55, She's a Mom Again

updated 09/26/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/26/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Recently Estelle Parsons and her daughter Abbie, 28, were taking 7-month-old Abraham for a walk through their Manhattan neighborhood when they bumped into an old acquaintance. "Oooh," squealed the friend to Abbie, "you had a baby." "No" piped up Estelle, "he's mine."

At 55, the idiosyncratic actress has taken on an unlikely new part and her most demanding role ever: mother of an infant son. Last February, she and husband Peter Zimroth, 40, a trial lawyer, adopted Abraham. "It was a hard decision," admits Parsons. "But Peter and I had been living together for 10 years and we felt we really wanted a family. I know that when Abraham graduates from Harvard or Yale I'm going to be in my 70s. We took all that into account." She insists that she and Peter are "not casual parents," and is quick to emphasize their health-conscious attitudes. "We have to keep in very good shape. We don't drink or smoke," says Estelle.

The mother of grown-up twin daughters, whom she raised alone after her 1958 divorce from her first husband, the late writer Richard Gehman, Estelle developed a bad case of empty nest syndrome when her daughters went off to college. "I began to feel old and thought life was over." Abraham's arrival, however, has apparently reversed that situation. These days, Parsons says, "I really feel fantastic. The person who gives me a shiatzu massage once a week says my body feels healthier too."

A year and a half ago Estelle and Peter informed friends that they wanted to adopt a child. Through a lawyer friend they learned of an expectant couple who intended to put their newborn up for adoption. Three months later, Abraham was born in upstate New York and put in the care of Estelle and her husband. (According to Estelle, her age was not a complication.) The adoption also convinced the couple to legalize their long-term relationship. They were married last January in a friend's New York apartment. "Peter wouldn't do it until he knew the baby would be here," says Parsons. "We didn't even have rings. He doesn't want to be married even now."

Although Parsons says her single daughters Abbie and Martha were "stunned" at the adoption, Abbie, a correspondent at Women's Wear Daily, disagrees. "There's nothing Mom would do that would stun me," she says. "Let's just say I think it's very odd. But seeing Abraham takes the hesitation away." Martha, an actress, admits she was "shocked," but points out, "Mom's happy and that's what counts." Both women visit often, call with advice and baby-sit.

How does she cope with an infant son? "Not easily," says Parsons, "though after going through twins this is a breeze." A full-time nursemaid helps out at home while Parsons is currently performing her one-woman off-Broadway show, Orgasmo Adulto Escapes from the Zoo. Estelle bought American rights for the production from radical Italian playwrights Franca Rame and Dario Fo, and translated and directed the play herself. The story consists of eight vignettes about women and sexual relationships. "I like them because they show women are just as daffy as men. Men are crazy. Women are crazy. It's nobody's fault. It's just life."

Next month, Parsons will close Orgasmo and go to California (with Abraham) to begin rehearsing A Sense of Humor, Ernest Thompson's new play about a couple whose daughter committed suicide. "When I read this I thought they must have made a mistake," confesses Parsons. "I usually get things that are more intellectual and a little different." Jack Lemmon, who was Estelle's first boyfriend as a teenager in Wolfeboro, N.H., is her co-star. "I always thought he should be a composer," she laughs. "I kept telling him, 'Why would you waste your time being an actor?' "

Estelle got her first show business break as a reporter-production assistant on the Today show in 1952. A brief foray into films won her a 1967 Oscar for Bonnie and Clyde, but with minor exceptions she has passed up Hollywood work for the theater since then. Among other plays, Parsons has starred in the one-woman tour de force Miss Margarida's Way and the Broadway production of The Pirates of Penzance. "I like to always do something new," she says. "A lot of times I've done terrible flop plays but the character has excited me in some way."

For Parsons, being a mother and an actress are very compatible. "When the baby goes to bed I go to work," she says. In fact, she and Peter are considering further expansion. Says Estelle, "Next time, we're hoping to adopt twins."

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