Marsha Mason talks Broadway, auto racing, farming and Paul Newman
The marvelous Marsha Mason has been enormously triumphant in several wildly varied careers. She was nominated four times for an Oscar for her performances in Cinderella Liberty, The Goodbye Girl, Chapter Two and Only When I Laugh. She’s also had an extensive Broadway and London stage career, wowing audiences when she starred in Cinderella Liberty, Cactus Flower, The Prisoner of Second Avenue and Steel Magnolias. Her work with her then-husband, Neil Simon, is legendary and he based some of his plays on their relationship, most notably Chapter Two. She’s also appeared in several films including Blume in Love, The Cheap Detective, Frasier (receiving an Emmy nomination) and most recently appearing as Arlene in the Netflix series, Grace and Frankie. She’s been an organic farmer, a successful race car driver, an actress and a director. Travelgirl’s Renee Werbin recently caught up with the exuberant and talented Marsha Mason who resides in Connecticut.
Travelgirl: I’m so happy to see you again. You have had so many different careers. You were an organic farmer, a race car driver, an award-winning actress and director.
Marsha Mason: I’ve had a very full life.
TG: Which career was the most fun and which defines you the most?
MM: Acting and directing are the most fun but they are hard work. Your stamina has to be in order; you have to be in good shape to do eight performances a week. Recently I directed and starred in Lost in Yonkers for the stage, and we had a big, huge success with that. The acting, in terms of my career, was the most defining.
I had such enormous success with Cinderella Liberty and I wasn’t really ready for the success that happened so quickly; it scared me. I didn’t know how to handle it. I was naïve and I needed to grow up, which I was able to do that on the farm.
My then husband, Neil Simon, was a great protector. When I look back now, I think one of the reasons we worked so well together was because I felt so protected by him; ultimately a little too protected because Neil was so controlling. It was a wonderful relationship and I don’t regret any of it. I gained two beautiful daughters, Ellen and Nancy, whom Neil was raising alone after the death of his wife. The girls are still close to me today and now we have grandchildren and a great-grandchild. The girls and I love each other and that’s really cool. I gained so much experience in those years.
TG: You were marvelous in the role of Arlene on Grace and Frankie. It must have been enchanting working on the set with those two great actresses. I interviewed Jane Fonda for a Travelgirl cover years and years ago and she was an absolute treasure.
MM: Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are the cutest, totally charming, most down-to-earth fabulous women. I am in awe of both of them, especially because of their energy and their commitment, which is so strong. I think it’s phenomenal to me at their age what they have accomplished and what they are still accomplishing. They are wonderful to work with. Both are gracious, kind and considerate and I enjoyed every moment of working with them.
TG: You built a very successful business and a beautiful home during your time in Santa Fe.
MM: I did. I loved my time there. I built an Argentinean estancia and I started growing medicinal, organic herbs and became a biodynamic farmer. I began growing the business by selling fresh herbs to a man named Daniel Gagnon. I developed my product line with Mitch Coven of Vitality Works. He was making individual products for private label companies and I sold my products to him for a couple of years. The products were marvelous.
I remember when I was heading to London with Richard Dreyfuss to perform in Prisoner of Second Avenue. I thought since I’m going to be in a 400-year-old theatre – the RoyalHay Market – I knew I was going to need something for my immune system and my voice. So we, with my team in Santa Fe, created a salve for our hands. I was ahead of the curve with my medicinal products. I started out locally and then we started giving lectures for the Vitality Works people. We even created a skin and body care line using fair trade shea butter as the base and adding my herbs.
TG: Your organic farm became wildly successful, didn’t it?
MM: It did and in the process, I fell in love with and found my signature herb. It is called Spilanties and it is native to South America. It is called the toothache herb because it is anti-viral and anti-bacterial. The tribes in South America would put the flour from this herb on their teeth if they had any kind of infection. We obtained some seeds from a European company and started growing Spilanties and it became our signature herb in everything that we made.
TG: Do you still own the company?
MM: No. I sold the farm in 2014 and then I sold off the products. I still have all the recipes. What was really extraordinary, in those 20 some-odd years, was that the farm matured me as an individual. I learned to be an entrepreneur, a businesswoman, and I gained a great deal of patience. I learned to have patience. I feel the experience on the farm turned me into a better actor and a better director.
The business changed in the late 80’s and 90’s and I was missing both the theatre and New York. I started thinking about selling the farm. It took quite a while for me to make the move because I had built a big operation. I found a wonderful person who bought it and she and her husband have kept it as a farm, which is what I had hoped would happen. The land out there became desirable and people started buying it up to build houses and I didn’t want the farm to disappear. Fortunately, it’s still there and it looks beautiful. The couple who bought it has done phenomenal things; they still grow medicinal herbs. They grow organic alfalfa, because we did. They’ve practically put the whole farm on solar power.
TG: How did you get into race car driving? I know Paul Newman was the impetus and you were good friends.
MM: I was on a plane with Paul going from New York to Los Angeles. Paul was going out to Riverside in California because they were closing a racetrack and he invited me out to watch him race.
I was interested and that interest was sparked when I was in high school. My best friend’s father had a track outside of St. Louis. We spent our Sundays handing out Pit Passes to the guys who raced. There was just something out there in that environment that intrigued me. I remember looking at the way the men would wrap individual pieces of their engine in oil cloth; they took really good care of their cars. I vividly remember their intense concentration. The smell, the speed, the whole thing captured my imagination.
I had totally forgotten about those days. Whenever I could, I would fly out to wherever Paul was racing. I bought a Mazda RX3, met LA lawyer Marc Staenberg and he suggested we team up. Together we created a mom and pop operation. I enrolled in a driving school, which I didn’t even know existed. I took a course at the Bob Bondurant School, then went to Skip Barber Racing School.
I then met Mike Lewis, an SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) champion. Mike built me my own Mazda GT3 car and I drove his old championship car for a couple of seasons. I had gotten into car racing in a serious way. We had three cars, a truck and a crew and for a long time I was a race car driver!
TG: Would you get into a race car today?
MM: I actually signed up for a race in May. I’m going to try and see what happens. I could never race competitively again because I think our reflexes are slower as we age but I want to see if everything I learned about driving is still at my fingertips.
TG: You should have been on every magazine cover in the world when you were racing. Not that many women get in race cars even today and in those days, you were the girl!!!
MM: I have a vivid memory of being in Monterey and the men around me at the track weren’t quite sure what to make of me. I stayed out of their way and I learned. Eventually Mike Lewis and the crew encouraged me to become competitive and I started to pass these guys. On the track I had a couple of accidents that were not my fault, but I was very calm and collected and handled it all very well.
TG: How did you meet Neil Simon?
MM: I met Neil the first day of rehearsal on The Good Doctor. I auditioned for him. My agent had encouraged me to audition for a Broadway show. I auditioned and read the governess part and had to read it cold because I hadn’t prepared it. I read and went back to my agent’s office and thought I would receive a call back and my agent laughed; she told me they had already hired me. I made it on Broadway on my first try. I packed up everything I owned and moved back to New York. I went into rehearsals on October 3 and Neil and I were married on October 27 — two weeks later — and we lasted 10 years. We raised the girls and did wonderful work together and had immense respect for each other.
TG: Tell me about The Goodbye Girl.
MM: That was a wonderful experience. The original script was called Bogart Slept Here, which was a loose adaptation of Midnight Cowboy. It was based on the idea of a young actor with a family getting a chance to do a big movie and becoming an overnight success.
Neil rewrote the story and it became a whole new movie. I auditioned with Richard Dreyfuss and we had this immediate chemistry. We didn’t know each other but the chemistry was there. It took us all —Richard, me and Ray Stark (the producer) and Neil — by surprise. Ray hired Herb Ross to direct and he quickly hired Quinn Cummings to play the little girl and in those days you could rehearse. We were on the set rehearsing before we started the picture. We went to New York to do the exteriors and went back to LA to finish up. We had no idea if the film would be successful but fortunately the universe was with us. All the cards seemed to indicate that people were happy to have a movie they could take their kids to. All the single mothers totally related to my character’s, Paula’s, problems. The success of The Goodbye Girl wasn’t something we had anticipated.
TG: What’s next for the illustrious Marsha Mason?
MM: I’m in talks with the Hartford Stage Company to do a play there for the 24-25 season. I am very busy working on a project with a workshop about two young boys in Australia in the 1950’s who competed for the Olympics. One of the boys ended up choosing to attend Harvard instead of being in the Olympics. It’s sort of a biographical story of a boy and his journey.
It was originally a film and one of the producers suggested making it into a play and the playwright, who coincidentally also wrote Drop Dead Fred, called me. We started working on the script together and found we had a very good creative partnership.
I went to Montreal and worked with a wonderful circus group, who through their actions on stage, I realized I could handle both the physicality and the emotionality of the play. My next step is to do a integrate both in a workshop. The Alley Theatre in Houston is intrigued and excited about the possibilities of this play and is willing to give us a workshop. I just need to raise more money to pay the acrobats. As you know, nonprofits are having a bit of a hard time now.
We are also working to see if we can turn Drop Dead Fred into a musical. We will see what happens. Meanwhile, I’m reading plays and I’m still auditioning and probably will go out to LA for pilot season. We will see.
TG: You can be sure Travelgirl will be watching!!!