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Classic Hollywood: Marsha Mason comes full circle

One of the hottest actresses in the 1970s and '80s raced cars and raised herbs in New Mexico but is ready to return to N.Y. theater.

December 27, 2010|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • Marsha Mason enjoys a light moment in the sidebar at the Beverly Wilshire, a Four Seasons Hotel, in Beverly Hills.
Marsha Mason enjoys a light moment in the sidebar at the Beverly Wilshire,… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

Marsha Mason admits she foolishly believed being an actress in Hollywood was a lot like being one in England. "In other words, you could do theater and you could do movies. As you aged, there would be parts for you."

But she ruefully realized by the time she was in her 40s that wasn't the case. Mason, now a gregarious 68, was one of the hottest actress of the 1970s and early '80s, earning best actress Oscar nominations for " Cinderella Liberty" (1973), "The Goodbye Girl" (1977), "Chapter Two" (1979) and "Only When I Laugh" (1981). The latter three were written by then-husband Neil Simon. But when their nearly decade-old marriage ended in divorce in the early '80s and their last film collaboration, 1983's "Max Dugan Returns," tanked, the major roles dried up.

Over lunch recently at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, she admits that perhaps she was too closely associated with Simon. But it wasn't that simple. "In 1983 and '84, the whole business was changing," says Mason, who is still close with Simon and her two stepdaughters. "The business suddenly, rapidly, almost overnight changed to a very youth-oriented market."

Mason is a survivor, though, with eclectic interests and talents in and out of show business. She's kept busy, working in movies, TV and theater. She had just completed an episode as Patricia Heaton's character's wacky mother in an episode of ABC's comedy "The Middle." This year she appeared off-Broadway in a revival of "I Never Sang for My Father" and Shakespeare's "All's Well That Ends Well" in Washington, D.C.

For the last 17 years, she's also owned and operated the Resting in the River organic farm in Abiquiu, N.M., where she raises organic herbs and operates a wellness line of bath and body products. She says she moved there in 1993 because she felt she didn't belong in Los Angeles anymore. "I always felt rightly or wrongly after being a part of a marriage and a public sort of couple the whole thing sort of felt very strange here," she says. "The idea of being a single woman in Hollywood is a very peculiar thing."

It was her friend Shirley MacLaine, who also lived in New Mexico, who recommended the piece of land near a river. "I wound up becoming a farmer," she says, smiling. Mason also discovered her inner Marsha. "I realized a lot of my own personal sense of identity was wrapped up in my work," she says. "So when you are not working, you feel as if you don't have an identity. So moving to New Mexico … what was really wonderful was I discovered the work is the work and Marsha is Marsha and a lot of various pieces make up Marsha."

She is trying to sell the farm and move back to New York so she can do more theater. "Maybe I am coming full circle," she says, laughing. The St. Louis native moved there directly after graduating from what is now Webster University in suburban St. Louis. "I went to acting class, and I had regular jobs," she says. "Then I sort of focused on TV commercials." And soaps. She played a prostitute turned vampire on the ABC daytime vampire soap "Dark Shadows" and was appearing on the soap "Love of Life" when she auditioned for writer-director Paul Mazursky and got the pivotal part of George Segal's character's love interest in the filmmaker's 1973 romantic comedy "Blume in Love."

But it wasn't her film debut. Mason actually got her Screen Actors Guild card for a 1966 black-and-white, low-budget flick called "Hot Rod Hullaballoo." "I hope I won't ever find a piece of film from it," Mason says with a laugh.

Speaking of hot rods, after she divorced Simon she became a professional race car driver for seven years, racing a Mazda RX-7.

She had loved racing since she was in high school when a girlfriend's father bought a track outside of St. Louis. On Sundays, she and her girlfriend would hand out pit passes there. Mason was fascinated with the racers. "They would have cigarettes rolled up in their T-shirts and have ducktail hairdos," she says.

Years later, she was on a plane from New York to Los Angeles and found herself chatting with Paul Newman, who was coming out to race at Riverside. Mason told Newman how much she loved racing and he invited her to watch the race. "For a year I would just travel with the team," Mason says. "I would stay in the background."

Eventually, Newman suggested she go to racing school. She attended about three racing schools, graduated and she was off, well, to the races. "I made the Vavoline National Runoffs four times," she says, proudly. "I hooked up with Mike Lewis, who still races now, and we had a whole team. We used to do 12 races a season."

Though there were women in stock car racing, Mason was the only female on the track. When she completed in her first race at Sears Point — now Infineon Raceway — "I could feel a lot of the eyes on me. I could tell the guys were a little huffy. I just took the attitude that I am going to stay out of everybody's way. I stayed out of everybody's way, but I built relationships and they gave me points and urged me to be more competitive. It was great."

susan.king@latimes.com

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