Back Stage with Marsha Mason

 Stories Behind the Stories

(In this column, I tell all of what went on during my interviews, coverage, and promotion of quite a few famous folks. Well, I mostly tell all. These stories took place during my two careers (1972 – 2007),  first as a newspaper and magazine reporter and then as a higher education public relations director. We’re talking three U.S. presidents, Queen Elizabeth, at least two dozen movie & TV stars, accomplished musicians, and others. Some stories you may find amusing, perhaps revealing. Others not so much.)

Top tier actress Marsha Mason is perhaps my favorite celebrity interview. The one-on-one took place in June 1983 backstage at San Diego’s internationally-renown Old Globe Theater.

For most of our hour-long chat, she sat on the floor propped up against a couch. I sat on a small couch just a couple of feet across from her. She was at the Globe to star in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. She’d just finished five hours of rehearsal and had a two-hour break before resuming rehearsal.

During our discussion, Marsha repeatedly mentioned her desire to see the city’s major attractions, including the San Diego Zoo, Sea World, the beaches, and Balboa Park’s museums. After all, she would be working at the Globe for the next several weeks.
1983 @ Globe.jpg

Throughout the conversation, Marsha trifled with me. I certainly didn’t mind. On the other hand, flirting comes natural to showbiz types, and she was, and still is, one helluva’ actress. Plus, she no doubt wanted me to pen a flattering report. In any event, I developed a crush on the 40-year-old movie star. (I was 33 at the time.)

I was an easy sell, having become smitten by her Oscar-nominated performance in The Goodbye Girl (1977) and starring role in Cinderella Liberty (1973) that netted her a Best Actress Golden Globe.marsha-dreyfuss

Nevertheless, I thought the actress with prom queen looks was hinting for me to show her around town. Of course, I choked and never did ask her out.

She lit a Vantage cigarette and confided “I haven’t smoked in seven or eight years, until now.”

What’s a guy to do? I also lit up a cig. Same brand. So much in common…Heavy sigh.

Ongoing divorce proceedings with superstar writer Neil Simon could have explained her behavior. The divorce was finalized about a month after our interview. The marriage had lasted ten years.

Taking the Old Globe gig could have been her getaway from reality. She accepted the starring role in Twelfth Night for only $420 a week, quite a departure from her lucrative film career. “I am fortunate that I can afford to do it for only four-twenty.”

While discussing soon-to-be ex-husband Simon, Marsha became philosophic. “Fear stops me a lot of times. When fear takes over, I am not really there. With acting, I have the opportunity to confront all of that.”

At the conclusion of the interview, Marsha invited me to pay her a dressing room visit after taking in one of her upcoming performances.

I did, and was quickly ushered passed a long line of well-wishers standing outside her dressing room. They all were bearing flowers and other goodies. Nieve me showed up empty-handed.

Within seconds, I was inside her dressing room. Boy was I in for a surprise. She was not the same mellow person I’d interviewed just a few days earlier. She was bouncing off the walls with post-performance energy and intensity. Not exactly Jekyll and Hyde, but overwhelming.

A few minutes later, as I was about to depart, Marsha moved in to kiss me goodbye. Instead of seizing the moment and accepting a kiss on the lips, self-conscious dummy that I was, I instinctively turned and took her kiss on the cheek. Regretted that ever since.

Back in the newsroom the next day, the guys wanted to know what happened. Suffice to say, they were disappointed and gave me a hard time because of my failure to ask her on a date.

Still, it begs the question:  What would other journalists have done? Could’ve been construed as unprofessional. Not necessarily. After all, covering entertainment is considered soft news, unless a crime or serious scandal was an element of the story.

Turned out she had plenty of male companionship while in town. Duh! Cinderella Liberty and Chapter Two co-star James Caan came down from Tinsel Town to see the play and escort her around the city. And soon to be ex-husband Neil Simon journeyed south to San Diego to catch her opening night performance at the Globe.  I took in the Shakespearean play a few days later.


Simon was married to Marsha for ten years (1973-83). While they were a couple, she starred in five films he penned:

Of those five films, Marsha garnered three Best Actress Oscar nominations. Can you guess which? (see below)

Marsha and Simon divorced was finalized in July 1983, while she was still performing at the Globe.

Although I knew about the split-up, I was unaware that it occurred so recently. If only I’d known, maybe I would have made a move. Well, at least I would have kissed her full on. Okay, okay, now I’m fantasizing. Moving on…

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, she played the role of Viola, a woman posing as a man. Earlier, she’d portrayed a male, Puck, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Marsha assured me that she is comfortable playing males because “when I was younger, I was a tomboy.”

Born in St. Louis, she attended parochial school and Webster College, where she studied speech and drama.

In the four years that followed the Marsha interview, we corresponded twice, both initiated by me. She was kind enough to respond both times, and her messages seemed heartfelt.

Marsha did not return to the Old Globe until 2015. Cast in George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, Mason said she found the role of Catherine an opportunity she couldn’t refuse.

As it turned out, I was unaware that she was back performing in San Diego. Asleep at the wheel – once again.

Answer: Best Actress Oscars nominations for The Goodbye Girl, Chapter Two, and Only When I Laugh. She won Best Actress Golden Globes for The Goodbye Girl and Cinderella Liberty.

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