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Monday, September 16, 2013

Interview: She Did It Her Way: Rocky Parker

Rochelle "Rocky" Parker was born on February 26, 1940 to Bernard and Shirley Parker, my grandparents. They lived in Brownsville, Brooklyn for nearly ten years. 

Rocky: "I lived on Hopkinson Avenue. It was all brownstones there and every one on my block was family. 

My father, my mother, my grandmother, my aunt, my cousins. All on that street. My grandma used to read to me every night from the Bible. Daniel or Abraham or Jacob. She would tell me their story. I went to a shule and learned Yiddish."

Rocky is on the left

Rocky was an actress for most of her life. She was also a mom who raised three kids. Nothing was ever handed to her, she worked hard for everything she got. She was a girl from Brooklyn who would eventually travel the worId. Although she had friends and compatriots who were celebrities, they were actors to her first and foremost.  As a kid, growing up in our home, I found hundreds of plays on our bookshelves, a steady presence of actors around our house and always the names of the great teachers being spoken in hushed tones: Uta, Lee, Stella, Sandy. I grew up sitting in theaters, watching my mother rehearse the plays she was acting in. I sat for hours and watched her do scenes over and over again, as she searched for her way into and through a scene. She took the directors' notes and used them to craft her own sense of possibility in her work. My love of the theater exists only because she demonstrated through her work what a magical place the theater is and always can be, full of limitless possibilities. I loved the smells of the theater and I still do. Just to be there and watch the lights go down and a new world appear before you. It's not always easy for actors in rehearsal, there are moments where you feel close but cannot find the breakthrough, there are moments where everything you found can suddenly fall away and lead you to frustration and then discovery. These moments are what I watched Rocky face courageously--and I watched her do the thing she always loved, acting.


Corey: How did you first get into acting?

Rocky: "When I was 7, my aunt Ida had a job as bookkeeper at a place called Movie Star Slips, and she would bring me to try on and model clothes, pajamas  and things. The boss loved me. They kept calling me the little movie star,  the little movie star. They would show me in their clothes to all the buyers. It was very exciting. My aunt Ida took me to see Broadway shows and we would go to a place called Jack Dempsey’s.

It was a very swanky restaurant. It wasn't until I saw those Broadway actors on stage that I knew I wanted to do that. Later, in the 50s, I auditioned for High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan, and I was accepted. But my mother wouldn’t let me go, she didn’t want me taking the train alone into Manhattan every day. We had moved to Bayside, Queens in 1949.  I was really unhappy when she wouldn’t let me go. I went to Martin Van Buren High School in Queens.

 Then, when I was 17 and I started modeling for magazines in the 50s, like True Romance. I did a lot of them. It was very exciting at the time."

Corey: What did you have to do?

Rocky: "It depended on the story. Either you were miserable and crying or you were happy and everything was good, you just went through a lot of different emotions based on the story."

Rocky in True Romance

Rocky is below

With family friend, actor Brandon De Wilde on Fire Island

Rocky: "I would go into the city and see plays, I'd second act the plays. You waited for the intermission and when the audience had to return to the seats, you went in and pretended you had a seat. You and me used to do that. You know what I'm talking about. You go upstairs and slowly let people sit and hope that you don't sit in the wrong seat. But we never got caught. 

I met your father in the early sixties in Manhattan at a party. He was gorgeous and he played the piano so well. Ragtime, Boogie Woogie, he could play. He was really the love of my life.  When we married in 1964, I wanted to have a restaurant and he had it financed. It was on Broadway and 92nd. We called it Prana."

Rocky in front of Prana

Rocky: "It had been a head shop and then an antique store. Your father got to know Richie Havens, who used to come and play. It was a very exciting time. I was working with Sandy Meisner. In the 60s, I went to class and John, your father would come and meet me. Sandy found out that John could play piano and Sandy would have us over for dinner. Sandy would always have a friend with him and John would play piano and Sandy loved that."

Sandy Meisner

 "But then your father died on the way out to San Francisco.  He was on a roadtrip to visit his family; they were running an employment agency called "Creative Counseling" in the Financial District there."

Rocky headshot

"After your father died, I had to start making money. I had three kids. I took you, David and Noelle in for commercials. You were maybe 3 or 4. Your brother booked that car commercial with Robert DeNiro."

"When you were kids, we all did extra work, no matter where or when it was--days, nights, it didn’t much matter.”
 That was a good way to earn money and I could always get a job. Extra work, you know what it is. It was just a disappointing experience in some ways, because you wish you were in the scene, but I was happy to have a job in the field I had some interest in. Whatever I had to do, I would do it. I was an extra in a lot of things. I was in a bunch of scenes in Midnight Cowboy."

Rocky: "We worked crazy hours, we’d sit and wait and then we’d work. Some of us or all of us would work. I remember one scene where a group of us had to go down the steps of the subway. Jon Voight was going to come and interrupt us and run down the stairs. He’d squeeze in next to us,  and he came up to me after and said “I've never been an extra. What do you do? How do you do extra work?” I looked at him like he was out of his mind. I didn’t even answer him. Then he went off down the stairs. 

I was also an extra in The Godfather."


Rocky on Fire Island with actor Brandon DeWilde

Corey: Do you remember that we rented our Oldsmobile to a film production in winter and they set it up on the street and it was far enough away that we could stay in the car. It was freezing and we could only go inside when it was time for lunch.

Rocky: "I remember that. I don’t remember what production that was. One time we were in a bus taken somewhere, I was in my nightgown and you in our pajamas, in front of a hospital somewhere. In the middle of the night. You were so tired. We waited and waited until about 3 or 4 in the morning. Then they called us, a bus full of actors in their pajamas and we had to be running out of the hospital over and over. So many takes. There were huge klieg lights, it was very Hollywood!

 One Life to Live--I was on that for years as an extra. Christian Slater’s mom, (casting director) Mary Jo Slater would hire me so I could pay the bills and get health insurance through SAG. I was also on NBC in The Doctors and on a show called Hidden Faces. It was a daytime soap."

"We did dubbing too. You did a lot of dubbing when you were a kid. You did Get Out Your Handkerchiefs. Not the lead, but all the other parts you’d do. I’d drop you off and they loved you. You understood the beeps, the timing it takes to do that in just a few takes. I'd pick you up after. I had to take care of David and Noelle (my half brother and half sister.)
We did whatever it took."

"I did a lot of print ads. I was in the Virginia Slims campaign You’ve Come a Long Way Baby. I was the old fashioned girl. They would have gorgeous models and then have a picture of me shoveling coal. Great costumes, those were directed by Steve Horn."

(Rocky is to the right, head in hand.)

Rocky going over Niagara Falls

Rocky on the right

second from the left

Rocky is third from left

"I began doing plays in the sixties.  Off Broadway and off-off Broadway. Stock. I was in a company called The Company and we did a script by Susan Batson called 
Imposters Imposter. 

At the Ensemble Studio Theater I did “What’s So Beautiful About A Sunset Over Prairie Avenue?” by Edward Allen Baker.Then I did Miss Julie at the Robert Morse Mime Theater, The Lost Chord by (Pulitzer Prize winning playwright) Chuck Gordone at the Billie Holiday Theater in Bedford Stuyvesant. I loved working with him.  I loved going on the train to Brooklyn every day, you guys were with me for that one. I remember you and Noelle were in the audience during rehearsals every day, we were in Bed Stuy, so you couldn't go far. But there was a Baskin Robbins and you used to come back with shakes. Pink bubble gum ice cream shakes, right?"

Corey: Yeah. That's right.  

Rocky: "Gordone was an absolutely amazing person. Then I did Tennessee Williams’ play 
“Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot.” at E.S.T. 
I did Shadowbox. The Maids by Jean Genet.

Streetcar Named Desire. 
Marcia Haufrecht’s Striva Kowardsky. 
Red peppers by Noel Coward. 
Welfare at the Ensemble Studio Theater.  
Children of the Night which I did with Len Cariou. Within the Year. Later I did stuff at La Mama and Soho Rep--I did Dark Ride by Len Jenkins with Will Patton. Cincinnati Playhouse I did Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba."


 "That was an incredible experience because of Lorca’s language. I wanted to get it into my soul. 
I did Side Street Scenes at the Open Space with Peter Kass directing, Sheepskin at the Perry Street Theater, and Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Theater de Lys."

"In Woodstock (1970-79) I worked at the Woodstock Playhouse in 6 Rms Riv VU and I remember that you built sets there later on. Some of us put together a company called the Woodstock Players. Bedtime Stories by 
Sean O' Casey and After Magritte by Tom Stoppard, Threepenny Opera, And the Laughingstock Players. 'Eve' by Marcia Haufrecht and 'The Independence of Striva Kowardsky,' both directed by Bob Burgos.
We went to bars and hospitals, mental hospitals and the jail. They were the best audience we had, 
the people who were disturbed were great and funny and they kind of entered into it."


Woodstock Players

Rocky on the left, looking sideways

"Susan Batson was my next coach. I worked with her for 27 years. When I met Susan Batson it was at a reading of a play and she was so incredible that I begged her to teach me and she did. She used to do it for no money. "

Susan Batson

"She used to do that a lot, not charge the actors. I don’t think that really changed until you sent Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise to work with her. That was the turning point. I think now she is $500 per hour. But for years I did whatever she told me to do, she became my mentor. She was so involved, she became my everything. So smart. She suggested I take classes from Strasberg, so I did. He was a very strange man. I would go to the class and then go to Susan’s and she would help me work it out, whatever it was. Along with her, I studied with Strasberg. He said to me once, I’ll never forget, I was onstage,  the circumstances were: I just woke up, I was in a divorce, I forgot to defrost the turkey. It was thanksgiving, so I put the turkey in water and I started cleaning. I was sweeping and he said, wait a minute, what are you doing? I said I'm sweeping. He said you don’t sweep before you cook. You sweep after. So I said, I always do this. This is the way I do it. He said, well its not the way you do it, stay with the turkey. I had no faith in him after that.  I didn’t think there was a rule about how you behave before thanksgiving dinner. That he would pick on that, I didn’t get it. But at the Studio I met Marcia Haufrecht who I liked a lot. She was very serious and I asked if I could study with her, and she taught me. She always had very good things to say. I like Marcia. She was the one who introduced me to Chuck Gordone. She lived on a barge on the Hudson River, on the Jersey side. Right across from Manhattan. We used to visit her there. Do you remember?
She's a wonderful artist."

Corey: Yeah, I remember.

Rocky on left


Rocky: "I felt stuck in Woodstock. I had to drive 2 hours to each audition or print job. You, I would put you on the Trailways bus alone and my parents would pick you up at Port Authority and take you to auditions. That was probably crazy, the bus and the Port Authority in the 70s. But you booked jobs. You spent a lot of time on the buses. I feel bad."

Corey: Don't feel bad, it was fine. I liked the quiet time. And while Woodstock was my home, the City was also my home. It was fine. 

Rocky: "Okay. In the late 70s I had met someone who told me about these buildings opening up in NYC for artists only. It was called Manhattan Plaza. You had to prove that you had worked professionally for 7 years.  I got in, but it wasn’t open yet. I couldn’t wait any more, so I decided that we would move early and I picked you up from school and we just left Woodstock. I picked you up in the middle of school, and we just did it. Drove our VW to the City. We stayed in a sublet on 44th Street, between 9th and Tenth. Hell's Kitchen. Now they call it something else. Who knows... To me, that's Hell's Kitchen. That's what it is, I don't care what else you call it. 

Finally we got into Manhattan Plaza. A one bedroom. You went to I.S. 44 on 77th Street, you took the bus and you prepared to audition for the High School of Performing Arts. Other students had been preparing for six months and you had two months to prepare. I introduced you to Sandra Seacat, who was coaching Jessica Lange and Mickey Rourke at the time. I had known her for years. Sandra coached you every week until the audition."

Sandra Seacat

"I remember when you got into Performing Arts, I was so happy! I didn’t get to go, but you got to go. They gave you a hard time because you kept working. You weren't supposed to work professionally while you attended that school. Butyou had a career, an agent, a manager and we just did it anyway. I was proud of you, you were juggling school and a career. Then your sister went to Performing Arts too. She's a wonderful actress, Noelle."

"Later I worked with Mira Rostova, she was an old lady--she had coached Montgomery Clift. She would teach us sitting down. Everybody sitting around in a circle, no body gets up. It was just about breaking down the text. I liked her a lot and would cook her soup and bring it when I came, she liked that a lot. I studied with her for awhile. Then I felt like I wanted to study with someone that I could get up and move around."

"In the 80s I studied with Uta Hagen. You were working with Herbert Berghof and with Uta and I wanted to come and be a part of it. You asked Uta if I could come to class. We did 
J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. You and me. Can you believe it? You and me doing Salinger in Uta Hagen's class! It was beautiful. That was a great scene and she loved it. That class was dead silent when we did that scene. They watched and listened to everything we did. I had so much fun working with you. And then I went on to teach at HB. When Sandy Dennis passed away, I asked Uta if I could teach Sandy’s class and they let me take it over. I liked working there."


"I finally made it to Broadway. On Broadway I did the Survivor with David Marshall Grant and Zeljko Ivanek. We first did that at the St. Clements Theater. We spent weeks watching footage from the holocaust. I felt it was so sad and such a part of me. I felt good about that play, but it was so heavy that I wanted to make a celebration of life.  I threw a party and made lots of Jewish food potato-- potato latkes and kasha and bowties. I always threw parties for the cast of the shows I did. I loved having so many people from the same arena and everyone was always very grateful—one time I made a turkey for everyone. Everybody loved it." 

The Survivor was brought to the Morosco Theater, which was a beautiful piece of history. The Morosco was the respected theater where the first run took place of "Our Town," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," and "Death of a Salesman."

"Then I got Brighton Beach Memoirs. I loved it. It was just the most comfortable feeling there. Neil Simon was very nice to me. He was just a very nice guy who you could always go and talk to. Which I did. A lot. He was great. He directed some of it and he was a really good director."

"I met Patrick Dempsey on the international tour of Brighton Beach. I was together with him for 10 years, and 6 of those years we were married. I started talking to him about acting. We would work after the show. He started getting auditions then. During the time that we were together, I went with him everywhere, to sets, anywhere he had to go. If there was going to be a camera there, I would make sure I was there for him. I did script analysis and coached Patrick onset for Some Girls, In the Mood, Can’t Buy Me Love, Happy Together, Fast Times, Run,  In a Shallow Grave, Mobsters, the JFK TV movie, and Restless Youth.

I got to act in his films, and I also got a small part in Jennifer Lynch’s film Boxing Helena. Then the Patty Hearst story directed by Paul Schrader. I was in Justina, which aired on Showtime.

Patrick and I attended NYU film school together. I then directed a movie called Ava’s Magical Adventure. I rewrote it. We had an elephant in that movie and I loved it. I loved directing, I loved being on that set. It was a great experience. It’s very special to have an elephant on your set every day."

As a coach Rocky has worked on 75 television and movie sets. She has coached many actors, including Melanie Griffith, Joan Chen, Heather Thomas, Brad Garrett, Bre Blair, Kelly Preston, Jennifer Coolidge, and Little Richard. 

Appreciation from the NYPD

"For the past 16 years I have coached Gabriel Mann. 

Since then, Gabe has appeared in The Bourne Supremacy, Mad Men, I Shot Andy Warhol, ER, Great Expectations with Ethan Hawk, Buffalo Soldiers, The Life of David Gale, Born Killers, Don’t Come Knocking with Sam Shepard and Wim Wenders, Chavez with John Malkovich, and the current series on ABC called Revenge."

Corey:  You’ve played a lot of roles. Whats your favorite role you’ve played?

Rocky: "Blanche. Streetcar Named Desire, in a workshop for Susan Batson. I got a lot of response from that. Susan said I was one of the best Blanches she’d ever seen."

As I finished the interview, I realized that this woman had been a mother of three, an actress, a director, a coach, and had lived it all her way, being true to herself and not worrying about what people thought. She and Patrick were together for a long time before getting married, and when they did, they eloped in Santa Monica. People said things, but she really didn't care, she was following her heart. She was an original and she found her own way --through every twist and turn of life--to stay connected to the art she loved and inspired in so many actors. The work was her beacon, the torch that lit her path. She inspired me and taught me that being an actor is valid and viable, and...that you lead with your heart.

Rocky Parker passed away only months after this interview. She battled stage 4 cancer in her throat and lungs. She had smoked cigarettes daily since the age of 18. Her ashes were spread over the Pacific Ocean, near her home in Santa Monica, in accordance with her wishes. 

At the time of her death, Rocky Parker still had an agent, had an updated 8X10 and resume, went out on auditions. Due to her age, she was no longer allowed to drive, but that didn't stop her. She had just started taking classes again at Ivana Chubbuck's Studio.

1940 - 2013

Rest in Peace

I updated this post 2/2016 with numerous archival photos recovered and sent by Emily Parker, Rocky's sister. Thank you.

This post was written with love.  

                                                                 I miss you Rocky...