Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With ... Marlo Thomas
May 27, 2013 4:00 AM
Actress Marlo Thomas
Phil Donahue and wife, Marlo Thomas.
By Patricia Sheridan Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
That girl is now that woman, actress, activist and author Marlo Thomas. The 75-year-old has accumulated four Emmys, a Grammy and a Golden Globe along the way. She's best known for starring in the ABC sitcom "That Girl" (1966-71), inspiring a generation of woman to free their ambition and get out of the kitchen. She is the outreach director of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, which was founded by her father, television star Danny Thomas. Ms. Thomas also created the album "Free To Be ... You and Me," and "Free to Be ... A Family," and is founding director of Ms. Foundation for Women. She has been married to Phil Donahue for 33 years, has a blog on the Huffington Post, hosts a "Mondays With Marlo" Internet interview show and last year starred on Broadway in "George Is Dead." She also narrates Investigation Discovery's "Happily Never After." Ms. Thomas will be in Pittsburgh to kick off the 120th anniversary celebration for the National Council of Jewish Women Pittsburgh Section at Rodef Shalom Congregation Thursday. For information, go to www.ncjwpgh.org.
You grew up with a famous dad. Did you ever take advantage of that in school or later and use it to your advantage?
No, not really. I grew up in Beverly Hills, which is sort of the center of Hollywood, and I didn't really feel that much different. I went to school with Gary Cooper's daughter and Loretta Young's daughter and so many directors and actors and actresses' daughters that I didn't stand out in that neighborhood. I mean, Robert Young lived down the street, as did Edward G. Robinson. Elizabeth Taylor lived across the street. It really wasn't a place where we were so different.
So you knew what you were getting into when you decided to go into show business.
Yes, I think that's a great benefit. My dad used to take me to work with him when I was 7 or 8 years old. He did a movie one summer with Margaret O'Brien who was just a year or two older than I was, and I used to watch them work together. In the car on the way, I would cue him on his lines, and he would tell me I was every bit as good as Margaret was. You can imagine what that did for my confidence. My father didn't say things that he didn't mean. You know, we created "Take Our Daughters to Work" at the Ms. Foundation. When we were discussing doing it I thought: This is such a great idea because not only does it say to young girls the marketplace is interested in you and try to take the fear of the marketplace away. The whole idea of Take Our Daughters to Work was to say to girls, this is a natural thing. It's an expectation you can have. I learned that as a young girl.
She was, but she had been a singer. So my mother had a very professional attitude. My godmother was Loretta Young, so I also went to her job and watched her, too. I saw women working even on my dad's television show. There were women writers, there were women everywhere. There were creative women in my life as I was growing up.
But does any of that prepare you for the kind of scrutiny you are under once you become famous?
I think it informs my attitude toward it. I accept it as something that is not a shock, so I'm not throwing my hands in front of my face so I don't get my picture taken. My father was always very kind to people who came up to him. He always signed their autograph books and said nice things to them about what they were doing. He was always gracious, so I do the same thing. It wasn't a big turn in my life. It was something I knew about and I knew how to handle it. I used to always say, maybe only the children of stars should be stars. [laughs] Because they don't become drug addicts and alcoholics and they don't turn on people and they don't get big-headed because they already know all about it. Also, now that I am the voice and face of St. Jude [Children's Hospital], people come up to me on the street and give me $20 for the children. I remember them doing that with my father. It is very moving to me that I represent something so important and so good.
Many people point to "That Girl" as the highlight of your career. What do you think it is?
A career is cumulative. "That Girl" was certainly a huge part of my career, but my big break was "Barefoot in the Park" in London. When Mike Nichols cast me in that before "That Girl," it really established me as a serious actress, by going out of the country and being away from being Danny Thomas' daughter. Being accepted in London, which is the toughest press in the world, was very impressive for my first big, famous step. Before that I had done a lot of theater around the country, a lot of summer stock and television shows. I had done all kinds of parts. So by the time I auditioned for Mike Nichols, I knew what I was doing.
It's interesting you had such a wide range and then you were funneled into the "That Girl" image.
They didn't funnel me. I thought of it. I created it. I produced it.
I meant the audience.
I remember one time Robert Wise, who produced and directed "Sound of Music" -- I met him at a party one night in Los Angeles -- and he said, "More people watch you on one night then will ever see my movie." In those days there were only like three channels that mattered. When we did "That Girl," one out of four people would have seen it. It's a different kind of television now. Now people get 3 million viewers and they take a bow. We were getting 20 million. I was at an event [recently] and a lot of women came up to me and said "I would never have gone to New York if it hadn't been for 'That Girl.' " Then, of course, there was "Free to Be You and Me," which was about liberating children. It had a huge impact.
Did Fred Rogers influence you doing "Free to be You and Me"?
No. I don't know what years Fred Rogers was on. It certainly wasn't my era. "That Girl" really made me a feminist. I got so much mail from girls, some saying, "I'm 16 and pregnant. I can't tell my father. Where do I go?" or "I'm 22, my husband beats me. Where can I go?" I was shocked. They were really looking for help because there wasn't any place to go.
Your character represented someone who seemed strong and free.
And independent. They didn't know anybody like that, so they thought maybe I knew the answers. Looking with my assistants, trying to find places for a girl to go in all these different cities and to realize there wasn't anywhere to go -- that politicized me.
Do woman's issues still get under your skin?
Oh God, yes. That's my species [laughing]. Absolutely. I have always been a feminist. I mean, even "That Girl" came out of my budding feminism. I grew up an observer of 15 marriages. My mother was Italian, one of five, and my father was one of 10 Lebanese kids. Nine boys and one girl. I saw all these Mid-Eastern, Mediterranean marriages where the men dominated the women. I knew from a very early age that I would never get married. I was going to have a career. I was going to make my own money and take care of myself. I was never going to be dependent on anybody.
Interesting you came away with that when so many other women saw it as the next step.
Right, it was completely resistible to me
Yet you have been married for 33 years.
But don't forget I met Phil when I was 38. I was already Marlo Thomas. I already had my own house on the hill, my own money, my own name. I wasn't in the least bit vulnerable to succumbing to submission. It wasn't going to happen. When a man meets a woman like me, that battle is over. I was already who I was. You don't go up to a woman like that and say: I want you to give up what you have and become, you know, my laundress. Not going to happen.
Before you met Phil, did it concern you at all that you might never meet someone to share your life with?
No. I wasn't concerned. I had a lot of boyfriends. I just made it very clear that I never wanted to be married. When I started dating Phil I said the same thing. He said, "I don't either." I said, "Great." He'd already been married and had five children. It was a good relationship. He lived in Chicago and I lived in L.A. When it became clear he was the one I wanted to be with, even then I didn't want to get married.
Do you think the sexual revolution has backfired on girls in that sometimes it seems like they are getting used?
I don't know. What I see is Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer, heads of companies, which was unheard of when I was growing up. When I was producing "That Girl," I would go to meetings at ABC where I was the only woman in the room. The only other woman anywhere was getting us coffee. I was an anomaly. They didn't know what to do. One man once said to me, "We don't know whether to bond with you or go to bed with you." They just didn't know how to deal with a woman who had power.
When they wanted "That Girl" to get married at the end of the series, I said "No, I can't do that to the girls who follow this show, to think that every story about a girl ends with a marriage." They begged me and said it would be great for the ratings. I said, "No, I don't want to do it. I won't do it. It's my show. I'm bringing it to an end and it's not going to end with a wedding." My last show was taking Donald to a women's lib meeting. I had power and I used my power.
That to me is the most important thing ... for a woman to stand up and say, "No!" "I must!" "I have to have this!" "I insist!" I really do believe when you say that to your boss, your husband, your children, your partner, whoever, there is nothing anybody can say. I did that with the men in my life.
So you found a man, in Phil, who understood this?
Yes, but the other men I was with did, too. People say to me all the time: How do you balance your life, your work, your marriage, your career? I say I balance it every day. I can't say my husband comes before everything else or my work comes before everything else, I balance it every day.