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Marlo Thomas Interview: Legendary Actress, Activist and Humanitarian on 'Growing Up Laughing'

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Marlo Thomas

Detroit native Margaret Julia Thomas is the eldest child of comedian Danny Thomas (1912-1991) and his wife, the former Rose Marie Cassaniti (1914-2000). She became known as “Marlo” after her childhood mispronunciation of the nickname “Margo.” Her brother, Tony Thomas, is a television and film producer and her sister, Terre, is a former actress.

Thomas is best known for her portrayal of the perky, wide-eyed innocent, aspiring (but only sporadically employed) actress Ann Marie in the ABC sitcom That Girl (1966-1971). Other television credits include The Joey Bishop Show, Ben Casey, My Favorite Martian, Bonanza, It Happened One Christmas (1977 TV movie), Nobody’s Child (1986 TV movie), The Lost Honor of Kathryn Beck (1984 TV movie), Frasier, Friends, Ugly Betty, and The Fran Drescher Show. She starred in the 1970 film Jenny with Alan Alda and the 1977 film Thieves that also starred Charles Grodin.

“I think there was resentment that I had that kind of power. I was in my early 20s and there were some men who just couldn’t handle it. There were some men who found it sexy and liked it and there were some men who found it way too intimidating and too different. It was just not their expectations that a woman would be boss. They just had a hard time with that.”

After That Girl, Thomas released a children’s book/record, Free to Be… You and Me, which received much critical acclaim and encouraged children to follow their dreams regardless of gender stereotypes, saluting values such as tolerance and comfort with one’s own identity.

The talented actress also performed on Broadway in Thieves (1974), Social Security (1986, in which she also toured), and The Shadow Box (1994). In 1993 Thomas toured in Six Degrees of Separation and in 2007 she starred in Elaine May’s comedy Roger is Dead at George Street Playhouse. She returned to the George Street Playhouse in 2008 for the play New Year’s Eve with Keith Carradine and Natasha Gregson Wagner.

Thomas is the recipient of four Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe Award, a Grammy Award, the George Foster Peabody Award, and most recently the Jefferson Award for Lifetime Achievement in public service. She is also active with St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital (that her father founded in 1962) in Memphis, Tennessee, and serves as the National Outreach Director.

Marlo Thomas

Marlo Thomas (Courtesy of Marlo Thomas)

The social activist has been a role model for women and children since she blazed the trail as television’s first single woman living alone in the hit series That Girl. She is an outspoken supporter of equal rights and in 1973 joined Gloria Steinem, Patricia Carbine, and Letty Cottin Pogrebin as the founders of the country’s first women’s fund, the Ms. Foundation for Women, that even today helps over 150 grassroots organizations nationwide fight for changes in the workplace, reproductive health, and ending domestic violence.

Recently Thomas partnered with Today to create a program aimed at helping women all over the country get “unstuck” and move on with the next phase of their lives. She hosts Mondays with Marlo, a live weekly event which gives website visitors the chance to ask their questions directly to experts via real-time streaming video.

Thomas reminiscences about her famous father in a memoir entitled Growing Up Laughing (released September 28, 2010) which also includes interviews with comedy powerhouses such as Tina Fey, Chris Rock, Robin Williams, and Ben Stiller. Since 1980 she has been married to writer, film producer, and talk show innovator Phil Donahue.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Marlo, a new sculpture of your dad was recently unveiled at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis.

Marlo Thomas: Yes, it’s great. It’s really nice.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did you feel when you first saw the statue?

Marlo Thomas: I was surprised that it really kind of touched me because my brother, sister, and I had worked on it for two years. We worked on what it was going to look like. It’s odd when you have a statue of your father. Every time we saw the drawings we would say, “Oh that’s not really his nose. That’s not his lips or hairline. That’s not the length of his jacket.” But it does look pretty much like him. I mean, it’s not exactly like him but from a distance it looks a lot like him.

I was very moved when I saw the statue because I see photos of my father now, but I don’t see him standing anywhere, you know? That was sort of interesting. It did touch me. I think the idea that it will always be standing at the entrance to greet the families as they arrive is a nice thing.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your dad always struck me as a humble person. Do you think he’d approve of the statue?

Marlo Thomas: I’m not sure how my father would feel about it. In his lifetime he named the Danny Thomas Research Tower the Thomas Family Tower. He said, “I don’t need my name on it. My name’s on enough places here.” He wanted to name it the Thomas Family Tower to honor mother and all of us for all of the sacrifices we made during those years of him traveling. So of course it was named that. Then after he was gone, my mother wanted it changed to be called the Danny Thomas Research Tower. She felt that she wanted him to be remembered so she wanted his name there.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What is your role today at St. Jude’s?

Marlo Thomas: I’m the National Outreach Director. That means that I reach out to corporations, networks, celebrities, etc., to get them interested in helping us.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’m a huge fan of That Girl and have seen each episode many times.

Marlo Thomas: Oh that’s great. Thank you.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It had a special impact on me because I was just about to embark on a career.

Marlo Thomas: Exactly. That’s who the show was for.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How do you feel, as the creator of That Girl, to have paved the way for more independent women to be portrayed on television?

Marlo Thomas: It was wonderful and exciting to be a trailblazer, but also scary. It was risky and really thrilling that we were able to do it. There were many people who thought that it couldn’t be done. I remember Edgar Scherick of ABC said, “Will anybody watch a show about a single girl who’s not married?” They just didn’t realize that this was not a revolutionary figure, that she was in fact a fete de complete. Every home in America had one. I think that’s why it was such a big success because we were coming right on the wave of what was happening in the country with young women.

Marlo Thomas - Growing Up LaughingThat is how I feel about my website now. In the 60s and 70s what was bubbling under the earth was really the desire of young women to be different from their mothers. It was a huge desire and it spawned a gigantic movement. I think that’s really what’s happening now with women over 40. It’s kind of bubbling under the earth that women are looking around and saying, “Where’s my next dream? What’s next here? My children are in school and who am I?”

I cannot tell you how any women I meet on the road as I’m raising money for St. Jude and women friends of mine who are looking around at 40 or 42 years old and saying, “Now what?” I think that’s the big thing. They need to be helped and encouraged to be able to dream again because not all of the dreams we have in our lives last our lifetime. We have to find another one and another one and another one.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Exactly. What problems did you encounter in the 60s and 70s as a powerful female in show business?

Marlo Thomas: I think there was resentment that I had that kind of power. I was in my early 20s and there were some men who just couldn’t handle it. There were some men who found it sexy and liked it and there were some men who found it way too intimidating and too different. It was just not their expectations that a woman would be boss. They just had a hard time with that.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): After That Girl ended you were basically stereotyped as wide-eyed innocent Ann Marie. Was it a struggle to reinvent yourself?

Marlo Thomas: No, it’s always about parts. After I did Consenting Adult playing a mother of a boy who comes out to her about his homosexuality, then The Last Honor of Kathryn Beck about a woman who is hounded by the press and shoots a reporter, and Nobody’s Child about a schizophrenic and won the Emmy as Best Dramatic Actress I pretty much left it behind.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did you prepare for your role in Nobody’s Child, the fact-based drama about the life of Marie Balter who spent most of her young life in mental institutions, being misdiagnosed time after time?

Marlo Thomas: I met with Marie and got to know her quite well. She showed me her letters and poems. I went to the hospital where she had been and I talked to people who were in the varying stages of the disease that she had. Marie also showed me the symptoms that she had from the drugs. She couldn’t walk straight and her fingers were sort of frozen. Her three middle fingers were in a cramp all of the time.

All of those things really helped me to understand what panic attacks were about. She showed me all of that and I also read up on the disease. I mean, everybody has some panic in his or her lives. It’s just that the volume on people that have panic anxiety is turned way up. It’s different than what we all experience, but we all experience fear and anxiety and all of the things that she went through, but obviously not to that huge degree.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Definitely dialed up a notch.

Marlo Thomas: Yes, a notch or two. But it was a wonderful experience getting to know Marie and see her because she had overcome this with medication as some people do. But at that time she had been misdiagnosed and was given all the wrong medications. Marie was in a catatonic state for 6 years until a wonderful doctor pulled her out.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Indeed an inspiring story. I remember seeing you on an episode of Bonanza many years ago playing a Chinese girl.

Marlo Thomas: Yeah (laughs). Can’t do that today! That’s completely politically incorrect. But in those days you could do it and have the opportunity to play many parts.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In what other ways has television changed?

Marlo Thomas: There is way more reality shows and I don’t really like reality shows. I think Dancing With the Stars and that stuff is fun, but being in somebody’s house and watching them all of the time … I’d be uncomfortable doing a show like that and I’m uncomfortable watching it.

Marlo Thomas

Marlo Thomas (Courtesy of Marlo Thomas)

I really do feel a great loss for the movies of the week. Those were wonderful and a wonderful place to work for newcomers as well as people that were already established as actors. I made dozens and dozens of them and they were great to do. I did one with Kris Kristofferson, one with Martin Sheen, all kinds of wonderful actors. It’s just a shame they’re gone.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There is still the Lifetime channel.

Marlo Thomas: Yes but it has a narrow scope.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Growing Up Laughing was an enjoyable read.

Marlo Thomas: Thank you.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What would your dad have said about the book?

Marlo Thomas: Oh, he would have loved it! He would have loved the fact that I interviewed the comedians, would’ve loved my telling of all of the stories and adding jokes. It was funny and he loved funny.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Most celebrity memoirs include a bad childhood, numerous sexual affairs …

Marlo Thomas: Well, I didn’t have a bad childhood so I couldn’t make one up. I had a wonderful childhood. The “baddest” thing in my childhood was that my parents traveled a lot. We had a pretty normal childhood if you can call being Danny Thomas’ daughter normal (laughs).

We didn’t know anything else. Our parents loved us. We were taught to love each other and to be respectful of our parents. We went to church on Sundays so we could have been living in Toledo really in terms of how we lived our daily lives.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did you come up with the idea of adding comedians to the biography?

Marlo Thomas: My dad grew up in a very poor neighborhood, one of 10 kids … kind of a grim childhood. He had this one uncle who was so funny that he became the inspiration for Uncle Tonoose on Make Room for Daddy. He was dad’s Uncle Tony and was so funny he was barred from family funerals. That was really the inspiration for my dad to find his sense of humor.

I realized as I was writing about it that dad found his sense of humor through his uncle. I found it from my father and his friends, the comedians. So I started to wonder if everyone had a funny person in his or her family. I called a couple of friends like Robin Williams and it turned out that everybody did. Somebody had someone funny. Jay Leno’s father was an insurance salesman who told jokes; Robin Williams’ father was hilarious. It was apparent that it does start at home.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your mom gave up a professional singing career to stay home and raise a family. Did the two of you ever discuss what would have happened if she had pursued her goals?

Marlo Thomas: No she didn’t talk about that. She just talked about the fact that she regretted that she didn’t continue her career. We didn’t talk about what would have happened to the family. I think my mother just got caught in what was a sort of a tender trap, you know? She had her own radio show and my father was her announcer. Then he decided he wanted to leave Detroit for Chicago and take a chance on the bigger clubs. She married him, left the radio show behind, and followed him.

That’s what women did in those days and my mother really didn’t realize that it would be something that she would miss. She was in love, then she had a baby (me), then she had another baby and before you know it it’s like the women we’re talking about today. “Whatever happened to me?” I feel sorry for my mother’s … such a final choice, you know? She gave us her whole life and we could have done it on half. We didn’t need her whole life. Nobody does.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was she proud of your efforts in the women’s movement?

Marlo Thomas: Oh my gosh yes. I used to say I was my mother’s revenge and she loved that. She was very proud of me and very proud of my work.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did you get together with Gloria Steinem?

Marlo Thomas: We were brought together by an agent who thought it would be a good idea if I played the TV movie version of what Gloria had done as a journalist. Gloria went underground as a Playboy bunny and revealed how really bad the working circumstances were for those women and what they had to put up with in those little scanty outfits and what they had to do.

It was a wonderful story that Gloria wrote in New York magazine. So this agent had the idea that it would be a good movie for me to do for television so we met. We didn’t do the movie. In fact, I think the movie wasn’t done for another 30 years but Gloria and I became very good friends and we’ve been best friends ever since.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): We’ve come a long way in terms of women’s rights, but there are still issues such as equal pay in the workplace. Women marched years ago. What is the solution today?

Marlo Thomas: We’ve got the Internet now. We have a virtual town hall in the Internet. Marching doesn’t seem to be quite as strong as it was in my day because the Internet is really a national town hall where people really get to talk. That is what I’m loving about my website. I have so many people reading the posts and debating. There are wonderful conversations. I put something out there like “equal payday, still not equal pay” and there are thousands of posts in response. It’s a great place to have the conversation.

I think that women, as always, have to pursue and protect their rights because rights aren’t forever. If they were we wouldn’t have to continue to seek democracy. We have to continually protect our democratic rights. It’s a free society so somebody can try to make up a rule that takes your rights away from you. It’s important that we’re watching it all of the time.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You created Free to Be… You and Me in 1972 that has won critical acclaim since its publication. The basic concept was to encourage post-1980s gender neutrality, to encourage individuality and comfort with one’s identity. Is that message still as vital today?

Marlo Thomas: Yes. It’s very necessary for children. Children are not free if they are bullied, even on the Internet. The whole idea of Free to Be… You and Me was to make the world an open place for children to be whoever they are. Once you start bullying children they are not free anymore.

When we did Free to Be… You and Me the whole idea was that a child, a boy or girl, could be anything they wanted to be. It was all right for a boy to cry, it was all right for a girl to drive a truck, for a boy to have a doll, and for a girl to be a street paver. Nothing was either male or female. We did a whole thing called Parents are People. It showed Harry Belafonte and me in every kind of job imaginable, both of us doing the same jobs, indicating that mommies and daddies could be anything they wanted to be also.

We tried to change the expectations for children because that’s where it all starts. If children have an expectation that they have to do what my mother did because that’s how she was raised, then they can only be half of who they can be. That’s something we have to teach children of every generation. that you can be whoever you want to be even if you are underweight or overweight, in a wheelchair, can’t hear very well, wear glasses, if you are gay … whatever it is that people try to separate from their own peer groups.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote this wonderful afterward to the book saying he’s always felt that a child should be handed a manual to tell them how to behave on the planet, what to expect on the planet, and how not to fall off the planet. I thought that was a great thing to say and it’s true. Every generation needs that. Every kid needs that.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So very true. Tell me about Mondays With Marlo.

Marlo Thomas: I’m loving that. It actually came from an idea that I had in a focus group. We were having these wonderful conversations and a woman said, “Why don’t you do this so we can all communicate with you at least once a week? You could call it Mondays With Marlo.” She actually named it. So I did two of them that way where it was just me answering the questions from the community.

I realized that I didn’t have enough information. They were asking me questions about health, exercise, and money. I couldn’t answer those questions so I thought I should really bring in experts so I brought in Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, Susie Orman, Jillian Michaels (for fitness) and Gloria Allred (for women’s rights and sexual harassment in the workplace). It has just been very exciting. We recently had the dog whisperer on and he was great talking about how to train your dogs. It has been very helpful and everybody loves it.

AOL makes it possible by giving me a live stream chat which I don’t think they do for many people so that’s exciting. A couple of AOL guys have to come to my apartment when we shoot these to make it possible. In the old days you’d have to have a satellite outside and now they can do it through the Internet. It’s live so when Dr. Oz is sitting in my living room at 12:30 on the dot the camera goes on and the beam goes out and we start getting questions coming from the community.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Congratulations on receiving the Jefferson Award for lifetime achievement. I understand that’s sort of the Nobel Prize for public service.

Marlo Thomas: Thank you. Yes, that’s what they say. I didn’t realize that until I went there.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What a great honor. Do you attribute your compassionate spirit to your dad?

Marlo Thomas: Both of my parents. I mean, my dad built a hospital for sick kids. He used to say to us all of the time: “There are two kinds of people in the world – those who stop at a traffic accident to see if they can help and those who just drive by.” He was the kind who would stop and help.

I remember being a little kid, before cell phones, and my dad stopped at an accident. He ran with his change coming out of his pockets to a pay phone to call up about the accident. Dad was very much a part of the neighborhood and the community. I think he saw himself and the community as a nation. Even if you crossed the state line you were just in a bigger neighborhood and still responsible for your neighbor. We learned that from him.

I remember once riding in the car with my dad when I was about 7 or 8 years old and there were some boys beating up another little boy. Dad stopped the car and got out. He pulled them apart and gave them a talking to. I was really scared so I jumped in the back seat to look through the rear window. Dad got back in the car with the little boy that was being bullied and we took him home. He said, “I hate a bully.”

My dad was just the kind of man who didn’t drive by things. He saw it and wanted to make a difference. I think that’s an interesting quality. It’s so much empathy for people. There are some people who don’t have any empathy. They can actually bully and hurt someone. Then there is somebody like my dad who had complete empathy and identified with that person and didn’t want to see them being continually injured.

We had Deepak Chopra on recently on Mondays With Marlo and somebody wrote in and said, “How can we all help make this a better world?” Deepak said, “See something and do something about it.” That’s how you do it. You’re not going to bring about world peace tomorrow but you can certainly make a change in what you see.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is that how you’d like to be remembered as a person who has made changes in people’s lives?

Marlo Thomas: Oh, I’m not that close to dying yet (laughs). People are going to remember what they remember. They’re going to remember me as That Girl or as working with St. Jude or remember me as Phil’s wife.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I believe you will be remembered for a number of things; an activist for equal rights, a pioneer in television with That Girl, your altruistic work with St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, and the list goes on.

Marlo Thomas: Thank you.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Speaking of Phil, when you decided to marry, how did you know he was the one?

Marlo Thomas: I don’t know. What is this thing called love, right? I don’t have any idea. I met him and I just felt like I knew him. He seemed very familiar and very much like a person who I could trust and who I could love. Obviously I was attracted to him. We dated and were very attracted to each other, but the more I got to know him the more I saw the sweetness in him that is my dad, the kindness and the decency.

I think that we define the big words the same, you know, “fair” and “unfair,” “good” and “bad,” “acceptable” and “unacceptable.” Those are the words … I think if you define those words the same and you live your life that way there’s a better chance of sticking it out together. I have friends whose husbands and wives do things that are completely unacceptable but the person who has done the unacceptable thing doesn’t think it is. Well, you’re in trouble then. You can’t say to somebody, “That’s not fair,” if they don’t see that it’s unfair.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Absolutely. I read that you’re back on Broadway with Woody Allen.

Marlo Thomas: Yes, I’m in one of the plays. I’m in an Elaine May play that evening. There are three plays, three one acts – Woody Allen, Elaine May, and Ethan Cohen and I’m in Elaine’s play. They will all be presented on that night. We go into rehearsal on August 15 and we open on Broadway. We go into previews mid September and open October 20.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have so many irons in the fire. Ever have time for yourself?

Marlo Thomas: Actually your call is the only thing I’m doing for four days. My husband and I are in Connecticut. I just got back late Saturday night from St. Jude where we unveiled by dad’s statue and we had our board meeting. Then the week before I had done three Today shows, had to travel for three days and be in the studio for three days to do the shows on the women starting over. I’m pretty tired.

Yesterday I had a massage. Today I worked out and am reading Room which is very good. I’m an English Lit major so I’ve always been a good reader. I’m reading and just sitting in the sun looking at the water and thinking that the world is certainly a nice place today.

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  1. Phyllis Cambria
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