November 21, 1937– Marlo Thomas
Thomas can’t understand men who are surprised by women with opinions, an issue she dealt with when her television series That Girl debuted in 1966. Thomas:
“I think they’re Neanderthals. I mean, where the hell have they been? We’ve been speaking up since 1961! I don’t understand that kind of sexism that underestimates women or the sexism that thinks we’re just sex objects. That is just so old-fashioned.”
She was born Margaret Thomas in suburban Detroit, one of three children of entertainer Danny Thomas and his singer wife Rosie. She was raised in Beverly Hills, and graduated from USC in 1959. From a good Catholic family of Lebanese and Sicilian descent, her godmother was Loretta Young.
A buoyant, bubbly brunette, Thomas found work doing small roles on television series in the early 1960s. Her first big break was when she appeared in the London production of Neil Simon’s Barefoot In The Park, in a role originated by Jane Fonda on Broadway. Her good press in the play led to her own series, That Girl (1966-1971).
In my teens at the time, I loved the show for the kicky clothing and the theme song, but it also gave me a healthy representation of the new modern woman. Thomas played aspiring actor Ann Marie, an independent, career-oriented young woman learning to make it on her own in NYC with a little help from her cute boyfriend, Donald Hollinger, played by yummy Ted Bessell, and her parents, Lou and Helen Marie, played by Lew Parker and Rosemary DeCamp.
A real television pioneer, Thomas also served as executive producer for the show. The sitcom was a hit, and earned her a Golden Globe Award in 1967.
Thomas received pushback from the writers, editors and network execs who didn’t want to take orders from a “girl”. Thomas:
“We worked at Desilu Studios, and Lucille Ball was on the lot. The joke around the lot was if you couldn’t find me, I was probably in the men’s room having a meeting with Lucy.”
That Girl was one of the first sitcoms to focus on a single woman. It paved the way for The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) and was an early reflection of the changing roles of American women in the Feminist Era. Thomas had a goofy charm and Bessell delivered his character’s dialogue with a dry wit.
In 1966, when That Girl first aired, birth control pills were still illegal in most states. Finally, in 1972, SCOTUS ruled that contraception in any form could be distributed to single people. As court cases churned through the judicial system, That Girl remained so chaste that Donald’s bare ankles became a storyline.
In the beginning of its final season, Don and Ann became engaged, but they never actually married, a very progressive idea that came from Thomas. She didn’t want to send the message to young women that marriage was life’s ultimate goal, and she worried that it would go against the feminist message of the show.
Here are some of the costumes from That Girl! that influenced fashion during the era:
After That Girl ended in 1971, Thomas had to find her own projects, so she produced and starred in a groundbreaking children’s television special Free To Be…You And Me (1974). The show celebrated diversity and open expression and featured an all-star cast that included Alan Alda, Harry Belafonte, Mel Brooks, Roberta Flack, Michael Jackson and Kris Kristofferson. It won an Emmy Award, Thomas’s first after four nominations for That Girl.
She made her Broadway debut in 1974 with the Herb Gardner’s bittersweet Thieves, appearing in the film version in 1977. Other Broadway credits include the comedy Social Security (1986), directed by Mike Nichols, the Pulitzer Prize winning The Shadow Box (1994), and Elaine May’s George Is Dead (2011). Thomas also has an extensive list of regional theatre credits.
She won another Emmy in 1986 for the television film Nobody’s Child, playing the real-life institutionalized woman who was able to find her way to sanity and a healthy life. Then another Emmy for 1989’s Free to Be… A Family, which revisited themes from the 1974 Free To Be program.
Thomas starred with Martin Sheen in a rare, for the era, gay-themed television film, Consenting Adult (1985), playing parents who must come to terms with their teenage son’s coming out.
Thomas has been a guest-star on Roseanne, Frasier, Law & Order: SVU and Ugly Betty. She was Emmy nominated for her terrific performance as the mother of Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) on Friends.
At the time she was just starting That Girl, Thomas read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. She has stated that after college she didn’t want to get married, and that every script she was given was all the same: wives, daughters and secretaries. When she pitched That Girl to a male programming executive, she asked: “Ever thought of doing a show where the woman is somebody?” She gave him a copy of The Feminine Mystique. His reaction: “I just have one question: Is this going to happen to my wife? “
Although she was one of the first females to take on a progressive role on television, Thomas credits Mary Tyler Moore and Candice Bergen for the evolution of female characters on television. Thomas:
“The truth was it wasn’t as if That Girl was a revolutionary figure like all the men thought. She was in every house in America, she gave everybody permission to be who they already were.”
After she appeared on the talk show Donahue in 1977, she and host Phil Donahue started dating the day after the show. At the time, he was living with his four sons from his first marriage. Thomas, then in her early 40s, was used to living alone. She writes in her memoir:
“I wasn’t used to that many towels and jock straps; I had never been with a man before who had ‘Dad’ written on his underwear.”
She and Donahue married in 1980. They live in an apartment on Park Avenue with view of Central Park, not far from Ann Marie’s dinky apartment at 627 East 54th Street.
Thomas is active in her father’s charity, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. She has written seven bestselling books including Free to Be… a Family: A Book About All Kinds Of Belonging (1987), The Right Words At The Right Time (2002), and a memoir, Growing Up Laughing (2010).
She has those Emmys and the Golden Globe in her awards case, plus Thomas has earned a Peabody Award, a Grammy, the Helen Caldicott Award For Nuclear Disarmament, the American Women in Radio And Television Satellite Award, the William Kunstler Racial Justice Award, and the Presidential Medal Of Freedom. She has been inducted into the Broadcasting Hall Of Fame.
Up next: Thomas is part of the ensemble cast of Ocean’s Eight with Cate Blanchett, Rihanna, Sandra Bullock and Anne Hathaway. She can currently be seen in Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later (2017) and The Female Brain (2017), written by Whitney Cummings, starring Sofía Vergara and Cecily Strong. Both are streaming on Netflix. That Girl! is streaming on Hulu; you should check it out.
Tid-Bit: Bessell appeared as the boyfriend of Mary Richards, for two episodes on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. He moved into directing, most notably for HBO’s The Tracey Ullman Show, winning an Emmy. He died in 1996, taken by an aortic aneurysm.
At the start of 2017, Thomas launched her first fashion line, aptly titled That Woman! for HSN.
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