Marlo Thomas Is Still "That Girl"

Marlo Thomas was television's "That Girl," and she's appeared on countless other TV shows, including playing Rachel's mother on "Friends."
The TV series "That Girl" was a big hit back in the 1960's for Marlo Thomas. Many other roles have followed - in show business and in real life. Rita Braver has our Sunday Profile:

If you happen to be cruising New York Harbor, you might spot a deckhand who looks a bit familiar.

Marlo Thomas has to be one of the hardest working women in show business. Just ask the boat's Captain - who also happens to be Thomas' husband, former talk show host Phil Donahue.

"I mean, her brain catches fire and she just reaches out. She does not air-kiss life. She grabs it and it's very impressive, really."

We got to know Thomas as television's "That Girl," and she's appeared on countless other TV shows, including playing Rachel's mother on "Friends." Thomas won an Emmy for a more serious role, portraying a mentally ill woman in "Nobody's Child."

She's acted on Broadway, too, and published several books, including a new one out this coming week, "Growing Up Laughing," about life with her late father, 1950s and '60s sitcom star Danny Thomas.

He'd always used to say, 'I'm not proud, I'll take a joke from anybody if it's a good joke.' And I think it really gave my sister and brother and I a real leg up on valuing humor, valuing laughter," she said.

Today, Marlo Thomas has a penthouse overlooking Manhattan, but she grew up in Beverly Hills, where the Thomases' was a hangout for some of America's best known comedians.

On Milton Berle: "He was completely on all the time. He entertained at our birthday parties. He did card tricks very badly."

On Sid Caesar: "Very quiet, was most comfortable when he was talking in an accent."

On George Burns: "I just worshipped him. He was the one that stood up for me when my dad would say he didn't want me to be an actress. And George would say: 'What do you want her to be, a milliner? Of course she's gonna be an actress.'"

On her father: "He really didn't want me to do it. He had had a lot of rough years, his beginning years. And he just was afraid for me. He told me later, he said, "I just didn't wanna relive those first years with somebody that I love."

But she pressed on, landing small parts in shows like "Bonanza," where she played the role of Chinese-Persian mail order bride who clashes with Hoss Cartright.

But in 1966 she helped develop her own show, about, what else, an aspiring actress.

Thomas had to have great hair for the part. It was a revolutionary show, the first time ever a lead character in a sitcom was a young career woman, who lived on her own. Coming just at the dawn of the women's movement, the series was a hit.

So it was a big wave, and 'That Girl' just rode that wave," she said. "The mail we got was just astounding. I mean, I expected, I love your flip and all that. But they were writing to me and saying, I'm 22 years old and I have two children and my husband beats me and I don't know where to go."

Those letters prompted Thomas to join forces with Gloria Steinem and other leading feminists to found the Ms. Foundation to help women.

And she produced and starred in a landmark record album and Emmy-winning TV show called "Free to Be You and Me." It urged boys and girls not to be bound by gender stereotypes.

A scene where she and Harry Belafonte appear to be a couple raised some network eyebrows.

"ABC had asked us to take it out. They also asked us to take out that William wants a doll, because it was, you know, 'little boys shouldn't have dolls.'

"But, you know, the country did not fall part. And nobody got a doll that didn't want a doll."

Through it all, Marlo Thomas has always made time for St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, fundraising, and cheerleading. It was another part of her family legacy.

And proudly beaming over the whole thing is Danny Thomas. Marlo's father founded the hospital in 1962.

"We thought St. Jude was one of our uncles, we heard his name so much," she said.

With St. Jude's and everything else, the one thing that never interested Marlo Thomas was marriage.

"What's this pull for getting married? You know, I was completely against it. But never say never."

Because "never" went away, when Thomas was a guest on Phil Donahue's show in 1977. They fell in love. But aware of her anti-marriage vow, he had to screw up the courage to propose.

"It didn't happen overnight. I was scared," Donahue said. "I mean, five children. Come on, 'Here honey, here's five kids."

She accepted anyway, and, as she writes in her new book, moved in with Phil and his four teenage sons still living at home.

"What really got to me, though, was that all of them kept asking me where their things were. Where are my shoes? Phil would constantly ask. What is it about men? They think we women have a radar attached to our uterus. And the thing that really killed me was that I knew where they were. I knew where Phil's shoes were. I knew where all four boys were. How did this happen?"

But 30 years later, they are still happily sailing along. And with the launch of her new Web site, and a movie soon to be released, she has no plans to retire. In fact, don't even bother to ask how old she is.

For more info:
"Growing Up Laughing: My Story and the Story of Funny" by Marlo Thomas (Hyperion)