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Marlo Thomas + Phil Donahue on the secrets of marriage

Marlo Thomas & Phil Donahue on the secrets of lasting marriages
Marlo Thomas & Phil Donahue on the secrets of lasting marriages 07:28

Behind COVID face masks, and bundled against a blustery April chill, who would recognize Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue, but for his signature gray hair?  "If I go bald, this marriage is over," he said.

So far, so good! They celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary this month.

If you ask Donahue the date of their wedding, he will offer, "It's the fifth of May, May … fifth?"

"You're so funny," said Thomas. "You know very well what it is."

As she explained to "Sunday Morning" host Jane Pauley, "I'm born November 21. He's born December 21. And we specifically decided to be married on a 21. So, 5/21!"

To mark the occasion, they wrote a book about marriages, featuring 40 famous couples who've stood the test of time – and many other tests along the way. Such as? "Having a sick kid, having a bad mother-in-law, losing all your money," Thomas said. "Addiction of all kinds, infidelity. Any issue you can imagine that any marriage could face, in our book they face it."


How, Pauley asked, would they begin these conversations?

"We didn't start with a question, really," said Thomas. "It was like a double date."

A double date that began with crackers and cheese, and eventually got down to brass tacks.  "We talked about how do you fight, and how you come back from a fight?"

"Some people are championship fighters," Pauley said. "I'm thinking of Chip and Joanna Gaines, the 'Fixer-Upper' couple."

"They fought a lot in the beginning of their marriage, because she's very cautious and he's crazy adventurer," Thomas said. "He said one time they were having an argument, and in the middle of the argument she banged her hand on a bucket of paint and it spilled all over, and white paint was dripping from her face and her clothes. But she didn't stop; she just kept screaming and yelling. He said he looked at her, he thought, 'You know, I love this woman, she is so passionate.'"

At 17, Billy Crystal didn't even have a driver's license when he met Janice, his wife of 50 years.

"Why did he cling so ferociously to the teenage girl he fell in love with when he was a kid?" asked Pauley.

"I think they really believed in each other," Thomas said. "One of the things I was impressed with Janice and Billy, and Arlene and Alan Alda, these are guys that had careers that were really going nowhere."

Billy Crystal was a substitute teacher; Alan Alda drove a cab. "But their wives never said to them – as many wives might – 'When are you going to get a real job?'"

Phil and Marlo's love affair began in 1977, on television, with an audience, when she appeared as a guest on the "Donahue" show.

Marlo Thomas, single, was a guest on divorcée Phil Donahue's show in 1977. In front of millions of viewers, sparks flew.  "Donahue"

"It really wasn't an interview," she said. "And he said to me, 'How come you've never married?' I said, I just don't believe it's for me. It seems like it's only a place for one-and-a-half persons, you know, the person that has the dream and the other person who supports the dream."

Pauley asked, "Where'd you get that idea?"

"Well, my parents for one."

Her mother had given up a singing career to marry the star of TV's "Danny Thomas Show," But within weeks, Marlo was a regular guest in the home of single dad Phil, raising four boys in Winnetka, Illinois.

Pauley said, "I think being single and independent was almost your brand."

"No, I was never getting married."

Like the character she played in the hit TV series "That Girl," Thomas was pursuing a career, not a husband: "I was trying to portray, for the first time on television, a young girl who wasn't thinking about getting married. She was thinking about who she could be in the world."

A revolutionary idea in 1966. But there were men in her life.

"Oh my, weren't there!" said Donahue.

And typically, two at a time. How?  Thomas explained: "One was always a really smart guy, who I loved learning from, and the other one was the sexy guy with a little curl on his forehead. I never could put them together. I didn't think that it was possible to find a mate who would be so smart and be so exciting to my brain and also be exciting to my hormones."

Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas on their wedding day, 1980. Instagram

Pauley interjected, "I'm looking at Phil, and he's got a little curl there…"

A smile crossed Donahue's face.

Pauley said to Donahue, "By the time you and Marlo meet you're, to use the modern lingo, a 'woke' man. You were a feminist, at least your reputation. You were a daytime host who got it about women. Was that, was that real?"

"Well, I had Gloria Steinem on my program very early," he said. "All the feminists somehow seemed to, sooner or later, show up on the 'Donahue' show. And we were thrilled with that, because they were good guests, including (pointing to Thomas)."

"I always say, I'm so lucky I married a man who saw the 'Donahue' show every day!" Thomas said.
And today, every day is the "Donahue" show at their house. They've posted some of their adventures on Instagram:

And they're learning a lot in "The Bunker," as they call it. Marlo's teaching Phil to make spaghetti sauce … and cutting his hair.

Phil and Marlo, at home alone, and making a marriage that lasts.

Thomas said, "I believe that marriage is a cushion of life, and it does help you get up and over whatever issue it is and get through it to the other side. And every time you do that for each other, that braid of love and trust and steel just gets tighter and tighter, so that somebody else can't break it."

For more info:

Story produced by Mary Lou Teel and Charis Satchell. Editor: Remington Korper.

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