Marlo Thomas, Actress
Marlo Thomas on breaking the mold with her forward-thinking 1960s TV series "That Girl" and using the power of television to change minds.
Marlo Thomas on breaking the mold with her forward-thinking 1960s TV series That Girl and the power of TV to change minds.
MARLO THOMAS: You know, my father was one of nine boys. So I observed nine Lebanese marriages. And when they had a fight with their wives, the comment would be, where is she going to go? And the truth is, she had nowhere to go. So I really had it in my soul very early that I was always going to have somewhere to go.
I was this young actress, you know, struggling and doing auditions. And I got a call from the head of the network, Edgar Sherrick. And he said, we believe that you can be a television star. I said, look, everything I've read that you sent me, the girl is either the daughter of somebody, or the wife of somebody, or the secretary of somebody. Have you ever considered doing a show where the girl is the somebody? And he looked at me and he said, would anybody watch a show like that?
I said, today's girls, we don't want to be our mothers. We want something completely different. I want her to be a girl like me, who's got a college education, who wants to be an actress, who wants to be independent, who doesn't want to get married, who wants to find out who she is. That's what I want to play.
- Now, daddy, just a minute. Before you go any further, yes, Don and I are very fond of each other. But at the moment, marriage is the furthest thing from our mind.
- It's time it got a little closer.
- Well, besides, I don't want to get married just yet. I have my career to think about.
MARLO THOMAS: I had called her Miss Independence was the name I gave the show. And they called it That Girl, which is a way better name.
And the opening night, you know, we got a 40 share. And in fact, it wasn't just young girls. It was moms and grandmothers. I would get letters, because a lot of women in those days, like my mother, had given up their dreams. And they were kind of encouraging me to stick with it, kid.
[MUSIC PLAYING - "THAT GIRL" THEME SONG]
The big conflict for the last show was that the network and the sponsors, even my writing staff, wanted there to be a wedding. They wanted Anne Marie and Donald to have a wedding at the last show. And I just couldn't do it.
And I said, I just can't. I have the feeling that there's these millions of girls who've been hanging on Ann Marie's every word and following her journey. And if she gets married at the end, it means that's the only happy ending. So in the last show, I took Donald to a women's lib meeting, which made everybody mad. But I thought it's the perfect end, that she's going to continue to try to change him and bring him into her way of thinking.
- You just keep forgetting that as a woman, you can't do everything.
- There are very few things we can't do as well as any man.
MARLO THOMAS: And I think television changes minds. I mean, I know it does. I know from the fact that to this day, women stop me on the street and say, I would have never come to New York if it hadn't been for you.
The creator of That Girl, Bill Persky, used to say that Ann Marie threw the hand grenade into the bunker, and all the other women's shows got to walk through it. That's a great feeling. That's a really great feeling.
MARLO THOMAS: I think if you're just coming out of school, it's the perfect time to make every sacrifice, you can for your dream. Work for nothing. Say I'll be an intern for nothing. Sleep on the floor somewhere. Just get in to the job you want. And make yourself indispensable. And learn as much as you possibly can. That way, you'll be on the ground floor. You'll be learning what before you have to worry about responsibility for an apartment or a house or family or whatever. Being a part of this economy, you'll get a lot of jobs. People will take you right away and you'll learn.
MARLO THOMAS: I think being a good partner, life partner, is like being a good parent. Because for your children, you want your children to have everything they want. You want them to have all their dreams come true. You want to give them every tool to make their dreams come true. And I think that's what you have to do as a partner. I think you want your husband and your wife to have what they want out of life. To not be giving up things and not sacrificing things because of some idea of what you might want. And if-- and I think if we approach our spouses the same way we approach our children, with that kind of generosity of spirit, that kind of real investment in their happiness, we'll have happy lives.
MARLO THOMAS: When I was doing my book called The Right Words at the Right Time. I was asking people that I admired. What was the something that somebody said right at the right time in your life? So I thought, I'd like to get Justice Ginsburg. And I wanted to have a woman of that kind of power. So I called her office, and I thought well she doesn't know who I am. She'll probably never call back. But you know all she can do is not call back.
Anyway, she called me back. I was shocked that she called me back. And I said, oh, Justice Ginsburg. I am so honored that you return my call. I didn't-- I wasn't even sure if you'd know who I was. She said, oh I know who you are. Free to Be. She said I love Free to Be, and I said did you raise your children? She said, oh, yes, but I take it with me when I'm speaking on women's issues. She said it's a very good reference for women's issues.
Well, I mean that's the best review I've ever had in my life Free to Be, You and Me. Yeah. That was exciting.
MARLO THOMAS: I think that to say to anybody, men or women, that your life is going to be always balanced is not true. It's not true. The balance changes. It shifts from day to day. There are some days when you just have to be at work and you have to be there all day and all night to make the deadline or whatever it is. And there are some days when you simply cannot ignore the fact that your children need you or your husband needs you. You have to travel here or there for your family.
So I think that the workplace has to be more flexible. It has to be flexible enough for men and women to get to their families when they need to. And their family has to be flexible enough to say this is a day where mommy or daddy has to be completely obsessed with their work, or else we're going to fall right back into the same old stereotypes, where one person has to stay home and one person has to go to work. Everybody has to be more flexible.
MARLO THOMAS: [INAUDIBLE] Dan and Bella Abzug took a lot of heat, because they were angry. Gloria and I were softer. So we got away with more. You know, we were just as radical. Just as revolutionary. But because we didn't scream and yell, and we were thin and pretty, we got away with it.
But I always thought it was so unfair the kind of treatment that those women got. Because they were the ones that were there first. They were throwing the hand grenade in the bunker. And they were the mothers of the movement for sure.
MARLO THOMAS: I think with my husband I realized right away that we defined the big words the same, like good and bad, fair and unfair, acceptable and unacceptable. I think if you've got that, that's a big thing because I know a lot of my friends when they're having a fight with their husband, it's about what she considers fair and wgar he doesn't think is fair. They're off on those things. So that's a big deal. And I think that what he's given me in my life is a stability of knowing that I'm with someone who is looking through the same lens that I'm looking through. I don't have to explain to him why something is not good or acceptable. That's a big thing.
MARLO THOMAS: I think I did have an aha moment when I read the Feminine Mystique. Because up until that time, I was thinking that I was just different. And you know a lot of my girlfriends were getting married straight out of college. And I was thinking, I don't want to do that at all. But reading that book let me know that there were masses of women who felt differently. It was stunning. And comforting.
You know, and then I would start to read things like, you know, Erica Young's Fear of Flying and Gloria Steinem was going underground as a Playboy bunny. And this was all happening in different parts of the country. And nobody knew each other. But it was happening. It was bubbling underneath the earth. And it was coming up. And, I mean I realized that I was a woman of my time. Do you know? I mean instead of feeling like I was from another planet.
MARLO THOMAS: I was brokenhearted that the equal rights amendment didn't pass. I couldn't believe that it wouldn't because-- Well first of all, I didn't realize growing up that when the founding fathers wrote the words all men are created equal that it didn't include me. I didn't know that it only was about white men that owned property. So that really flabbergasted me. And that was also a great motivation to say, we have to rewrite this Constitution. I mean this is completely wrong.
And so to get an equal rights amendment seemed to me the only way to ensure that in every single state in this country women would have the same equal chance. But I remember Irma Bombeck, who was just so funny, a great funny writer. And she said, the words of the equal rights amendment are the most misunderstood words since one size fits all. And it's true. It's completely misunderstood. If you read the words-- and I've forgotten them now-- but if you read the words of the equal rights amendment, it just merely says that no one whose rights can be abridged because of sex. I mean that's really what it says. It doesn't say anything about you have to use the same bathroom, you have to work even if you don't want to, you can't raise your own family. It says none of that. And that's how the opposition killed it.
MARLO THOMAS: I grew up in Beverly Hills, California with my dad, who was a very famous comedian, and my mom and my sister and brother. I'm the oldest in my family. And my dad was a very warm guy. He was Lebanese. They're very emotional, they have their heart on his sleeve.
I'm always amazed when women tell me that their father never told them they loved them. My father always told us he loved us. He kissed and hugged us all the time.
He was just a cuddly, nice guy, and he was funny. And I think that funniness, you know, really gave me a look at life that everything wasn't so serious. Everything didn't need to be taken with a, you know, a heaviness.
You know, like, I was in an elevator one time with him when I was a little girl, and there were a lot of people in the elevator. And I was, you know, kind of scared, all the big, tall bodies looming over me. And so I was hanging onto my father's leg.
And after a while, he looked down at me, and he said, please, madam, I'm a married man. And everybody in the elevator laughed, you know? And it made the world seem like a small and friendly place, you know? So that was his way of being, was just making light of things. And so I think that was formed into my personality.
MARLO THOMAS: I got a call from the head of the network, Edgar Sherrick, and he said, we believe that you can be a television star. And as we talked about the show and what she would do, I took out of my bag a book called "The Feminine Mystique," and I put it on his desk. And I said, you really need to read this book, because this is where it's going. I said, I want her to be a girl like me, who's got a college education, who wants to be independent, who doesn't want to get married. And I think if you read this, you'll see that I'm not alone in this.
So he read it and also I said to him, there is a woman named Rena Bartos, who was an advertising executive at Grey Advertising, and she was trying to explain to the clients that you really couldn't sell cars anymore with women in bikinis laying over the hood of the car, that women were buying cars, and that wasn't going to sell a car to a woman. So she said this wonderful thing that I then quoted to Edgar Sherrick. I said, if you want to hit a moving target, you have to aim it where it's going, not at where it's been.
And he looked at me like, you know, I was completely speaking in Swahili to him. But he was-- he was filtering it through his own prejudices. And you know, most men in those 60s and 70s, they weren't thinking like this at all. As he said at the time, you know, not everybody agrees with me, but I'm going to throw the dice on you.
And I-- you know, I think that "The Feminine Mystique--" I don't know that Betty Friedan was thinking of selling television shows when she was-- when she wrote that book, but it really did convince him that there was something else happening in the water now. And he wanted to get-- he wanted to aim at where it was going.
MARLO THOMAS: There were a lot of difficulties during the TV special for "Free To Be-- You and Me" because, when I turn it into the network, they told me that they didn't want me to use "William Wants a Doll" because "William Wants a Doll," they felt, would make every boy in America a sissy, with their words. I said, oh, that's ridiculous. Every boy has a doll. What's the difference between a doll and a bear? I mean, it's the same thing. You hug it and you cuddle it. And they really wanted it out.
And they all-- they weren't very happy with "It's All Right to Cry" because it was sung by Rosie Greer who's this big football player. Well, that was the whole point. I mean, it wasn't going to be sung by a little thing like me. I wanted a big bruiser to sing it, to say to little boys, it's OK to cry.
So they said, OK, we'll leave in "It's All Right to Cry," but "William Wants a Doll" has to go. And I said, no. Absolutely not. If you don't want it, I'll go to CBS.
And so they let it go. But the interesting thing is, even though it did really well and won all of these prizes, there were a couple of reviewers around the country-- "The New York Times" loved it, you know, all the progressive places loved it. But "The Boston Globe," the critic for "The Boston Globe," wrote, keep your children away from the set tonight.
So there were men who wrote about this that felt that this was just too dangerous for children to hear this kind of propaganda. And it was propaganda. I mean, saying that everybody is the same sometimes irks other people. You know, I don't know why, but equality is threatening to the status quo.
MARLO THOMAS: My attitude about marriage always was that marriage is an institution for 1 and a half persons. And mostly, the one whole person was the man. Male dominated. Women gave up their work.
And that's the way I grew up with my dad and my mom and my aunts and my uncles. All the marriages that I saw. So I thought, this is just not the institution for me. I want to be involved in something where there's two whole persons and I'm one of the whole persons.
So I had written off marriage as an option for me. Just wasn't going to be. And I had boyfriends, and I did very well in my romantic life. I was happy. And I don't think I would've ever married, had I not met Phil. I know that sounds very romantic but it's the truth.
I-- he-- he felt like family to me. He felt very familiar from the moment I met him. And I trusted him. He was a feminist, that didn't hurt. So he already had gone through, you know, whatever he had to get rid of by being raised in the 40s and 50s.
And I said to him one time-- We were having an argument, because I lived in LA and he lived in Chicago. And so we were going back and forth a great deal. And he was raising four boys by himself so he had big responsibilities that I didn't have.
Anyway I couldn't always get there when he wanted me to get there, like on a Thursday and I couldn't get there till Friday night because I was working. And so he said to me one time, well, you know, you never come. You don't come for long enough, and, you know, all that the kind of battles that you have if you're a commuter couple.
So I said to him, you know how hard you've worked to get where you are. I mean, you started in Dayton, Ohio with one show, you now have 225 shows. The ambition that you've had to stick with it, to get your dream, all that, that you put into it? He said, yeah. I said, well put a skirt on it and it's me. I'm the same person. I want what you want. You know, I want to have my dream. And if we can't design something roomy enough for both of us, then I can't do it.
What I did was I moved to New York so that the commute was shorter and easier on both of us.
But, I mean, we got married in secret and my fans were very disappointed. The women were-- I got a lot of mail saying, how could you do this? I'm so disappointed. I was always able to say, I'm not crazy. See Marlo Thomas isn't married and she's not crazy. I said, well, I fell in love and I just felt so bad.
But I've made a marriage that is roomy enough for me and my husband. And I'm proud of the fact I've been married for 31 years. I think that coming from where I came from, I made such a complete left turn. Then my sister and brother who married very young were divorced.
MARLO THOMAS: In the 90s, we were all at the "Ms." Foundation, and we read about this Harvard study that Carol Gilligan had done that said that girls, when they were around 11, stopped raising their hand at school and kind of went underground. You know, getting a little less confident. And sometimes, they didn't come out till they were 50. 50-- not 15, 5-0. I mean, it was frightening to read this.
So we all thought, my god, we've got to do something about this. Let's do a program that says you should take your daughter to work with you so that children, so girls can start to see that the workplace wants them, that it's a friendly place. And it was the way I grew up. I went to work with my dad, and it took the mystery out of everything.
So that first year was very exciting because they were everywhere. There were girls in, you know, on tugboats, girls behind the scenes at a theater, at the printing press, at the time. It really was one of those ideas that everybody knew was the truth. Everybody who had a daughter knew that girls didn't get a fair shake, because nobody was pushing a girl to have a career.
Nobody said to a girl, well, what do you want to be when you grow up? And what we were trying to do was raise expectation, that there's a place outside of the home for you. There's a place outside of school room for you. You know, there's a place where there's a future.
MARLO THOMAS: My mother was a singer. She had her own radio program in Detroit. Unfortunately for my mother, she was raised at a time when women gave up their careers to be wives and mothers. And I think in those early years when she was having babies, she didn't really notice know that she'd given up anything because she was getting so much. She was having babies and married to the man she loved. And everything was a gift.
But then as time went on, she started to look for herself again and she couldn't find herself. And I think I knew always that my mother was sorry she gave up her career. And she didn't make me feel guilty about it at all, but she talked about the excitement of having a program every day. And whenever we gave a party, she always sang. And we always had these famous people that were my dad's friends, Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole or someone. And they'd play the piano and sing. And my mother completely undaunted would get up and sing right after them. So you could see the joy in her face when she sang. She loved it.
So I think I stored that away and it's a big reason why I never wanted to get married. I thought this is what marriage does to you. It doesn't have to. And I think now a days because of the women's movement and because of the examples of other women, we're seeing that it is possible to have a husband and children and a home and also have your career. But it wasn't. I mean when my mother got married, that wasn't even ever thought of. And I've always felt guilty about that. I've always felt that she gave up her whole life for us and we could have done it on half.
MARLO THOMAS: "Free to Be You and Me" happened because my sister had a little girl named Dionne. And I was reading to her, and I was just shocked that all the books and the stories were the same old stories. You know, the same old prince with the same old glass slipper and the same old happy ending.
And I said to my sister, Terre, I said, we really have to find other stuff for her to read. I mean, this, you know, it doesn't happen. The frog doesn't turn into a prince, and the prince doesn't save you at the last minute. So none of this happens.
So I went to the bookstore, and I was shocked because the books were even worse than I imagined. There was this one book, and the book was called "I'm Glad I'm a Boy! I'm Glad I'm a Girl!" And on one side of the page was the boy thing, and the girl thing was on the other side.
So it said, "Boys are doctors. Girls are nurses. Boys are pilots. Girls are stewardesses." But the one that really got me was, "Boys invent things. Girls use the things boys invent." Well I almost had a heart attack right there in the children's book section. I mean, can you imagine?
So I thought, well, I'm going to do something. I'm going to make a little record for Dionne, and we'll give it to friends and stuff. I was not thinking that I was going to do this gigantic project. I just wanted to do it-- to create a project that was non-sexist and non-racist and would show children that there was really no way you had to be. You didn't have to fit into anything. Whatever you look like, whatever color you were, whatever gender you were, whatever you look like and were, that was good. And you were free to be whoever you wanted to be.
And then we created the record. And I started asking other friends of mine to be in it. And it turned into this production. And then it became a gold and platinum record. And it was shocking to me as well as everybody else. I just hadn't expected it.
But it hit a nerve, you know? And it's still there. The album is still in the top 100 albums. And we did a school version. We did a clipped version for classes. We did lesson plans around it. We were very ambitious. You know, we were going to change the world one five-year-old at a time. That was our mission.
MARLO THOMAS: When "That Girl" was on television, I got a lot of mail from young women-- 16 years old --saying things like, I'm 16, I'm pregnant, I can't tell my father. Where can I go? Or I'm 22 years old, and I don't have a job. I'm married. I have two kids, and my husband beats me. Where can I go?
And I-- I couldn't have been more flabbergasted. You know, I thought I was doing a comedy show. I had no-- why would they be talking to me? And I realized that I was the only young girl on television, you know. It was Loretta Young; it was "Bewitched," but she was a witch. You know, I was a regular, normal girl. And-- and so they figured I would listen.
And I started to check out where somebody in Des Moines would go, or somebody in Phoenix would go, and there weren't any places. And that really politicized me. I became like Joan of Arc, you know. I wanted to free all the slaves, you know. Get everybody out of the-- out of the houses, and get them on the streets doing things.
So it was-- and so I marched a lot in those years for the ERA, for choice, for everything. I just-- I couldn't do enough. I couldn't say enough, I couldn't-- I couldn't lead enough. I just wanted to be a part of it.
It was like a tsunami, you know, that-- what was happening. I would say it was like something was boiling under the earth, and we could bring it up, and it was very exciting-- very exciting to be a part of a movement like that.
[VIBRAPHONE MUSIC PLAYING]
MARLO THOMAS: I think my friendship with Gloria is based really-- we were sort of the only women who weren't getting married at the time. I mean not being married was a huge thing in my life.
And there weren't a lot of women that I knew that were accomplished and unmarried. I mean even Bella Abzug was married. Betty Friedan was married and had children. These people had children. So it wasn't very normal or ordinary or average that women didn't marry.
So for both of us, that was a struggle coming out of our lives, you know, from our families who, you know, sisters and brothers all married. Gloria's sister had six children. You know, so we kind of stuck together in that way.
And also, Gloria is the most compassionate person I've ever met. She-- she has-- Whatever she has, she wants to give it to you, or that woman or that woman. She wants to help. She's never off an airplane. She's always helping. And we formed a friendship based on wanting to help other people.
And she also did something that was very interesting in the early days. She called me one day and she said, I have to do a speech in New Hampshire for welfare mothers, and I can't go, and I'd like you to go. They need a feminist and someone who's famous.
And I said, I can't go speak to welfare mothers. First of all I'm not a mother, and second of all, I'm this rich kid from Beverly Hills, they'll hate me. She says, they won't hate you. They're all women and you'll see; you'll have a lot to talk to them about.
So I wanted to come through, you know, so I did it. You know, I just picked myself up and wanted to come through for Gloria. And on the plane, I'm thinking well I could talk about my grandmothers. You know, I could talk about my mother and I could, you know, talk about my dreams, and, you know, and try to put this together.
So I did. And it was great. And afterward, the questions they asked me, and we sat up all night, and I just feel such a bond with these women that I would have never known. I would have thought I was separate. I would have thought that my not being on welfare separated me from them. My not having children would separate me from them.
But in the end, we all had the same kinds of dreams and worries and hopes that-- that I completely identified with. And I think, you know, it was a very fortunate experience because-- and it happened early on enough in my 20s, that I was really seeing that the connection between women was was extraordinary and-- and had no barriers of any kind.
MARLO THOMAS: I came to New York and studied acting, auditioning, you know, like a maniac. You just-- you'd audition 100 times and finally get one part. And I wasn't used to rejection. I lived in a very loving home, so I wasn't used to anybody telling me I wasn't good enough, because my mother and father always said, I was the prettiest girl in the world, and I was the smartest girl in the world.
So I had no idea that people were going to turn me down. So that was a big awakening, that I would audition for something and then expect to get a phone call, you know? And then I didn't and then I didn't and then I didn't. And so at first, I would just cry when they didn't give me the job. Like, I couldn't believe it, you know?
And I'm not good enough. And you know, people say, well, don't take it personally, but how do you not take it personally? You're a person, you know? It's you they don't want, not your Fuller Brush, you know? You're not selling brushes.
So it was-- that was hard for me. Well, it's still hard. You know, I met Bette Davis toward the end of her life. And I asked her one time, you know, do you ever get used to rejection, or getting a bad review? You know, how do you-- you know, how do you steel yourself against that? And she said, you never get over it. She said, and because we're emotional people, that's why we're actors. You can't get tough enough because your vulnerability is part of what you do.
MARLO THOMAS: The most meaningful advice I ever received from anyone was from my father. When I was around 18 I was appearing in Gigi, in a summer stock production. And I was so excited. I auditioned for the part, I got the part. What a thrill, right? And all the reviews and all the interviews were comparing me to my famous father, Danny Thomas. Will she be as good as Danny Thomas, will she last as long? Is she as funny? And I thought, this is impossible. I was terrified by that comparison.
So I went to my father and I said daddy, I don't want to hurt your feelings, but I have to tell you something. I want to change my name. I don't want to be a Thomas. You know, I thought that as a kid, that I was going to have this white piece of paper that I could write my own story on. But I find that my white piece of paper has your name all over it. I have to get another white piece of paper.
So my father looked at me and he said, I raised you to be a thoroughbred. And thoroughbreds run their own races. They don't look at any of the other horses, they just wear their blinders. And they run. And that's what you have to do. Don't look at me, or anybody else. You just run your own race.
And then a few nights later at the theater this big white box arrived, and inside it was a pair of old horse blinders. And a little note that said, Run your own race, baby. And that's the best advice I ever got.