Years before Mary Richards tossed her hat in the air, and Murphy Brown opted to become a single mother, aspiring actress Ann Marie left her hometown of Brewster, New York, for the glittering lights of Manhattan, determined to make it on her own. Although Ann never won the fame she sought, she did manage to win the affections of smitten suitor Donald Hollinger—and the hearts of millions of TV viewers across America.
Under the banner of her own company, Daisy Productions, Marlo Thomas created the title character of Ann Marie for the landmark situation comedy That Girl, and in the process, provided an enduring role model for girls and women throughout the nation. The series was an instant success—airing on ABC from 1966 to 1971—and would always be remembered as the first television show in which the lead female character would state that she wished to follow her own dreams and choose career over marriage.
After the show’s final season, Thomas remained a constant presence on television, developing and producing Free to Be…You and Me, the 1974 Emmy-winning TV special, record album, and best-selling book about individuality; as well as its sequel, Free To Be … A Family, which also won an Emmy. She has starred in more than a dozen television films, many of which have given voice to such important social issues as mental illness (Nobody’s Child, for which she won the Best Dramatic Actress Emmy), childhood sexual abuse (Ultimate Betrayal), discrimination against homosexuality (Consenting Adult), and abuse of the press (The Lost Honor of Kathryn Beck). And she even gender-bent the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life by playing the James Stewart role in the 1977 remake, It Happened One Christmas, which she also produced.
Margaret Thomas (who became “Marlo” when, as a child, she couldn’t pronounce her nickname, Margo) was born in Detroit but grew up in Los Angeles, where she attended Beverly Hills Catholic Grammar School and Marymount High. On the advice of her father, entertainer Danny Thomas (who wanted to shield Marlo and her two siblings, Terre and Tony, from the hardships of show business), she attended college at the University of Southern California and received a degree in education.
But Thomas’s love of acting would soon lure her from the classroom to the theater, and she began studying with famed drama coach Sanford Meisner, and later, Lee Strasberg. She appeared in numerous regional theater and summer stock productions around the country, and began appearing on television with small roles on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, 77 Sunset Strip, Bonanza, and Ben Casey. During the 1961–62 season, she played an aspiring actress on the sitcom The Joey Bishop Show. Her big break came when she auditioned for Mike Nichols and won the lead role in the London production of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park.
Then in 1965, Thomas costarred in a TV pilot about a young married couple entitled Two’s Company. Although the pilot was not sold, ABC network executive Edgar Scherick was convinced that Thomas could be a television star—and the network, with the blessing of a prospective sponsor, Clairol hair products, set about finding just the right vehicle for her. ABC offered Thomas several scripts and treatments that did not interest her, so she went back to Scherick and sold him on the idea of doing a show, based in part on her own life, about a young woman who moves to Manhattan with the dream of living on her own and becoming an actress. She proposed titling it Miss Independence, a nickname given to her by her father.
To help her develop this idea, Thomas turned to friends Sam Denoff and Bill Persky, who became the creators, writers, and executive producers of the new series, which was renamed That Girl. With the pilot completed, Thomas went to London to begin her run in the West End production of Barefoot in the Park. While she was there, That Girl was sold to ABC. To oversee the detailed work of producing a weekly situation comedy, Thomas formed her own company, Daisy Productions, named after her favorite flower. Daisy would become the producing entity of her show, and was credited as such, though Thomas never took a screen credit for herself for her producing efforts.
“I ran the show, I signed the checks, but I chose to play down my power, so as not to be too threatening,” Thomas told TV Guide in 2002. “Power in a woman in the ’60s was seen as intimidating, and I bought into that. I was concerned that I wouldn’t attract the best and brightest men in comedy to work for me.”
Although at the time many real-life women were living alone and enjoying romance, That Girl “was revolutionary for showing it,” said Gloria Steinem. And as feminist writer Susan L. Dworkin pointed out, the series clearly showed that “a woman can be on her own, remain unmarried, laugh, have the love of her parents, have her own apartment, and still have a wonderful life.”
When Thomas decided to end the series after five years, the network wanted it to conclude it with a marriage between Ann and her longtime boyfriend, Donald. But Thomas and fellow producers Persky, Denoff, and Danny Arnold agreed that to end the series that way would send the message that marriage was the only “happy ending”—and that it would be a sellout to the young women who had taken the character of Ann Marie into their hearts. So even though Ann and Donald were engaged in the final season, the last episode revolved around the pair getting stuck in an elevator while on their way to a women’s lib meeting.
For years after That Girl’s five-year run, Thomas continued to hear from her fans, most of them women who wanted to be just like the high-spirited, determined Ann Marie. But it was the mail from other women—teenagers who were pregnant, wives who had been abused by their husbands—that would turn Thomas into a political activist. In 1972, after That Girl ended its run on ABC, she became a delegate for George McGovern at the Democratic National Convention and began her fight for causes she believed in, from the ERA to children’s rights. That same year, Thomas—along with Steinem, Patricia T. Carbine, and Letty Pogrebin—became a “founding mother” of the Ms. Foundation for Women. Despite her long track record of social activism, however, Thomas is quick to describe herself as “just an average woman who reads the paper and then says, ‘Oh, God, what can we do about this?’”
In 1974, Thomas created the children’s record album, Free to Be…You and Me, a collection of songs and skits (performed by many of her friends, including Harry Belafonte, Alan Alda, Mel Brooks, and Rosey Grier) that became the first nonsexist, nonracist entertainment for children. The record was so successful that Thomas parlayed it into a children’s book and a critically acclaimed television special, produced with friend Carole Hart. The 1988 sequel, Free to Be… a Family (which Thomas executive produced with Christopher Cerf) was equally successful.
Today, Thomas lives in New York with her husband, talk show host Phil Donahue, whom she married in 1980. She devotes much of her time to her role as National Outreach Director for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the world’s leading research and treatment center for children with life-threatening diseases, which was founded by her father in 1962.
She is also a prominent presence in the publishing industry, creating such best-selling books as The Right Words at the Right Time (a collection of personal essays by 108 notable Americans, including Muhammad Ali, Paul Newman, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Oprah Winfrey); Thanks & Giving: All Year Long (a children’s book and Grammy-winning companion CD); and The Right Words at the Right Time, Vol. 2: Your Turn! (featuring 101 essays by everyday people). All royalties from Thomas’s books go to benefit St. Jude.
Thomas’s celebrated career has earned her countless honors over the years. She has been awarded four Emmys, nine Emmy nominations, a Golden Globe, the George Foster Peabody Award, a Grammy, the NAACP Pathway to Excellence Award, the Helen Caldicott Award for Nuclear Disarmament, the Thomas Paine Award from the A.C.L.U., the American Women in Radio and Television Satellite Award, and induction into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame.
When Thomas was first starting out as an actress, a theater critic posed an unfair question. “She’s good,” he wrote, “but will she ever be as funny as Danny Thomas?” Devastated, Marlo told her father she wanted to change her name. “I raised you to be a thoroughbred,” he responded, “and thoroughbreds don’t look at the other horses. They just wear their blinders and run their own race.”
And that girl—and this woman—has.