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Marlo Thomas

marlo thomas, 79 actress, writer, philanthropist and feminist

The Renaissance Woman

Actress, writer, philanthropist and feminist Marlo Thomas likes to read the sports pages. Even though she’s an avid baseball fan she’ll read about any sport. What she loves are the athlete’s interviews, and she combs through the section regularly for any pearls of wisdom.

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“Athletes have a whole other way of thinking,” she says. “They have a goal; they have their asses kicked, they get disappointed, but they learn from every game. After a game you’ll hear them analyze what went wrong and what went right. It’s so completely personal to them. Just like my work is personal to me. I always feel I learn something from their challenges that help me with mine.”

Maybe it’s something about those challenges, and those reversals of narrative that resonate with Thomas. When she was in her 20s and charging hard to become an actress, Thomas pitched network executives a mold-breaking series around a single young woman looking to, well, make her break as an actress. “That Girl” ran from 1966 to 1971 and featured sharp departures from traditional female roles in both tone and fashion. As opposed to her conservative, apron-clad contemporaries like Donna Reed, Jane Cleaver or Lucille Ball, Thomas wore the psychedelic, ‘it girl’ fashion of the day on her show. Rather than spend her on-screen time working to find a man, she played the first single working woman on TV, and pushed back against the idea that her character should get married — a belief she held in real life as well. In fact, as the series came to an end, the sponsor and the network wanted to finish with a wedding between her character, Ann Marie and her boyfriend, Donald Hollinger. But Thomas nixed it:

“I felt I’d be letting down my mostly female audience with the message that a wedding was the only happy ending to Ann Marie’s story.”

“People try to tell you who you are, and where you fit. And I just think, you can’t listen,” she told me. “You have to create your own facts, your own reality. Because people are too unimaginative.”

It’s no surprise, then, to find Thomas, more than 40 years later at 79, launching a new online fashion collection, working in the theater, palling around with old friend Gloria Steinem and continuing to avidly fundraise for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the free cancer research and treatment center for children founded by her father, comedian Danny Thomas.

A couple of years ago, she wrote a book, It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over,  in which she interviewed more than 60 women about a subject we at AGEIST have come to champion: redefining later life. It landed on The New York Times bestseller list. One story in particular resonated with her, of a graphic designer in her early 40s who had always dreamed of being a doctor — but felt it was too late. Thomas just didn’t understand the hold up around age. “I never think to myself, ‘Oh I’m in my 70s, is it too late to fulfill this dream or the other?’ ” she says. “I remember [the actress] Ruth Gordon saying something that became my favorite mantra: ‘Never face the facts. If you face the facts you’ll never get out of bed in the morning.’ And I just love that. There’s a million people who will give you a million reasons why you can’t do something.”

For the past 37 years she’s been married to a man – TV talk show host Phil Donahue — who loves to relax and spend his retirement the traditional way. It’s something Thomas respects but hasn’t been able to manage herself. “I have a need to constantly be creative,” she says. “For me, it’s life-giving: creativity, purposefulness, having something to solve. I think life is about solving problems.”

Nowadays, Marlo Thomas spreads that creativity across a variety of outlets.

“I love working as an actor, but I also love being creative in many ways,” she told me. “Yes, above all, I want to work as an actor, but when you can’t find just the job that you want to do, that’s when I think your creativity needs to kick in and you do something else. For me, it’s writing a book, or creating a podcast or a fashion line. Something that’s creative and that puts me together with a community of creative people.”

And I think that’s something that’s stuck with me about how Marlo Thomas works. It’s not simply about pursuing other interests, it’s about pursuing them with purpose; with the idea that you’re going to make something of it. When we spoke, she dropped a line about why she wanted to get into acting — but in retrospect, it really could apply to everything else in her life as well: “People ask me: ‘If you weren’t an actress, what would you have been?’ and I say, ‘I would’ve been a pain in the ass!’ Because that’s all I ever really wanted to do.”

Marlo Thomas’ performance work via Wikipedia:

Year Film Role Notes
1970 Jenny Jenny Nominated – Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year – Actress
1977 Thieves Sally Cramer
1990 In the Spirit Reva Prosky
1993 Falling Down KTLA Reporter
1997 The Real Blonde Blair
1998 Starstruck Linda Phaeffle
1999 Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo Margaret Uncredited cameo
2000 Playing Mona Lisa Shelia Goldstein
2012 LOL Gran
2017 The Female Brain Lynne
2018 Ocean’s 8 Rene

 

Television

Year Film Role Notes
1960 The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis Frank’s Girlfriend Episode: “The Hunger Strike”
1960 77 Sunset Strip Amina Episode: “The Fanatics”
1961 Zane Grey Theater Laurie Dubro Episode: “Honor Bright”
1961 Thriller Susan Baker Episode: “The Ordeal of Dr. Cordell”
1961–1962 The Joey Bishop Show Stella 10 episodes
1962 Insight Jeanne Brown Episode: “The Sophomore”
1964 Arrest and Trial Angela Tucci Episode: “Tigers Are for Jungles”
1964 Bonanza Tai Lee Episode: “A Pink Cloud Comes from Old Cathay”
1964 My Favorite Martian Paula Clayfield Episode: “Miss Jekyll and Hyde”
1964 Wendy and Me Carol Episode: “Wendy’s Anniversary for –?”
1964 McHale’s Navy Cynthia Prentice Episode: “The Missing Link”
1965 What’s My Line? Herself Panelist
1965 The Donna Reed Show Louise Bissell Episode: “Guests, Guests, Who Needs Guests?”
1965 Two’s Company Caroline Sommers Unsold pilot
1965 Ben Casey Claire Schaeffer Episode: “Three Li’l Lambs”
1966–1971 That Girl Ann Marie 137 episodes
Golden Globe Award for Best Actress on Television (1967)
TV Land Award for Favorite Fashion Plate – Female (2004)
Nominated – Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series (1967-1971)
Nominated – TV Land Award for Hippest Fashion Plate – Female (2003)
1967 Cricket on the Hearth Bertha (voice) TV movie
1973 The ABC Saturday Superstar Movie Anne Marie (voice) Episode: “That Girl in Wonderland”
1973 Acts of Love and Other Comedies Various TV movie
1976 The Practice Judy Sinclair Episode: “Judy Sinclair”
1977 It Happened One Christmas Mary Bailey Hatch TV movie; also produced
1984 The Lost Honor of Kathryn Beck Kathryn Beck TV movie; also produced
1985 Consenting Adult Tess Lynd TV movie
Nominated – Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Miniseries or Television Film
1986 Nobody’s Child Marie Balter TV movie
Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie
Nominated – Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Miniseries or Television Film
1991 Held Hostage: The Sis and Jerry Levin Story Lucille ‘Sis’ Levin TV movie; also produced
1994 Ultimate Betrayal Adult Sharon Rodgers TV movie
1994 Reunion Jessie Yates TV movie; also produced
1996 Roseanne Tina Beige Episode: “Satan, Darling”
1996, 2002 Friends Sandra Green Episode: “The One with the Lesbian Wedding
Episode: “The One with the Two Parties”
Episode: “The One with the Baby Shower”
Nominated – Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series (1996)
1999 Frasier Sophie (voice) 3 episodes
2000 Ally McBeal Lynnie Bishop Episode: “Tis the Season”
Episode: “Love on Holiday”
2002 Two Against Time Julie Portman TV movie
2004 Deceit Ellen McCarthy TV movie; also produced
2004 Law & Order: Special Victims Unit Judge Mary Clark 4 episodes
2007 Ugly Betty Sandra Winthrop Episode: “Something Wicked This Way Comes”
2012 The New Normal Nancy Niles Episode: “Baby Proofing”
2015 Ballers Episode: “Ends”
2017 Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later Vivian
Andreas Tzortzis
Andreas Tzortzis
He has worked as a journalist for the New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Newsweek and Monocle Magazine from Berlin and London before leading Red Bull’s mainstream-facing content platform, The Red Bulletin, from Los Angeles. He recently returned to his hometown of San Francisco with his small family. dre@agei.st

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