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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.

“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’s 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’s performance work via Wikipedia:

YearFilmRoleNotes
1970JennyJennyNominated – Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year – Actress
1977ThievesSally Cramer
1990In the SpiritReva Prosky
1993Falling DownKTLA Reporter
1997The Real BlondeBlair
1998StarstruckLinda Phaeffle
1999Deuce Bigalow: Male GigoloMargaretUncredited cameo
2000Playing Mona LisaShelia Goldstein
2012LOLGran
2017The Female BrainLynne
2018Ocean’s 8Rene

 

Television

YearFilmRoleNotes
1960The Many Loves of Dobie GillisFrank’s GirlfriendEpisode: “The Hunger Strike”
196077 Sunset StripAminaEpisode: “The Fanatics”
1961Zane Grey TheaterLaurie DubroEpisode: “Honor Bright”
1961ThrillerSusan BakerEpisode: “The Ordeal of Dr. Cordell”
1961–1962The Joey Bishop ShowStella10 episodes
1962InsightJeanne BrownEpisode: “The Sophomore”
1964Arrest and TrialAngela TucciEpisode: “Tigers Are for Jungles”
1964BonanzaTai LeeEpisode: “A Pink Cloud Comes from Old Cathay”
1964My Favorite MartianPaula ClayfieldEpisode: “Miss Jekyll and Hyde”
1964Wendy and MeCarolEpisode: “Wendy’s Anniversary for –?”
1964McHale’s NavyCynthia PrenticeEpisode: “The Missing Link”
1965What’s My Line?HerselfPanelist
1965The Donna Reed ShowLouise BissellEpisode: “Guests, Guests, Who Needs Guests?”
1965Two’s CompanyCaroline SommersUnsold pilot
1965Ben CaseyClaire SchaefferEpisode: “Three Li’l Lambs”
1966–1971That GirlAnn Marie137 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)
1967Cricket on the HearthBertha (voice)TV movie
1973The ABC Saturday Superstar MovieAnne Marie (voice)Episode: “That Girl in Wonderland”
1973Acts of Love and Other ComediesVariousTV movie
1976The PracticeJudy SinclairEpisode: “Judy Sinclair”
1977It Happened One ChristmasMary Bailey HatchTV movie; also produced
1984The Lost Honor of Kathryn BeckKathryn BeckTV movie; also produced
1985Consenting AdultTess LyndTV movie
Nominated – Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Miniseries or Television Film
1986Nobody’s ChildMarie BalterTV 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
1991Held Hostage: The Sis and Jerry Levin StoryLucille ‘Sis’ LevinTV movie; also produced
1994Ultimate BetrayalAdult Sharon RodgersTV movie
1994ReunionJessie YatesTV movie; also produced
1996RoseanneTina BeigeEpisode: “Satan, Darling”
1996, 2002FriendsSandra GreenEpisode: “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)
1999FrasierSophie (voice)3 episodes
2000Ally McBealLynnie BishopEpisode: “Tis the Season”
Episode: “Love on Holiday”
2002Two Against TimeJulie PortmanTV movie
2004DeceitEllen McCarthyTV movie; also produced
2004Law & Order: Special Victims UnitJudge Mary Clark4 episodes
2007Ugly BettySandra WinthropEpisode: “Something Wicked This Way Comes”
2012The New NormalNancy NilesEpisode: “Baby Proofing”
2015BallersEpisode: “Ends”
2017Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years LaterVivian
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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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