(b. 21 November 1938 in Detroit, Michigan), actor, civil activist, and feminist, best known for her role as Ann Marie, America's "sweetheart of the sixties," in the television situation comedy That Girl.
Margaret Julia Thomas is the eldest child of Danny Thomas, an actor and comedian, and Rose Marie Cassaniti Thomas, a homemaker. Margo was her nickname, but she was unable to pronounce the "g," so she became Marlo. Thomas grew up in Beverly Hills, California, with her younger sister and brother. In a 1966 interview in the New York Times, Thomas stated that she could not think of a time when she did not want to be an actress. At age six she printed programs, announcing the next performance of "Miss Margaret Thomas." Both parents were opposed to her following her father into show business.
The roots of Thomas's feminism reach back to her childhood. In a 1973 interview, also in the New York Times, Thomas reflects on her parents, saying that while "they encouraged me to be myself, they raised me to be a stereotype woman." At age ten she wrote a book titled "Women Are People, Too." Her father encouraged her to go to school to become a teacher. Consequently, she graduated from the University of Southern California with a B.A. in education but spent her summers working at film studios and acting in summer stock. During her last year in college, when it seemed as if everyone she knew wanted to get married and have a baby, Thomas wondered why. She felt she would never marry because she would "lose" herself if she did.
Following graduation Thomas tried to get acting jobs. For seven years, as she stated in a 1967 interview in Look magazine, "everyone just kept saying no." Although as a child she was "bounced on every famous show-business lap in Hollywood," Thomas could not get a decent part. "I could've made it in Bikini Goes Crazy movies," she once said, but that was not what she wanted. Her family was not happy when she went to New York to study acting with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater. In 1965, as the star of the London production of Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park, Thomas won acclaim as a "great new comic actress." Thomas returned to New York to star in an American Broadcasting Company (ABC) television pilot, but the network declined to pick up the show. Although she was offered other roles, Thomas had her own ideas about what she wanted to do.
The concept for the comedy That Girl was Thomas's own. Television roles for young women were as "daughter of," "wife of," or "assistant to" and always were defined by men. Thomas wanted to do a show about a young woman who defined herself, lived in her own apartment, and was trying to start a career without the help of family. Both the Columbia Broadcasting System and the National Broadcasting Company television networks turned her down, but ABC took a chance on the bold proposal. Capitalizing on the new women's movement and the youth revolution during the mid-to late 1960s, the network began offering shows targeting the young female audience. Although the producers, all male, predicted failure, That Girl was an immediate success from its first episode in September 1966 through the final episode in September 1971.
That Girl was the first television show to focus on a single, career-minded young woman. Thomas, with her distinctive crackly voice, her flipped-up hairdo, and her stylish clothes, was a hit. Her character, Ann Marie, an aspiring actress, had left her family in Brewster, New York, and moved into her own apartment in New York City. To support herself while seeking success on the stage, she worked at a number of different jobs, providing a multitude of comic scenarios. Ann Marie also had a boyfriend, Donald Hollinger, played by Ted Bessell. The network was adamant that the relationship be chaste, and Thomas was urged continually to have her character marry Hollinger. The character of Ann Marie reflected the young women of the day in their struggle in both the male-dominated work-place and society in general. They were pressured from all sides to marry and fulfill traditional roles. Through her television character, Thomas modeled a young, attractive woman who successfully fought against these pressures. Although they became engaged during the final season, Thomas resisted network pressure to have Ann Marie and Donald marry on the last show. Instead, she dragged him to a women's liberation meeting.
Thomas was amazed by the amount of mail the show generated and the content of the mail. Questions such as "I'm seventeen and pregnant, and I can't tell my parents. Where do I go?" were not uncommon. Likewise, there were letters from women asking how to get out of abusive relationships and where to get help. Thomas and her staff tried to respond, but Thomas soon discovered that there was nowhere for these troubled women to go. She remarked in her 1999 New York Times interview, "It totally politicized me as a feminist." She met the feminist activist Gloria Steinem and began traveling across the country for the women's movement.
During the run of That Girl, Thomas won the Golden Globe for best television actress in 1967 and Emmy nominations each year from 1967 to 1970. Despite good ratings, the show was cancelled in 1971. Thomas was tired of playing a character that did not change or develop. She continued her acting career, appearing in and producing several made-for-television movies, including It Happened One Christmas (1977); Nobody's Child (1986), for which she won an Emmy; and Ultimate Betrayal (1994). Thomas also has appeared in numerous plays, including Thieves (1974), her Broadway debut; Six Degrees of Separation (1992–1993); and The Vagina Monologues (2000). Her concern for how girls were supposed to behave and how they were portrayed spurred her to put together the anthology Free to Be … You and Me (1974). Other books Thomas has compiled and edited are Free to Be … a Family (1987) and The Right Words at the Right Time (2002). Thomas produced television programs of both Free to Be books that won Emmys. She was a member of the 1968 Democratic National Committee and is a member of the National Women's Political Caucus. Following in her father's footsteps, Thomas has been involved with Saint Jude Children's Research Hospital, which was founded by Danny Thomas. She married the talk show host and political activist Phil Donahue on 22 May 1980 and helped raise his four adolescent sons from a previous marriage.
In the 1990s cable viewers were introduced to That Girl via reruns on the Nickelodeon cable television network, and Thomas became known to television audiences as Rachel Green's mother on the situation comedy Friends. She remarked in a 1996 interview, "In my last show, I was playing 'That Girl.' Now I'm playing the mother of 'That Girl.'" It was Thomas who introduced television audiences to the concept that a woman could choose to pursue a career rather than marry, live away from family without benefit of roommates, and celebrate the single life.
Articles on Thomas's life and career are in Judy Stone, "And Now—Make Room for Marlo," New York Times (4 Sept. 1966); Betty Rollin, "Marlo Thomas: That Girl Is Some Girl," Look (17 Oct. 1967): 124; and Katie Kelly, "Marlo Thomas: 'My Whole Life I've Had My Dukes Up'," New York Times (11 Mar. 1973). More recent articles, reflecting on Thomas as a trendsetter, are Jean Prescott, "'That Girl' Really Was Independent," Tampa Tribune (2 May 1996); Peter M. Nichols, "Television/Radio; Feminism's Unlikely Heroine," New York Times (30 May 1999); and Robin Finn, "Public Lives; Who Thought 'That Girl' Would Go There?" New York Times (17 Mar. 2000).
Marcia B. Dinneen