What do you get when you cross Saint Theresa, the Little Flower, with Attila the Hun? Marlo Thomas, cracks Orson Welles, who co-starred with her in It Happened One Christmas, last weekend’s captivating ABC special that Marlo also produced. Though her old image may be more Hun than nun, accomplishment has mellowed Danny Thomas’ daughter. Her new relationship with TV talk show host Phil Donahue hasn’t exactly hurt. “Love is nutritious and good for you,” Marlo has discovered, though she adds, “so is work and mobility.”
One burden she now bears lightly is the Thomas name. “Most people expect the children of famous people to be idiots,” Marlo scoffs in her guttural off-camera voice. But Daddy didn’t raise no dummy. Marlo conceived her own TV series, That Girl; built a production company which—unlike, say, Mary Tyler Moore’s—she really runs; won Emmys for specials like the conciousness-raising Free to Be…You and Me and, uncommonly for Hollywood, never compromised her convictions, offering high-profile support of non-Nielsen-building causes like George McGovern and the National Women’s Political Caucus.
Along the way Marlo’s gotten a manipulative, man-eating reputation. Mostly it’s because she is a perfectionist who insists on overseeing every phase of her productions. “Warren Beatty’s the same way without anybody taking notice,” says colleague Charles Grodin. Muses Marlo: “We’ve been taught it isn’t sexy to balance a checkbook. It’s very appealing when a man takes charge of his own life—it should be just as appealing for a woman.” Yet the years have softened Thomas’ hard edges, and her arguments against sexism are irrefutable. “Nothing is either all masculine or all feminine except having sex,” she notes. “I could see no difference in my parents except that my father went to work and my mother didn’t. He cried and had tantrums, she cried and had tantrums.”
Except for an occasional power trip, as with Henry Kissinger in 1971, Marlo has picked “boyfriends,” as she quaintly calls them, who share her liberated sentiments. One was Herb (A Thousand Clowns) Gardner, the playwright she felt best understood women and who told her, “I just write about my own feelings and put a skirt on them.” Gardner created Thieves, an unexceptional urban romance, for Marlo to star in on Broadway and screen. But while she was promoting the film version, she met another of those modern men: single parent and NOW member Donahue. “There we were on TV,” she recalls, “having this deep conversation about marriage, divorce, babies—he’s divorced, I’ve never been married, he has five children, I don’t have any—and we’re both Catholic.” They hit it off so “fantastically,” she reports, that even though their first date was awkward (“We just stared at each other”) and set them “all the way back to zero,” they “hung in there.” The second date, says Marlo, was “fine.”
It must have been. Despite the logistical impossibilities with Phil based in Chicago, they phone two or three times a day and are regular weekend trippers. Moreover, the Marlo who always played her private life so close to the chest that she would walk out on reporters who asked prying questions is the same Marlo who recently rang up Donahue’s telecast when Danny Thomas was the guest to observe on the air that the female audience was “lucky to have an hour with two of the world’s most attractive men.”
That openness marks an icebreaking for Marlo at 40. “Phil will call and say he’s confused about something, and we’ll discuss it,” she reveals. “If you can’t say you feel bad or you hurt or you feel great, what do you talk about?” she asks. “He’s very sensitive, and I like that.” Does that sound like commitment? “I was always scared of marriage,” she admits. “I thought that I would have to become another person, that I wouldn’t be able to be me, that I would sort of be living a lie. My impression was that you had this jailer that you have to please.”
Though she now regards that prejudice as “foolish,” Marlo was born (in Detroit) to believe work and marriage were an either/or deal. “You chose to live an active life, or you chose to be a good wife and mother.” Her own songstress mom gave up a local radio show to be what Marlo calls “a fantasy mother out of children’s books.” That’s why Marlo says, “I wish she’d given more to herself and that I could give half of it back. But I like to think I’m my mother’s revenge.” Her famous pa was strict with the girl he called Miss Independence (her real name is Margaret) because, he explains, “she was so pretty” (particularly after the family nose was bobbed). Danny prohibited dating until his eldest of three was almost in college. “I couldn’t even wear lipstick or take the bus alone,” Marlo remembers.
Daddy did listen to daughter, who sat in on home script conferences as early as age 6 (“If my kid doesn’t think it’s funny, it probably isn’t”), yet sent her to a traditional parochial school. “I started out to be quite normal,” she recalls, “and it looked like I was going to make it.” By that, Marlo meant she studied to be an English teacher at USC and graduated cum laude with a teaching certificate. She’d also won campus acting awards and, against her father’s counsel, went into the business. “He had raised me to be a free spirit,” she says. Finally, after six years of coaching and hustling bitsy roles, Marlo got her most satisfying notice. A London rave observed, in passing, “She’s the daughter of an American comedian, I’m told.” “I didn’t really want his help,” she says of Danny’s coattail effect. “I wanted to be able to look back and say I earned it.”
She has. Absurd as it seems now, That Girl, starring a strong single female, was a breakthrough for 1966. Initially only a figurehead producer, she soon got a bellyful of the crew’s chauvinist “don’t-you-worry-your-pretty-little-head-about-it” attitude. About the same time she “fell in love with the whole process of making films” and found that she had a pretty good business head too. Brother Tony, who followed Marlo’s path and now co-produces Soap, says, “I wish I had more of what she’s got.” Marlo insists that it’s not so much getting her own way as having “a better idea. It invalidates a bad idea right away.”
The schedule can be exhausting—days that end at 6 a.m. Marlo’s exquisitely paneled and pegged-floor house is no more than five minutes from anyone in her family. Its tennis court and the 110?-heated pool are set on three and a half wooded acres and staffed by a live-in couple. They cook, since Marlo seldom has time. She perversely pores over diet books to find out what forbidden foods besides her regular banana milk shakes will help add to the 96 pounds on her 5’5″ frame. She likes to surround herself with friends, mostly the intelligentsia like Warren Beatty, Lily Tomlin and Paul Simon. “I think solitude is a good thing,” Marlo concedes, “but not for a long spell.”
Neither she nor Donahue can see joining forces permanently with their careers half a continent apart (or further if he should go to NBC in New York). Thomas still has gnawing doubts about being co-opted. “Men aren’t raised to expect women to be independent,” she’s discovered. “No matter how liberated they are, it must be a shock to them to discover that you are able to make decisions.” Yet Marlo admits that being away from Phil is “awful” and feels that a union of “two whole people, not one and a half” might work. “I really like his kids,” she says. “It’s a real treat to be around them.” She is spending this month, including Christmas, with the five Donahue males (Phil’s daughter lives with his ex) in Illinois. Society and her own ambitions have frustrated her dreams of motherhood, but she thinks she still has a chance. “No one,” she complains, “says to a man, ‘Do you want to be a daddy or a doctor?’ I don’t think women should have to make flat-out choices like that either.” Marlo Thomas doesn’t plan to. “I want it all.”