The American talk show stopped being all talk one epochal morning this year when syndicated host Phil Donahue confronted that most guarded of guests, Marlo Thomas. Known for stalking off the set mid-broadcast if she thinks her privacy is being invaded, the still single 39-year-old feminist nevertheless found herself confiding to the newly divorced 41-year-old interviewer: “I like having a man in my life.” Phil asked, “How are you when there is no one?” “Depressed,” Marlo admited. Then they began to blurt their mutual insecurities, interrupting each other, and she socked him playfully. “I’m shook,” Donahue confessed when Thomas said, “This is what happens when an equal woman and an equal man get together.” “I am flattered,” NOW member Phil blushed boyishly, and Marlo concluded, “You are a very loving and generous man, and…whoever is the woman in your life is very lucky.”
TV’s ex-That Girl is now that woman. Donahue, who has rooted his show in Chicago rather than N.Y. or L.A.—”just the right distance out in the real world”—can rendezvous with actress-producer Thomas only when he’s taping a “remote” in L.A. or when their trajectories cross elsewhere. (He usually travels with at least two of his four sons, of whom he has custody.)
Marlo is, demonstrably, not the only woman in America who feels a need for Donahue. His one-hour daily show outrates Merv Griffin in all four TV markets where they meet head to head, Mike Douglas in five out of six and Dinah Shore in six of eight. What’s different about Emmy winner Donahue is that his approach is journalistic. He takes on only one guest or—Nielsens forbid—issue per show. Woodward & Bernstein, who ought to know a reporter when they see one, declared Phil the toughest interviewer they encountered. Says Donahue: “I think the women out there in the soap opera ghetto don’t want to be treated like mental midgets. They don’t need to be protected from controversy by male program wizards in New York.”
One of Phil’s gambits is to allow the studio audience of 200 (there’s a waiting list of 18 months for seats) and phone-in viewers to query the guest also. Once Spiro Agnew, who agreed to appear only if Donahue laid off certain questions, got ambushed by a woman inquiring, “Why did you resign if you were innocent?” This is not to say that the show is all adult education or that an occasional Gabor doesn’t penetrate his bastion of seriousness.
“My problem in life,” notes Donahue, “is that I feel guilty if I’m having a good time. I’m as secure,” he quips, “as any 41-year-old divorced Irish Catholic can be.” A onetime altar boy and 50¢-an-hour window washer for a Cleveland convent (his dad was a furniture salesman), Phil got straight A’s in theology at Notre Dame. Though he flubbed his first broadcasting audition because of “my nasal Midwest accent” and entered banking briefly, Donahue eventually wound up as a TV reporter in Dayton. In eight years he advanced from calling hog prices at dawn to anchoring the 11 p.m. news. Then in 1967, after apprenticing with a radio phone-in series, he started what was to become Donahue on Dayton’s WLWD.
Relocation to Chicago in 1974 coincided with his marital bustup. (Phil refuses to discuss it and won’t submit to the sort of personal interrogation he makes his living from.) His ex-wife lives in Albuquerque with their daughter, Maryrose, 12, and a new husband. Donahue and the boys are in a five-bedroom spread in suburban Wilmette. As their old man did, three work after school, in supermarkets or pumping gas. “I know them better than I ever did,” reflects Dad, “and I need them more than they need me.”
At this point the kids serve as an excuse to back-burner any thoughts of marriage to Marlo Thomas. “But,” Donahue, the five-day-a-week, 10-year talk-show veteran glows, “she’s the most well-balanced celebrity—I mean person—I’ve ever met.”