By Giovanna Breu
August 27, 1979 12:00 PM

No doubt about it—cuddly is the thing to be on morning television these days. Over at Today, they snickered when barefoot boy David Hartman sat down at Good Morning, America but stopped in mid-giggle when his ratings sliced into their own. Last spring, even if Today host Tom Brokaw hadn’t been reportedly looking homeward, toward the higher ground of NBC Nightly News, the show needed a fix of vigor and rumpled attractiveness. Enter Phil Donahue, 43, a graying panther in the pussycat world of daytime TV and host of his own syndicated interview show.

At once savvy and charmingly boyish, Donahue has been taken to the hearts of American women like nothing since disposable diapers. Since May he has been doing thrice-weekly spots on Today, but the snippets are limp imitations of Donahue, the issues-oriented, hour-long audience participation show now seen by some eight million viewers a day—85 percent of them women. Donahue may be the closest program now in existence to a national forum for America’s housewives. Observes Phil: “There still is a real paternalism and sexism in daytime TV—the feeling that somehow women have to be more protected than men.”

Donahue didn’t feel that way and was determined not to be just another stopover on the Merv-and-Mike celebrity circuit. So his show takes as its grist the pitfalls of ordinary life on the edge of the ’80s. Are too many segments devoted to sex? Donahue doesn’t think so. “We have found that the only shows people remember are the sex shows,” he says. “I could do a whole month on lawns and gardens, and if in the middle I put in a show about two lesbians who want to adopt their children from previous marriages, women will come up to me in a shopping center and ask why I’m always talking about sex.” Besides, the question doesn’t bother Donahue. He happens to think that sex is important.

Taped at the Spartan cinder block headquarters of WGN-TV in Chicago, Donahue comes from the heartland, but is not meant for rubes. “Women have passed by the covered-dishes-and-needlepoint stage,” says the host. “I think they appreciate the issues the show raises and enjoy the challenge of getting emotionally and intellectually involved in what’s happening. There are no prizes and nobody screams; we put on an honest sharing of ideas.” Viewers also appreciate the fact that Donahue rarely buddies up to his guests. Even First Lady Rosalynn Carter was once subjected to a withering grilling. When Donahue sparred with her over the President’s firing of Bella Abzug as head of the White House’s National Advisory Committee for Women, Mrs. Carter replied, “We need somebody who is quieter.” “But Mrs. Carter,” protested Donahue, looming over her, mike in hand, “that’s what they said to Martin Luther King.” By hour’s end, the First Lady was nearly in tears.

Though he is often an aggressive interrogator, there is no apparent meanness in Donahue. “I want to be loved by everyone,” he admits, and, as far as his audience is concerned, he very nearly is. Tickets for the show must be requested two years in advance in Chicago, and his fans’ enthusiasm is not strictly cerebral. “He can put his slippers under my bed anytime,” giggled one woman.

Bouncing into the crowd before a recent New York taping, Donahue made his warm-up a show in itself. “Any Catholics here?” he inquired, then pretended to sprinkle them with holy water with a wave of his microphone. He pulled off his glasses and looked around with a leer. “They make me look like a gynecologist,” he said. “Would you trust me?” Without waiting for an answer, he plunged on through the audience, giving a little squeeze here, holding a hand there, touching women’s arms with an earnest intimacy that gives no offense. Before the red light went on, he slipped backstage to change from jeans and a sweater into one of the three-piece suits that are Donahue’s trademarks. (“They make it look as if I came to work,” he explains.) After the show Donahue rushed to the exit to shake hands with the ladies, working the faithful like a minister. Not so reluctantly, he signed autographs—a bit of noblesse oblige, his old college buddies insist, that he used to practice as an obscure undergraduate, hoping that somebody, someday, would ask.

Raised in Cleveland, the son of a furniture salesman (“He could sell a dead rat,” Donahue recalls of his father), young Phillip was a mischievous parochial schoolboy who covered his bedroom wall with pictures of the Cleveland Indians and yearned to be a second baseman in the mold of Joe Gordon. Even then he knew he was kidding himself. “I was a pretty decent glove man, but I couldn’t hit,” he recalls. “I was a very skinny kid. I had the smallest uniform on the Our Lady of the Angels elementary school team, and the biggest hat.” Donahue was an altar boy, but hardly a paragon. “I was a wise guy,” he remembers. “I was always talking, and the brothers in high school knocked me around. They threw books. They slapped me. I never cried. The closest you’d come to tears wouldn’t be from the pain of being slugged in front of 30 guys, but from the humiliation.” Between punishments Donahue acted in school plays, played clarinet in the band and drew cartoons for the student newspaper. He made two great discoveries: television and girls.

As Donahue remembers it, his sexual awakening was spurred by the church’s ironbound strictures. “In those days women were occasions of sin. When you realize how much energy was spent trying to keep boys and girls from becoming breathless, you begin to understand why so many of them became breathless. If I wasn’t interested in a girl sexually in high school,” he admits, “I wasn’t interested in her at all.” In college he dated so much his roommate threatened to rent out Phil’s half of the room. Still, says Donahue, he remained a virgin till his wedding day.

Phil met Marge Cooney, a student at Marquette, during his junior year at Notre Dame. He dated her that year and all of the next, while apprenticing in television at Notre Dame’s WNDU, setting up mikes and weather maps for a dollar an hour. After graduation in 1957, he took a summer fill-in job at a TV-radio outlet in Cleveland. “I was hot stuff,” he recalls. “I did news, weather. I was a deejay, I did commercials for W. T. Grant, I sold Bosco, and I was in love.” That fall he followed Marge to her home in Albuquerque, but couldn’t get a job in TV or radio. Instead he sorted checks in a bank until shortly after he and Marge were married the following winter. His parents felt he was too young for marriage, according to a friend, and refused to attend the ceremony.

Back in the Midwest, Donahue signed on as a working newsman for a 250-watt radio station in Adrian, Mich. Later he moved to Dayton, Ohio, where he anchored the 6 o’clock TV news and hosted a phone-in radio show. Discouraged when he couldn’t land a spot in the big time, he spent four months hawking sales-incentive plans to large corporations before another Dayton station offered him $24,000 a year and a TV talk show in 1967. Impressed by the big bucks (he now earns $500,000-plus), Donahue courted controversy at every turn, taking on guests like professional atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, airing a film of a birth, and introducing his viewers to—my Lord!—homosexuals.

The show moved to Chicago in 1974, and by that time Phil’s marriage had soured. “We’d had five kids in six years,” he says now. “Nobody ever told me how complicated it was to be a father. I thought you went out and made money, spanked your kids when they ran out in the street and made sure you had birthdays and Christmases covered. While I was taking bows for my achievements, there were a lot of dirty diapers piling up at home.” When Marge left him and took the kids with her, “I almost went crazy,” says Phil. He saw a psychiatrist, but the marriage was shattered. “There was no fight, no court battle,” he says. “The divorce just happened.” Remarried, Marge lives in Albuquerque with Phil’s only daughter, Mary Rose, 14. The four boys—Michael, 20, Kevin, 19, Dan, 18, and Jim, 16—chose to stay together and live with their father (and a Yugoslav housekeeping couple) in the Chicago suburbs. “I’m not Mr. Liberal, and I don’t let them do whatever they want,” says Donahue. “I scream and yell.” Among his commandments: All the kids must have jobs. Michael is bound for the University of Colorado in the fall, Kevin for the University of Kansas.

For a man coveted by so many women, Donahue reentered the singles life with remarkable awkwardness. His first date after his divorce was with a stewardess; then he went out with an editor of Oui who had appeared on his show. “He was a true innocent,” she says. “I think I kissed him goodnight. He was really nervous.” Later he became close friends with Chicago Tribune reporter Elaine Markoutsis, but stopped seeing her when his sons came to live with him. “He felt guilty spending time with women,” she says.

For nearly three years Donahue’s lady has been actress Marlo Thomas, 41, who applied for the position on-camera by telling him, “You are loving and generous, and the woman in your life is very lucky.” Since Marlo now lives in New York, they see each other only once or twice a month, but talk on the phone before and after nearly every installment of Donahue. On visits to Chicago she watches the show from the control booth, and they vacationed together this summer on an eight-day Caribbean cruise. Intellectually, Phil says, he supports the women’s movement with whichmarlo is so closely identified. “But emotionally I have some problems with it. It’s hard to change in your 40s.” Marlo is understanding and doesn’t claim credit for his conversion. “He grew up in a time when feminists were unheard-of except for a few of us,” she says. “But long before I met him, he was on his way.”

Religion, says Marlo, is “more of a debating ground between us. I’m not a good Catholic, but I feel a little closer than he does.” Lapsed from the faith of his childhood, Donahue concedes that “when you have been raised in the church, have served Mass as an altar boy and have 16 years of parochial education behind you, you back away from your religion in conflict. It leaves a tremendous void.” He continues to be troubled, however, by the church’s authoritarian nature. “As long as you have human beings in any organization—the Catholic Church, General Motors, the New York Yankees—you ought to be able to criticize without someone suggesting you need a psychiatrist,” he says.

“Like many of our generation,” says Donahue fan Gloria Steinem, “Phil is a bridge between the old and the new, and conscious of the conflict.” Donahue would surely agree. “I am an entirely different person than I was when the show began 12 years ago,” he says. “This is an education available in no university.” If his learning is in public, and his instructors frequently bumptious, so much the better, he feels. “Television’s problem isn’t controversy, it’s blandness. I think boat rockers are the best people,” says Donahue, who would like to count himself among them. “They get things done and are not sucked in—they retain just a little piece of their souls.”