Turn on your TV today and you'll see dozens of successful single women, but that wasn't the case in 1966, when a young Marlo Thomas was offered her own television show. "The young woman was always the daughter of or the wife of or the secretary of, but she was never the person that the story was about," Thomas says. She told the network executive who had approached her about starring in a sitcom that she thought the show should be "about a young girl who has a dream, who wants to be somebody."
While the network executive questioned whether anyone would watch a show like that, a lot of people did tune into That Girl every week to follow the story of Ann Marie, a struggling young actress living on her own in New York City. That Girl ran for five seasons on American television and earned Marlo Thomas a Golden Globe award and four Emmy nominations. It paved the way for other television shows about career women living on their own and served as an inspiration for young women across the United States to move to the city and forge a career.
That Girl wasn't Marlo Thomas's only contribution to challenging gender roles and stereotypes. In 1972, she authored a book and record album called Free to Be… You and Me that featured poems, stories and songs for children. "People had never done a non-racist, non-sexist book [for children] before," Thomas recalls, noting the idea was "to encourage little boys that it is okay to cry or little girls that they can be anything they want to be."
Free to Be… You and Me included a song about mommies who were also ranchers or doctors and stories about a princess who didn't want to get married and a boy who wanted his own baby doll to care for. It featured the talents of celebrities like musician Harry Belafonte and actor Alan Alda and sold more than half a million copies, with proceeds going to the Ms. Foundation for Women.
In 1974, Thomas produced a television special based on the album that won both an Emmy and a Peabody award. In 1988, she took home another Emmy for a sequel, Free to Be… a Family.
Thomas, the granddaughter of Lebanese immigrants, was born in Deerfield, Michigan, on November 21, 1937, but grew up in Beverly Hills, California. Her father, Danny Thomas, was a famous comedian and also a television star.
"He took me to the studio often. I never appeared on his shows, but I used to go with him and I really loved it," Marlo Thomas recalls. "I loved the whole idea of being somebody else and playing sort of make believe. I knew I was going to be in that business too."
But her first experience in show business proved a challenge, at least in dealing with the press. Thomas recalls she was 17 and starring in her first theater production. "I expected everybody was going to refer to me as Danny Thomas's daughter. But what scared me was they were comparing me to my famous father: Would I be as good as Danny Thomas? Would I last as long? Was I as funny?"
She says she went to her father crying, saying she wanted to run away and change her name. "And my father said, 'I raised you to be a thoroughbred, and thoroughbreds run their own races. They don't look at any of the other horses. They just wear their blinders, and they run. And that is what you have to do.'"
Her father's words have served her throughout her life, Thomas says. And recalling them years later led to another project, a book called The Right Words at the Right Time. "I thought, I bet a lot of people have a story like this, where just the right words were said to them at just the right time to change their life. And so I asked a lot of my famous friends and people I admired and created a book."
The Right Words at the Right Time, published in 2002, featured essays by Mohammed Ali, Senator John McCain, Itzhak Perlman among others. It rose to number one on the New York Times' bestseller list and inspired a sequel that was published earlier this year, because after the first book came out, Thomas says, "People kept coming up to me, telling me their 'right words'. I'd be in the ladies room at the airport, and a woman would say to me, 'I have a right words story.' And so I started to collect them."
Proceeds from both The Right Words at the Right Time, Volume 2: Your Turn and its predecessor go to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, which was founded by Danny Thomas in 1962.
Marlo Thomas says the hospital is responsible for raising the survival rate for the most common form of leukemia in children, acute lymphoblastic leukemia. "When my father opened the doors to the hospital, only four percent of children with that survived. Just a couple of months ago we announced a 90 percent survival rate."
St. Jude has treated patients from across the United States and more than 70 countries, all of them for free. Thomas says her father believed that good health care was a birthright of all children. Danny Thomas devoted much of his life to the hospital and since his death, Marlo Thomas has taken an active role as National Outreach Director.
In addition to her work with St. Jude, Marlo Thomas and her husband, talk show pioneer Phil Donahue, are active not only in feminist issues, but a number of political causes including the abolishment of the death penalty and nuclear disarmament.