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Marlo Thomas Shares Her Secrets to Happiness at Age 85: “Lust and Laughter”

From her 43-year marriage to Phil Donahue to how she fought for the finale for 'That Girl', Marlo shares all

A young woman who leaves home, moves to New York City and struggles to become an actress. That was the premise of Marlo Thomas pitch to television executives for her own series, “That Girl”.  In 1966, Thomas wanted to redefine what it meant to be an independent woman living life her own way, and she didn’t just do that in her hit series, but in her life and mission to help others.

From Marlo’s trademark raspy voice on “That Girl” to from her role as Rachel’s mom on “Friends” to the 85-year-old’s award-winning work with St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, here’s a look at how Thomas has made her mark on Hollywood — and on our hearts — over the last 63 years.

How Marlo Thomas got into acting

Born Margaret Julia Thomas in Detroit, Michigan and raised in Beverly Hills, California, Marlo — as she became known due to her childhood mispronunciation of the name Margo — grew up in a rather unconventional household. 

Marlo credits her upbringing with her own sense of humor; her father was comedic actor, Danny Thomas. “I had no choice but to have a good sense of humor. I grew up with my dad and George Burns and Bob Hope and Milton Berle and Sid Caesar – and all those guys were at our house all the time telling jokes and making each other laugh.” 

Thomas family
The Thomas family in 1956 Kobal/Shutterstock

In the Thomas household laughter and service were givens. By 16, Thomas was going door-to-door with a social justice petition. 

Marlo attended Marymount High School and graduated from the University of Southern California with a teaching degree. “I wanted a piece of paper that said I was qualified to do something in the world.” And that she has maintaining her father’s legacy with St. Jude for Children’s Research Hospital. (More about that later.) 

“That Girl” was not Marlo’s first foray into acting. She appeared in many television programs including “Bonanza”, “The Joey Bishop Show”, “My Favorite Martian”, “The Donna Reed Show” amongst a slew of others. 

Her big break came in 1965 when she was cast by Mike Nicholas in the London production of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park

Daniel Massey and Marlo Thomas
Marlo Thomas and Daniel Massey, during the production of Barefoot in the Park, 1966 Roy Cummings/THA/Shutterstock

How Marlo Thomas came to star in ‘That Girl’

She originally starred in an ABC pilot, “Two’s Company” in 1965, but the show flopped. The silver lining: It caught the eye of a network executive who met with Thomas and suggested casting her in her own series. 

Thomas went back home and came up with the idea for her own show that she starred in and produced. And it was an immediate hit. Thomas played Ann Marie, a beautiful, up and coming actress with a writer boyfriend, Donald Hollinger, played by Ted Bessell. Thomas and Bessell remained friends until his death in 1996. 

The show aired from 1966 to 1971 to huge ratings and it was Marlo’s decision to end the show in 1971 but it had to be on her terms. Clairol, the sponsor of the sitcom, wanted the series finale to be a wedding between Donald and Ann Marie, but Thomas felt it was the wrong message to give her female audience. 

“I said, I just can’t do that to these women and girls who followed Ann Marie’s adventure,” Thomas has reflected to Bustle.  “I can’t now say that the only happy ending is a wedding, because I don’t believe it. There was a big ruckus about it, but I wouldn’t do it.” 

The finale showed Ann Marie taking Donald to a women’s lib meeting, which made Thomas very happy. “Nobody liked that but me. I loved it!” Perhaps her earlier nickname of Miss Independence was an omen as to her individuality. 

Ted and Marlo
Ted Bessell and Marlo Thomas in ‘That Girl’ 1966-1971Daisy Prods/Kobal/Shutterstock

After “That Girl’s” end, Thomas expanded her horizons and attended the Actors Studio and studied with the famed Lee Strasberg. When she won her Best Dramatic Actress Emmy in 1986 for the TV movie “Nobody’s Child”, she thanked her mentors. 

Marlo went on to have guest appearances on several television shows and films such as “Jenny” (1970), “Playing Mona Lisa” (2000), “Deceit” (2004) among many other notable titles dot her resume. She also ventured out on Broadway where credits were racked up in such famous plays as Thieves, Social Security and more. In Relatively Speaking, a set of three one-act plays, The New York Times called her performance “sublime”.  Thomas has not limited her creativity for the bright lights. 

She has published seven best-selling books with three of them becoming  #1 best-sellers, but one of her biggest roles wasn’t in front of a camera.

How Marlo Thomas got involved with St. Jude

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital was founded by Danny Thomas in 1962. The hospital treats children with diseases such as cancer and provides care for free. 

Marlo is the National Outreach Director for St. Jude and devotes herself to the cause. “I honestly can’t tell you where my thoughts of St. Jude begin and where they end,” she told Town & Country. “If I’m not in a board meeting, I’m on the phone talking to a corporate sponsor, working on a fundraising video, or speaking at a hospital event. I even dream about the kids and their families

Marlo Thomas and two patients from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, 2012Gregory Pace/BEI/Shutterstock

“Working with children has taught me that we need to be more like them,” she adds. “They are compassionate and brave and have a great capacity for joy in the face of such adversity.” While the hospital’s purpose is serious, the result is joyful. “Comedy built St. Jude,” Thomas has said.    

Marlo Thomas receives Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2014Kevin Dietsch/UPI/Shutterstock

On November 24, 2014, President Barack Obama awarded Thomas the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for her work with St. Jude.  “The honor made me think about my grandparents, who were immigrants. I tried not to weep, but the tears were coming down my face,” she said. “I kept thinking THIS is the possibility of America. This is why immigrants are so important. We must remember that.” 

Is Marlo Thomas still married Phil Donahue?

Thomas and Phil Donahue first laid eyes on each when she was a guest on his talk show in 1977.  The story goes that when the show ended after an hour of bantering and blushing, Donahue said, “You are really fascinating.” And Thomas responded, “Whoever the woman is in your life is very lucky.” 

Soon, Thomas became that girl. Their first date was awkward with them just staring at each other, but the second time they went out was great and the duo phoned each other two or three times daily and saw each other on weekends; Marlo living in Los Angeles and Donahue in Chicago where his talk show filmed.

Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas, 1985MediaPunch/Shutterstock

Three years later in 1980, the pair were married. Marlo was 40 when she wed and it was her first marriage. “We just clicked. We clicked on his show. It was obvious that we were very attracted to each other. I just loved his confidence,” Marlo said on an episode of The Drew Barrymore Show.  “I had to meet the right kind of man, and the world had to change a lot. It was a very big thing for me to see that marriage could be a roomy enough place for my dream and his dream.” 

The marriage has flourished for 43 years, as has her role as stepmom to Donahue’s children. Thomas and Donahue co-wrote a book What Makes A Marriage Last, published in 2020. So what makes her marriage last? “I call it the three L’s: love, laughter and lust,” Marlo told People.   “Those are the three L’s. You have to listen and then you’ll know what the other person is really thinking and going through. You have to love each other. And without lust, you don’t have anything.”

Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas, 2020 John Angelillo/UPI/Shutterstock

But humor has always been a bedrock of Marlo’s life.  “Laughter is important, not only because it makes us happy, it also has actual health benefits,” she says. “And that’s because laughter completely engages the body and releases the mind. It connects us to others, and that in itself has a heal.”

Bonnie Siegler is an established international writer covering the celebrity circuit for more than 15 years.  Bonnie’s resume includes two books that combine her knowledge of entertaining with celebrity health and fitness and has written travel stories which focus on sustainable living.  She has contributed to magazines including Woman’s World and First for WomenElle, InStyle, Shape, TV Guide and Viva.  Bonnie served as West Coast Entertainment Director for Rive Gauche Media overseeing the planning and development of print and digital content.  She has also appeared on entertainment news shows Extra and Inside Edition.

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