Whether it’s from her pioneering role as perky aspiring actress Ann Marie in the '60s TV hit That Girl, her equally groundbreaking book and recording for children Free to Be … You and Me or her work as a spokesperson for St. Jude’s Children's Research Hospital, actress and activist Marlo Thomas is a familiar face to generations of Americans. She’s the author of five bestselling books and the winner of four Emmys, a Golden Globe, a Grammy and a Peabody Award. She’s been seen on Broadway in The Shadow Box, Social Security and Thieves, in which she also starred on screen. Now she's back on stage at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre giving a priceless performance as an overwhelmed yet narcissistic widow in Elaine May’s George Is Dead, one of the three one-act plays in the new Broadway comedy Relatively Speaking. Broadway.com caught up with Thomas to chat about learning comedy and charity at her father’s knee, and getting talk show tips for her new Web series from her famous husband.
How did you get involved with George Is Dead?
Well Elaine [May] said, "I’ve written this one-act play and I think you’d be great for it." I read it and I thought, "Really, a vapid blonde? Is that me?" But once I started working on it, I fell in love with Doreen. She’s a wonderful character who’s trying very hard to avoid the bad things in life, and she does it in a way that only Elaine can write. She’s funny, but you feel underneath that she’s running as fast as she can. And then finally she can’t anymore.
What about her do you connect to?
Elaine has written something that’s a motor inside all of us. When you get really bad news, there’s that panic, that part of your body that wants to run away. I’ve met mothers of children at St. Jude’s who’ve been told that their child has cancer and their first instinct is to take their child and run away, as if you could do that.
Is it hard to mine a situation like that for comedy?
It’s the best kind of comedy, based in something real that people understand. They understand that engine in our own psyches.
What do you love about working with Elaine May?
We did a really funny movie together called In the Spirit; I loved working with her as an actress, and I love working with her as a playwright. She’s very, very smart, and because she’s an actor she really understands how to write for actors to help them get where they need to go in the story.
When did you discover you had a gift for comedy?
My father [TV superstar Danny Thomas] was a comedian, and my siblings and I all have the same sense of humor. I think the grandchildren do, too. Some of it’s innate, but I think you really develop it at the kitchen table if you have a family that likes to tell jokes and tell stories.
Did you always want to be an actor?
I think so. I’d go to the studio with my father when I was young, and I loved being there and running around, sitting in the commissary next to a man dressed like a pirate. It was make-believe! What child doesn’t like that? I think connecting with an audience is what’s really in our blood. My father was Lebanese and my Lebanese grandmother was a great storyteller. She couldn’t read or write English, so she’d look at the newspaper and then make up a story about the picture to tell her 10 children. I come from a long time of storytellers.
Do you have any favorite roles?
Well, when I did Barefoot in the Park in London as a young woman it was very exciting to impress the London press because they’re tough. It was exciting to have my own television series, That Girl, and when I won the best dramatic Emmy for Nobody’s Child that was exciting for me, because everybody in my family had won awards in comedy, but I was the first to win one for drama.
Did you have any idea how influential That Girl would be?
Only when the audience started writing to us. I was flabbergasted. I went into it wanting to tell a story about a girl like me. Everyone—the networks, the researchers—wondered if girls in America would respond to my character, a young woman who didn’t want to live with her family or get married. In 1966 that was revolutionary. So aside from the ordinary “I love your hairdo” letters, I was getting mail saying, “I’m 16, I’m pregnant, I can’t tell my father. What should I do?” And I was shocked. I was doing a comedy show.
Why do you think the reaction was so strong?
These young women identified with Ann Marie as somebody like them. They trusted her, and there wasn’t anybody else. That’s what made me a feminist. There wasn’t the word "feminism" at the time, so I didn’t even know what that meant, but my assistants and I started trying to figure it out. Where could someone in North Dakota or Des Moines go? There was nowhere. No Planned Parenthood, no battered wives' shelters. That’s what politicized me. It would politicize any thinking woman.
Did you respond to them?
I answer everything. I really do. I don’t ever let someone be in pain without getting some kind of reaction from me. My father used to say there are two kinds of people in the world: Those who stop at a traffic accident to see if they can help and those who just drive by. And I think in my family, we stop and help.
Who inspires you?
Oh goodness, all kinds of people. I’m inspired by anybody who tries to run for office. It’s easy to sit back and say, “Oh, ain’t it awful,” but to say, “I’m going to be part of trying to fix this”? I admire that. My stepson went downtown to Wall Street recently, and then he flew to D.C. with a sleeping bag to be a part of that demonstration. I admire him. To me, that’s a role model.
How has Hollywood changed for women since you started out?
Well, there are more parts, for one thing! And more leading parts. Things like Nurse Jackie, and the new Laura Dern show Enlightened, which is wonderful. These are great roles in pieces that aren’t silly, and there are wonderful comedies as well. I think it’s looking up for women.
Do you ever look at these shows and say, “Wow, I helped make that happen”?
Well, you can say that; I can’t say that. I can’t see myself from 30,000 feet!
Your online presence is amazing. Why did you want to start Marlothomas.com?
I wanted to create a community of women talking to one another. When I’ve travelled around the country raising money for St. Jude’s, many women have told me there’s no place on the Web for anybody over 40. So I said, "Maybe we’ll start one." I write about things like bullying or sexual harassment or money. What I can be is a catalyst for a conversation, which then lives on without me, and that's great.
On the site you host the webchat series Mondays with Marlo. Who were you dying to have as a guest?
I wanted Suze Orman because I knew she’d give great advice about money, and Tory Johnson, who gives career advice. Judge Judy, Martha Stewart, Ina Garten. Dr. Laura Berman is going to give sexual advice. I wanted people who would answer the questions of real women with real advice. There’s not enough out there.
Are you getting any hosting advice from your husband, Phil Donahue?
Yes, I always get tips from him about everything! But the tips from him are things I’ve observed over the years. He’s the best. But he’s a real interviewer. I’m not really interviewing, I’m moderating the questions that come in from viewers and keeping the conversation going. But I’m really enjoying it. I’m learning so much.
One thing I’ve learned from watching your online videos: Your fans really want to see the episode of The Phil Donahue Show where you two met! Do you have a copy?
Of course! Maybe I’ll put it up someday. I’ll do this play and then I’ll think about that. One thing at a time!
See Marlo Thomas in Relatively Speaking at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.