She first became familiar to most of us as That Girl, in her own groundbreaking television sitcom. But Marlo Thomas has gone on to a varied career that’s included acting on stage and film, producing the popular television specials Free To Be.You and Me and Free To Be.A Family, and, most recently, writing the book The Right Words at the Right Time (Atria Books), sales of which benefit St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, the institution founded by her father, Danny. Thomas comes to Sarasota this month for the Women’s Resource Center’s 10th annual Renaissance, which includes an "Island Black Tie at Sunset" event March 30 and a luncheon with the actress/producer/social activist as speaker, March 31 at the Ritz-Carlton. (For ticket info call 366-1700). Kay Kipling spoke with her about the new book and more.
Q. What inspired The Right Words at the Right Time?
A. I received a letter from a man whose daughter was about to turn 16. She’d been a fan of Free To Be.You and Me, and he wondered if I’d send her a story from my own life that would help and advise her.
I remembered when I was 17 or 18 and struggling to be an actress. I was playing Gigi in a little theater, and all the reviews were comparing me to my father-"Would I be as good?" It really scared me, and I went to my dad in tears, saying, "I want to run away and change my name." And he said, "I raised you to be a thoroughbred. Thoroughbreds run their own races; they don’t look at the horses next to them. Don’t look at me. You just run your own race."
That became a motto for me in my life. When I didn’t want to get married when everyone else was, when I quit my show and people thought I was crazy, I just reminded myself that you have to ask, "Is it their race or mine?"
So one day I was jogging in the park, which I do every day, and I thought, "I bet everybody has a story like that." I started asking friends and people I knew. And I ended up with 108 people in all telling their stories, from Gwyneth Paltrow to Billie Jean King, Paul Newman, Sean Penn.all ages, a diverse group. It’s really a book for anyone who’s at a crossroads.
Q. Despite being scared about comparisons to your father, were you a self-confident young woman?
A. I had a pretty good sense of self-esteem. My parents were very close to my brother and sister and me, and they always told us we could do anything we wanted. They came to our recitals and plays; they told us we were smart. We had a feeling we belonged to something.each other, our family. It was a foundation and a safe haven.
Even though my father was a very big star and a big personality, he didn’t overshadow others. And he was one of the best listeners I’ve ever known. When I went to him that time he didn’t just say to me, "Don’t worry about what stupid people say." He gave me something else to put in my mind.
Q. Did you always want to act?
A. I think so. I was always doing little plays at home. I had a sliding closet door, and it was my curtain.
Q. Do you find yourself creating a lot of your own roles now, as a producer?
A. Sometimes I’ve involved in the creating; sometimes not. I’m going on the road with Brian Dennehy in the play The Exonerated now, and I just finished doing The Guys, a play about the firemen of Sept. 11, off-Broadway. I go where a good part is. But when you get past 30, there aren’t so many roles. Right now I’m working on developing Bedknobs and Broomsticks, for Wonderful World of Disney. And I’m starring in and producing Deceit, a murder mystery, for Lifetime.
Q. You were single for a long time. What’s the best thing about being married for you?
A. It’s a safe place; it’s home. Phil [husband Phil Donahue] is my family. Some people don’t feel comfortable with intimacy. I do.
Q. What do you feel proudest of in your career?
A. That Girl had such a tremendous impact. When I got off the plane today the stewardess said she’d always watched that show and it made her realize, "I could have a job and live in the big city." When I did Free to Be.in the ’70s, that had great impact on young people. I still hear about that a lot. I’ve been fortunate to be involved in projects that really touch people.
Q. Any regrets?
A. No real regrets. I’ve always been a work in progress, and sometimes I wish I were more of a planner. I’ve known some businesswomen who said, "I’m going to be a vice president at 35," that sort of thing. I’ve never been like that. I just bump along like a kid who follows a shiny object.
Q. What do you do for relaxation?
A. Phil and I have a small boat, and that’s a lot of fun. He’s the captain and I’m the crew, and we just get away from the world. I love to go to the theater, and we have friends over for dinner several times a week to play games like Charades. And my runs in the park.I don’t care if it snows or rains, as long as it’s not icy, I run.