Her smile is known worldwide, both for her performances and for the passion she brings to her father’s legacy: St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Along with her siblings, Terre and Tony, Marlo Thomas carries the torch in the fight against childhood cancer. This is the perfect season to join That Girl and open your heart to help St. Jude kids. Marlo shared some thoughts with Travelgirl Publisher Renee Werbin.
tg: What was it like growing up with such a celebrated father?
Marlo: We weren’t under the impression that we were living with Danny Thomas. We were living with our dad. It never seemed unusual to us; it was normal. I had a mom and a dad, a sister and a brother. We went to school; my father went to work; my mother stayed home and we went to Mass every Sunday as a family. We had brunch afterwards together. The reason it appeared normal is because it was normal. I don’t think there was anything too exotic about my childhood except for the fact that my father was on television. My father and mother didn’t seem any different than my friends’ parents. They were nice and thoughtful and they drove us to school; they made our Halloween costumes and they took us trick-or-treating. It looked normal because it was.
tg: It’s an honor to promote St. Jude and to recognize your tireless devotion. What was your father’s inspiration?
Marlo: My father grew up very poor. He and his family were immigrants from Lebanon. They didn’t have any money and my grandmother had 10 babies; all born at home without a doctor. The children never went to the doctor or to the dentist. In fact, my father had false teeth later in life because he never saw a dentist as a child.
There were many children in his neighborhood in the same condition with immigrant parents. Children in the neighborhood died from things like appendicitis and influenza and accidents, all without a doctor.
My dad had a front seat at the inequity of health care in this country. As he grew up he thought about that a lot. When I was about to be born it was going to cost $50 to get me and my mother out of the hospital and my father had $10 to his name.
He was a struggling actor and radio comedian. He had no money and he went to church that Sunday. The sermon was on St. Jude, patron of the hopeless cases. My father prayed to St. Jude and said who was more hopeless than I am? I have $10 and I need $50 to get my family out of the hospital. He was terrified that he was going to grow up and be on welfare like his father was (at that time they called it relief) and was afraid he would not be able to provide for his family.
He prayed to St. Jude to give him a sign that he was going in the right direction. He said he needed $70 to take my family out of the hospital and to have food for them. He prayed if St. Jude will just give him a sign that he would someday build a shrine in his name. St. Jude was a forgotten name, because his name was so much like Judas, the betrayer at the Last Supper. The next day was a Monday and my father received a phone call that he had gotten a radio job as a singing toothbrush in a commercial and the pay was $75; he had a sign.
He followed those signs all through his life. When he became very successful he decided he must pay St. Jude back and build that shrine but the shrine he had in mind was just a little statue in a courtyard. Since he had gotten so famous and so successful, he decided he would do something bigger. He wanted to build a hospital for children with hopeless diseases where nobody would ever pay and that became St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
tg: I applaud your father’s achievements and your determination to follow in his noble footsteps. You give the precious gift of hope to children and families. How can our readers help?
Marlo: The best way is to donate because no patient pays. It costs us $2.5 million a day to operate St. Jude. Our lifeblood for the hospital is the pubic funds. Because we are not-for-profit and nobody pays, we have to obtain 78 percent of our money from the public. A regular hospital, a for-profit hospital, only has to get about 8 percent of their money from the public.
We are completely dependent on public funds because we don’t have any paying customers.The best thing to do is to go online to St.jude.org and donate. People can also host events in their town, have a little party or a tea and also be part of the St. Jude Walk. There are many ways to participate in helping St. Jude but donating is the most important thing your readers can do.
I will tell you something my father used to say that I think your readers will appreciate. He used to say “There are two kinds of people in the world: the givers and the takers. The takers may sometimes eat better but the givers always sleep better”.
tg: Travelgirl readers want to know your favorite travel destinations. Where do Marlo and Phil go when they want to get away?
Marlo: We love St. Barts, Barbados and Italy. Those are our favorite places to go.
tg: Do you have a travel bucket list?
Marlo: We have talked about taking a safari and we also want to go to the Galapagos Islands. Those are two places on our bucket list.
tg: Is there one item you never leave home without when you are packing to take a trip?
Marlo: Yes, my own pillow; I take it everywhere I travel.
tg: I’ve read that acting is your first love. In the past few years, you’ve had great success appearing on and Off-Broadway in New York. Do you prefer stage or screen?
Marlo: They’re completely different animals, and I love each one. In film and TV, the camera is up close, so the actor gets to convey more intimate thoughts and feelings. And, of course, in TV and film, you can do a scene several times until you and the director are satisfied.
But if I had to confess a preference, I’d say that I find stage work more rewarding because it’s all happening live–you’re living the character in real time, in the precise chronology that the playwright intended. And you also have the exciting challenge of connecting with a live audience every night, holding their attention and their interest for a few hours, and telling the whole story. I feel most alive when I’m onstage. It’s very exhilarating—and I’m the happiest there.
tg: I was a big fan of That Girl. Please talk about the impact that show had on your life and your career. The show is almost 50 years old and still resonates today.
Marlo: When I first came up with the idea for That Girl, I was basically creating a character [Ann Marie] who reflected my own life: a young, independent, struggling actress – whose eyes were on the horizon, not the hearth. At the time, all of my girlfriends were getting married – I was a bridesmaid 17 times! – but I had no desire to settle down myself. I had read The Feminist Mystique by Betty Friedan, which had opened my eyes to the women’s movement that had been bubbling beneath the surface for years and was on the brink of breaking through. As the producer and star of That Girl, I was hoping for a show that everyone liked. But the enormous impact it had on the culture – and the thousands of letters we received every week from women who identified with Ann – proved to us that there were That Girls all across America. Ultimately, the show would connect me with the emerging feminist movement, which nurtured in me a social conscientiousness that has been a huge part of my life.
Ultimately, the show “That Girl” would connect me with the emerging feminist movement, which nurtured in me a social conscientiousness that has been a huge part of my life.
tg: You were ahead of your time; the show was a groundbreaker for women.
Marlo: I think it was inevitable that TV would eventually catch up with the lives of real American women. But, it was exciting to be the first. As my dear pal Billy Persky – who created the show with Sam Denoff – often says, “That Girl threw the grenade into the bunker, and Mary Richards [The Mary Tyler Moore Show], Kate & Allie and Murphy Brown got to march right in!”
tg: Travelgirl is excited to hear you are launching a clothing line, “That Woman,” in January. What inspired you to design a line of clothing?
Marlo: As you know, part of the appeal of That Girl was the fabulous wardrobe Ann wore on the show every week – mod and trendy clothing that was flying off the racks in Europe but hadn’t yet arrived in America. It was revolutionary fashion that was a liberation from the standard house dresses and Peter Pan collars worn by the TV women of that era. To my complete delight Ann became a fashion icon – and me along with her! – and that experience instilled in me the lifelong idea that clothing can and should express who we are. But in recent years, I’ve become discouraged by clothing trends that don’t speak to women over 40 – and when they try to, they often get it wrong. So I decided to create a brand that I would want to wear, and that I think other women would wear, too – clothing that makes us feel confident and comfortable and desirable. Calling it That Woman seemed perfect to describe it.
tg: Please tell our readers all about the clothing and where it can be purchased.
Marlo: When I sat down with my designers, we focused on coming up with a timeless look – something fun and flirty, sophisticated and casually chic. And all of the clothing and accessories have distinct and thoughtfully designed details, so that you always feel as great as you look. My feeling is: We don’t have to give up on style and fit just because we’ve reached a certain age. I’m so excited about the launch, which happens on the Home Shopping Network on January 19.
tg: It’s also another opportunity to give support to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Your generosity is endless!
Marlo: My father [Danny Thomas] founded St. Jude in 1962. He worked all his life nurturing it to become the leading research and treatment center in the world for children. My sister, brother and I are proud to follow his legacy. Not just in honor of him, but for all the children and the moms and dads who come to St. Jude when there is nowhere to turn when they get the awful news that their child has a deadly cancer. And we work hard to always keep my father’s promise that no family would pay for anything – not for treatment, travel, housing or food. St. Jude is a significant part of my life. In addition to being the National Outreach Director for St. Jude, I always include the hospital in the proceeds of any project I take on.
tg: In 2014, President Obama awarded you the Presidential Medal of Freedom for both your “trailblazing career,” and for your work and dedication to St. Jude. I am sure your dad is looking over your shoulder smiling. Can you comment on this milestone achievement?
Marlo: I was, of course, staggered by the news that I was being awarded the medal, which is the highest honor a civilian can receive. And if you look at the pictures of President Obama draping the medal on me, you can see that I’m crying. I couldn’t help thinking about my father and my immigrant grandparents, and how proud they would be that their granddaughter was receiving this recognition from the president of the country that had embraced them and that they so dearly loved. And so I humbly accepted that incredible honor in their name and in the spirit of the American dream.
tg: I’ve watched you over the years. You are a great role model and an activist for women forever.
Marlo: I really do care. It’s a part of my life and I was lucky to live with a man, my father, who believed we all are here to take care of each other.
tg: Marlo, you are a philanthropist, a multi-talented star and have lent your time and your name to the most worthwhile of causes. Do you have any sage advice for those who hope to follow in your famous footsteps?
Marlo: That’s rather humbling. I don’t know that anybody should follow in my footsteps. I think the most important asset I have is that I notice things, people and situations where I can be helpful. Whether it’s women’s rights or gay rights or children’s rights, or civil rights, all my life I’ve been involved in these causes since I was a teenager.
I think noticing and listening are assets of mine and a gift to me because I do feel that I am part of the community. That’s something I learned from my father. My father very much believed that he was part of the neighborhood and the community and therefore the world, and we are all responsible for each other. You are not really alive if you are not doing anything to help other people. It’s not to follow in my footsteps but for people to try to have a good, meaningful and purposeful life. That’s a gift.
tg: You’ve been successfully married to Phil Donahue for more than 36 years. You both seem very much in love. Can you give our readers some insight into how you keep your marriage your priority coupled with your successful career and your philanthropic work for St. Jude?
Marlo: You’re very sweet to say that, and I wish I could give you some magical answer. But we all know, anything that is successful takes a lot of work! Yes, 36 years later, my white-haired, blue-eyed Irishman and I are still head-over-heels for each other. And I think the reason for that – and the reason I’m able to keep all the other balls in the air – is because we really do put time aside for each other. That means knowing when to log off the computer and take the phone off the hook and hang out with my husband – like taking a stroll, or exercising, or going to a comedy club and laughing. The only thing that gets in my way is the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day. If I could fix that one little thing, everything would be perfect.