marlo thomas, 79, actress, writer, philanthropist and feminist
ageist EDITORS | august 11, 2017
Actress, writer, philanthropist and feminist Marlo Thomas likes to read the sports pages. Even though she’s an avid baseball fan she'll read about any sport. What she loves are the athlete's interviews, and she combs through the section regularly for any pearls of wisdom.
“Athletes have a whole other way of thinking,” she says. “They have a goal, they have their asses kicked, they get disappointed, but they learn from every game. After a game you’ll hear them analyze what went wrong and what went right. It’s so completely personal to them. Just like my work is personal to me. I always feel I learn something from their challenges that help me with mine.”
Maybe it’s something about those challenges, and those reversals of narrative that resonate with Thomas. When she was in her 20s and charging hard to become an actress, Thomas pitched network executives a mold-breaking series around a single young woman looking to, well, make her break as an actress. “That Girl” ran from 1966 to 1971 and featured sharp departures from traditional female roles in both tone and fashion. As opposed to her conservative, apron-clad contemporaries like Donna Reed, Jane Cleaver or Lucille Ball, Thomas wore the psychedelic, ‘it girl’ fashion of the day on her show. Rather than spend her on-screen time working to find a man, she played the first single working woman on TV, and pushed back against the idea that her character should get married, a belief she held in real life as well. In fact, as the series came to an end, the sponsor and the network wanted to finish with a wedding between her character, Ann Marie and her boyfriend, Donald Hollinger. But Thomas nixed it. “I felt I’d be letting down my mostly female audience with the message that a wedding was the only happy ending to Ann Marie's story."
“People try to tell you who you are, and where you fit. And I just think, you can’t listen,” she told me. “You have to create your own facts, your own reality. Because people are too unimaginative.”
It’s no surprise, then, to find Thomas, more than 40 years later at 79, launching a new online fashion collection, working in the theater, palling around with old friend Gloria Steinem and continuing to avidly fundraise for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, the free cancer research and treatment center for children founded by her father, comedian Danny Thomas.
A couple of years ago, she wrote a book,It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over, in which she interviewed more than 60 women about a subject we at AGEIST have come to champion: redefining later life. It landed on The New York Times bestseller list. One story in particular resonated with her, of a graphic designer in her early 40s who had always dreamed of being a doctor – but felt it was too late. Thomas just didn’t understand the hold up around age. “I never think to myself, ‘Oh I’m in my 70s, is it too late to fulfill this dream or the other?’ " she says. “I remember [the actress] Ruth Gordon saying something that became my favorite mantra: ‘Never face the facts. If you face the facts you’ll never get out of bed in the morning.’ And I just love that. There’s a million people who will give you a million reasons why you can’t do something.”
For the past 37 years she’s been married to a man – TV talk show host Phil Donahue — who loves to relax and spend his retirement the traditional way. It’s something Thomas respects but hasn’t been able to manage herself. “I have a need to constantly be creative,” she says. “For me, it’s life-giving: creativity, purposefulness, having something to solve. I think life is about solving problems.”
Nowadays, she’s spread that creativity across a variety of outlets.
“I love working as an actor, but I also love being creative in many ways,” she told me. “Yes, above all, I want to work as an actor, but when you can’t find just the job that you want to do, that’s when I think your creativity needs to kick in and you do something else. For me, it’s writing a book, or creating a podcast or a fashion line. Something that’s creative and that puts me together with a community of creative people.”
And I think that’s something that’s stuck with me about how Marlo Thomas works. It’s not simply about pursuing other interests, it’s about pursuing them with purpose; with the idea that you’re going to make something of it. When we spoke, she dropped a line about why she wanted to get into acting – but in retrospect, it really could apply to everything else in her life as well: “People ask me: ‘If you weren’t an actress, what would you have been?’ and I say, ‘I would’ve been a pain in the ass!’ Because that’s all I ever really wanted to do.”