On the hit show Friends, Marlo Thomas plays the sophisticated mother of Jennifer Aniston's character Rachel, a sexy, unmarried young woman with a mind of her own.
What the show's Generation X audience might not know is that Thomas once played a similar role herself, as the star of That Girl, a pioneering sitcom that ran from 1966 to 1971 — before some of the Friends cast were even born. Her character Ann Marie, an independent young woman who put off marriage so she could have a career, was a symbol of strength and confidence to a generation of girls and young women.
As well as being the star of That Girl, Thomas owned the company that created and produced the show — an unusual combination in an era and an industry dominated by white males. The head of programming for ABC at the time wanted Thomas on the air, but couldn't find a good script.
Thomas had a radical idea. "There were no young girls on television at the time," she remembers thinking. So she proposed a new show about a young woman like her, who wanted to be an actress but whose parents just wanted to see get married — "a girl with a dream who really wants something," she told the ABC executive.
Ann had a boyfriend, Donald, but was adamant about putting her career before marriage — an attitude borrowed from Thomas' own life. Thomas held her ground even when she decided to take That Girl off the air in 1971. ABC executives wanted Ann and Donald to get married in the final episode, but Thomas refused. "I felt that would be unfair to the girls who'd watched us and believed in us. I felt that one show had to not end in a wedding," she said.
Although Thomas was the show's executive producer as head of Daisy Productions, she kept her executive status a secret and did not appear in the credits as executive producer. "I didn't want to push my power ... because it was a kind of a cat-and-mouse game of how to be strong, how not to give in, but how not to intimidate them."
An Inspiration to a Generation
Thomas says her commitment to women's rights arose — unexpectedly — from her young fans. They wrote her letters describing their own problems. She felt she had a duty to respond. "How do you ignore a letter from a 16-year-old girl who has nowhere to go? And only sees you as the person to ask."
Suddenly Thomas was on the front lines of feminism, and in 1977, she was booked for the second time on a popular talk show hosted by one of the best friends of the women's movement: Phil Donahue. The two fell in love and were married three years later.
In the years since then, Thomas created the now classic book, record album and television special Free to Be You and Me, whose message to an entire generation of children was that you don't have to do what society or tradition dictates just because of your gender.
In addition to her Friends role, she has starred in TV movies and had guest appearances on shows like Ally McBeal and Frasier. She hosted a Lifetime network special that will air May 16, and was the subject of a Lifetime Intimate Portrait, which will be shown again May 15.
She has also produced a new book, The Right Words at the Right Time, a collection of inspiring personal revelations from 108 heroes, leaders and luminaries. All profits from the book will go St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., which was founded by her father, entertainer Danny Thomas.
Donahue retired his talk show in 1996 after more than 6,000 shows and nearly 30 years on the air. But he is coming out of retirement with a new show on MSNBC. Thomas said her husband found it hard to stay out of TV: "He screams at the television set, you know. He thinks he's been on all this time. He helps everybody. 'Ask the next question, he says. Get to the next question!'"
Thomas acknowledges that she is no longer "That Girl," but says she enjoys her new role. "I'm definitely the mother of "That Girl," there's no two ways about it. And who better?"
And she is proud that Friends, with unwed Rachel's pregnancy and the frank talk about sex, is breaking ground in the way That Girl did 30 years earlier. "What they talk about on Friends, we were doing in the '60s — we just weren't talking about it, you know."