Award winning actress, best selling author and social activist, Marlo Thomas is a very busy woman. She’s recently filmed a new movie with Demi Moore and Miley Cyrus and plans to star in a Broadway play next season. Her web site, MarloThomas.com, launches on AOL just as her latest book “Growing Up Laughing: My Story and the Story of Funny” is being published.
Unlike many Hollywood tell-alls, Thomas’s memoir is filled with warm and happy memories. She writes of family dinners that included Bob Hope, George Burns and Bob Newhart.
Her dad, comedian Danny Thomas, star of the television classic “Make Room for Daddy”, was so popular, Groucho Marx proclaimed him an honorary Jew just so he could join the restricted Hillcrest Country Club.
The beautiful Loretta Young was Marlo’s godmother. Jerry Lewis would plot out comedy sketches in the living room. Yet Marlo insists that her parents were determinedly traditional in their beliefs.
“My father was a wonderful father,” she says. “If you got to know him on “Make Room for Daddy,” you really got to know him, because that’s who he was. He was that person. Completely. His nickname at home was The Toothless Lion. He would scream and carry on and he didn’t have a bite to his bark. He was a very boisterous, hot tempered and nothing malicious, nothing mean, nothing dark. Everybody would always ask if he was dark; they thought all comedians were dark. He wasn’t. He wasn’t always funny, but there were always jokes at the table. I was telling that to Jerry Seinfeld and he said, ‘Oh yeah, the table’s a great stage.’ And it’s true. It’s a great place for people to hone their talent as a storyteller.”
“I was a very lucky girl. I had a wonderful growing up. We were the only Roman Catholics in the neighborhood. We went through all the traditions of that but basically, we were growing up in a Jewish neighborhood. Beverly Hills. We were the only people who had a Christmas tree. But we used to get involved in a lot of Judaism as well. We had wonderful Passover Seders in our house. We did the whole thing: the prayers, hiding the matzo. It was fun.”
JOANNA LANGFIELD: Several people who grew up in Hollywood, children of stars, have written books that weren’t so flattering. You were very gracious, even when things may not have been ideal….
THOMAS: We were lucky. There’s no Mommy Dearest in my life. Our parents were very middle class. Even lower middle class. My dad’s family was an immigrant family from Lebanon. My mother’s a second generation American. They were working people. So they brought those kind of values to us. They brought working class values to Beverly Hills! Even though it was a very affluent place, my father always used to talk about the value of a dollar. Education was so important. ‘In any regime, they can never take away your education,’ he would say. I mean whoever even heard the word regime in Beverly Hills? My dad only had one year of high school. And when you think of it, what he accomplished! Building a science research hospital (St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis Tennessee), it’s a miracle. He was a very learned man. And he taught himself.
My Dad wanted me to be a senator. He was a conservative Republican; he wanted all of us, including his daughters, to be educated and to be governors. He was extremely disappointed when I wanted to become an actress. But he came to every play, every school play. He flew to London and came to summer stock. He didn’t want me to do things, but he always supported me.
LANGFIELD: Were you were always socially active?
THOMAS: I was always political. I was running around when I was in my teens, getting signatures on gun control. I think the social awareness comes from being the child of immigrant parents. My parents both grew up in melting pot neighborhoods where people helped each other. We were part of a community, not just a family. My mother always volunteered and we were taken to do things to help others, too.
LANGFIELD: You were famous for not wanting to get married. Now, you and Phil Donahue have been married for 30 years….
THOMAS: Yeah, imagine that. I’m shocked. I’m not sure I believe in marriage still. I believe in my marriage, but I was always against marriage as an idea. I think it’s an outmoded institution. I think you have to define marriage for yourself, not take anyone else’s definition for your own. I could never do that. See, to me, the definition of marriage was that everybody takes all their dreams and their aspirations and their hopes and puts it into a big bucket marked ‘HIS.’ And I thought ‘I’m not doing it. I’ve got my own bucket called ‘Marlo’ and I’m gonna have my dreams come true.’ But because I met Phil after ‘That Girl’ (her seminal television hit of the 1960’s) and had my own bucket, I couldn’t become, I wouldn’t even be asked to become someone else. Once I had my own identity, I was in a place to define marriage as a roomier place. It wasn’t just for one and a half persons, but for two whole persons. And that’s why my marriage works. Because I get to be completely who I am and he gets to be completely who he is. We don’t try to make the other one into each other’s apprentice, or intern, or assistant.
I am unbelievably busy. I have this book, my new web site, and I am noticing how my husband is stepping aside, allowing me to get this done, without making me feel guilty that I can’t do things like go to the Notre Dame game, which is big for him. He’s been really okay, not making me feel guilty. I think a lot of women, you know, we do have a problem with guilt. We succumb to it. And it’s really great when somebody doesn’t try to push that button.
LANGFIELD: Many of us will show this to our husbands, you know….
THOMAS: Yeah, (She laughs.) It’s hard to do, on both sides. I have to make sure not to make him feel guilty when he can’t do something I need. I think that’s the hardest part about marriage. I remember when Phil and I were first going together, we had a lot of arguments about who was going where because I lived in L.A. and he was in Chicago. One time he was very angry at me because I missed a whole weekend where we were supposed to do something. I said to him ‘You know how hard you work. You know how much you sacrificed. You even lost a marriage over your dedication and your passion for your work. You know how hard you’ve worked to stay where you are. Well, put a skirt on it and that’s me.’
There are a lot of things that are different about men and women, but our passion about work is the same. And women are afraid to admit, they love their work. I love my work! I always say to women that men don’t apologize for their work. When a man says ‘I have to work,’ we get out of his way and that’s it. We have to do the same thing. We have to be able to say, ‘I must work. I insist I take this time. I love my work.’ It’s a habit. Just get into it and pass it on to your other friends. Women who love their work do good work. Women who kind of sneak around and have to feel guilty about it can’t do their best work.
LANGFIELD: Part of your work on this book was to interview many comedians. Tell me what you think of Jon Stewart.
THOMAS: I love him. I’m totally in love with him. He’s hilarious, brilliant. I don’t go to bed until I watch him. He is the best.
LANGFIELD: Stephen Colbert?
THOMAS: Oh, he’s done something that no one has ever done ever on television. He has created a persona and he sticks to it. When I interviewed him, I said to him, ‘the first time I saw your show I thought it was brilliant and I said to my husband, ‘this show isn’t going to last three weeks. Nobody can carry this on.’ And he said ‘That’s what my wife said.’ It’s genius what he’s done. Complete genius.
LANGFIELD: Kathy Griffin?
THOMAS: Oh, she’s so outrageous! I love her because she truly doesn’t care. She reminds of Cher, in that way. She says what she believes and she had a father like that. Her fearlessness is admirable.
LANGFIELD: Joan Rivers?
THOMAS: I love Joan Rivers. She is the ultimate, most obsessed comic I’ve ever met. She said ‘comedy is my drug.’ And God bless her. She’s still going strong. She still does her act every week at some club in New York. The dedication to her craft? Wow. I just love her for it.
LANGFIELD: Jerry Seinfeld?
THOMAS: Seinfeld is brilliant. And I think he is like the old time comedians I grew up with. He goes out on the road and he hones his act. He’s got a zillion dollars, he’s probably the most famous comedian in the country but he is completely committed to the craft. He went out on the road without one old joke, to create a whole new act. That is such dedication. I bow to it.
LANGFIELD: What’s left for you to so?
THOMAS: I’ve got to do standup before I die, I’ll tell you that.
Marlo may not be a Senator yet, but somewhere, it’s a sure thing, Danny Thomas is smiling.