I was 4 years old when “That Girl” premiered on ABC in 1966. “Batman,” starring Adam West, had premiered just a few months earlier. When I overheard my 15-year-old sister and my mother talking about “That Girl,” it sounded to me like a sort of amalgam of Batman and Catwoman. I was fully expecting another show about a super hero, but this time, a female.
Looking back now, that is, in a way, what I got. She may not have been fighting the likes of the Penguin or the Riddler, but she certainly was challenging the well-established television norms of a woman’s place in society.
From a young age, I watched Marlo Thomas as Anne Marie in “That Girl,” taking for granted that her life, as portrayed on the comedy, could be my life. Being an independent woman was a given. I could grow up, have my own career, my own apartment, a boyfriend who would put up with any crazy antics that I was capable of, and be happy, just like Anne.
As a child of the late ’60s and early ’70s, what did I know, really, about the women’s movement, and the battles that were being fought — on my behalf — by the women a generation ahead of me on the front lines? Anything was possible.
My sister and I continued to faithfully watch “That Girl” throughout its five-year run. Anne Marie/Marlo Thomas was, without question, our primary role model in life. Being dark-haired and Semitic-looking, we copied her as best we could. When she lost her signature bangs in favor of a more sophisticated hairstyle — with the part straight down the middle — we followed suit. We went from turtlenecks to peasant dresses, following lockstep with “That Girl.”
By the time I became a teenager, “That Girl” had completed its run, but I still devotedly watched reruns, and continued my attempt at being a Marlo Thomas doppelganger. I ringed my eyes in black, liquid liner. (I still do.) I even tried my hand at full, false eyelashes. I copied her relentlessly, and secretly hoped that people would notice our uncanny resemblance, and mention it out loud. Alas, no one ever did.
So, when I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Thomas in person last month when she came to town to address the National Council of Jewish Women, I have to admit, I was a bit starstruck. Honestly, if I could have chosen one celebrity from that era of television to meet, I am pretty certain it would have been Marlo Thomas.
Still beautiful at 75, still funny, and still incredibly intelligent and eloquent, Marlo Thomas is more of an inspiration today than she was back in her “That Girl” days.
Though she still performs on stage and on television (she portrayed Jennifer Aniston’s mother in “Friends”), she dedicates herself to her own version of tikkun olam, repairing the things that she sees wrong with the world. Most impressively, she raises $800 million dollars every year to keep St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital — founded by her father, Danny Thomas — running and permitting it to treat all children with life-threatening illnesses free of charge. St. Jude, she told me, was the “patron saint of hopeless causes.” When Danny Thomas was having trouble launching his career, he prayed to St. Jude, and promised that if his prayers were answered, he would build a tribute to the saint.
“My father promised that no child would ever be turned away from St. Jude,” Thomas said. “No family pays for anything. We pay for all expenses, including travel.”
Marlo Thomas never intended to get involved with St. Jude’s. But following her father’s death in 1991, she and her sister and brother visited the hospital in Memphis, Tenn. Marlo sat in the car for a while, finding it difficult to go inside, but when she finally did, she walked into a party in the lobby. When she asked whose birthday it was — and was told it was not a birthday party, but an “off-chemo” party — she saw the hope of St. Jude’s hospital playing out in real time. She was smitten with these children celebrating a chance at life, and has devoted a huge part of her own life to helping them get well.
This Lebanese/Italian American, who began her career in comedy, has, simply put, evolved into a tzadik.
At a time of life when many other women her age are kicking back and winding down, Marlo Thomas is forging ahead. She hosts an inspirational website, sharing the stories of women changing their destinies. She has launched an antibullying campaign. She is an established author and producer (remember “Free to Be, You and Me?”), and has a new book coming out next year.
So, what I found after meeting Marlo Thomas in person last month is that she remains a role model for me. I may be past the point of changing my hairstyle to try to resemble her, but I can look to her as a living example of the possibilities for a woman into her senior years.
As she told me in our interview: “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
(Toby Tabachnick, a staff writer for the Chronicle, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)