To Generations X and Y, actor, author and activist Marlo Thomas ’59 might be familiar as Rachel’s mother on the hit series Friends. But to earlier generations, she’s Ann Marie, TV’s first independent single woman, in the groundbreaking sitcom That Girl.
Until the series premiered in September 1966, television had never seen a woman like Ann Marie, an aspiring actress who left home to follow her dreams, worked odd jobs to support herself and shunned marriage.
“It was fun to do it for that reason—there’s nothing better than being first,” says Thomas, who helped develop and run the show through her own production company. “It’s just a great feeling to realize you’re doing something so original.”
A theater lover, Thomas first took center stage at the 1958 Trolios, USC’s homecoming variety show, where she and her Kappa Alpha Theta sorority sisters performed the classic Leonard Bernstein number “Gee, Officer Krupke” from West Side Story.
“They asked me to do the lead, and I didn’t really want to because I’m not much of a singer,” Thomas says. “But I did it, and we won the sweepstakes prize. And my dad said that night, ‘Oh my God, you’ve got the [acting] bug!’”
Thomas graduated from USC with degrees in education and English. She found her big break in 1965 when she landed the lead in a television pilot, and though the show wasn’t picked up, ABC and a major sponsor, Clairol, saw a potential TV star.
“This was an opportunity that doesn’t come to many people,” Thomas says. “A network and a sponsor want you, when you’re nobody?”
To her dismay, the scripts they sent were about “the wife of somebody, the secretary of somebody, the daughter of somebody,” she says. “I said to [ABC’s chief programming executive] Edgar Scherick, ‘Have you ever thought about doing a show about a girl who is the somebody?’” Scherick doubted that anybody would watch, but eventually relented, thanks to Thomas’ persistence.
Featuring a new, modern kind of role model, That Girl became a hit, paving the way for The Mary Tyler Moore Show and other female-centric series. Unexpected, however, were the heartbreaking letters Thomas received from pregnant teens and battered wives with nowhere to turn for support.
“That really did politicize me. … That made me an activist,” says Thomas, who co-founded the Ms. Foundation for Women.
After That Girl’s five-year run, Thomas produced the acclaimed children’s record and TV special Free to Be… You and Me, starred in several dramatic TV movies, authored books and won multiple awards, including four Emmys, a Golden Globe and a Grammy. In 2013, Town and Gown of USC honored her with its Town and Gown Lifetime Achievement Award for her work in the arts. In 2014, President Barack Obama presented Thomas with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award a civilian can receive.
Today, Thomas continues to pursue her passion for the arts and children’s health. She is national outreach director for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which was founded by her father, entertainer Danny Thomas. You’ll also find her on stage and screen: Besides guest appearances on TV shows, she’s working on a contemporary version of Free to Be… You and Me and busily prepping for a new Broadway play.