Marlo Thomas: Trailblazing Actress and Activist
User avatar
Curated by
5 min read
1 month ago
Marlo Thomas, the trailblazing actress and activist, rose to fame with her groundbreaking sitcom "That Girl," portraying one of television's first single, independent career women.

Thomas' Early Years and Education
Marlo Thomas was born Margaret Julia Thomas on November 21, 1937, in Detroit, Michigan, to Lebanese-American comedian Danny Thomas and his wife Rose Marie Cassaniti, who was of Italian descent. She had two siblings - a brother Tony Thomas and a sister Terre Thomas, both of whom later pursued careers in the entertainment industry. Thomas was raised in Beverly Hills, California, where her family was part of the entertainment business circle. As a child, she was nicknamed "Margo" but it soon became "Marlo" due to her mispronunciation of the name. After attending Marymount High School in Los Angeles, Thomas graduated from the University of Southern California with a teaching degree, having initially been dissuaded from pursuing an acting career. She was a member of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority during her time at USC. favicon favicon favicon
5 sources


The Breakthrough Role of Marlo Thomas: Ann Marie in 'That Girl' (1966-1971)
Marlo Thomas achieved her breakthrough role as Ann Marie in the sitcom "That Girl" (1966-1971), which broke new ground by portraying an independent single woman pursuing an acting career and living alone in New York City. The show was revolutionary for featuring one of television's first leading characters who was not defined by her relationship to a husband or family. Ann Marie defied traditional gender norms of the era by rejecting marriage in favor of following her dreams and supporting herself through odd jobs. Thomas co-developed and produced "That Girl" through her own production company, insisting on the show's feminist premise despite network skepticism that audiences would accept an unmarried working woman as the lead. Her performance as the plucky, determined Ann Marie made Thomas a household name and cultural icon. She won a Golden Globe for Best TV Star in 1967 and earned four Emmy nominations over the show's five-season run. In the final episode, Thomas famously refused demands from the writers, network, and sponsor to have Ann Marie get married, stating "It's a betrayal to all the girls who watched the show." Her steadfast portrayal of an empowered single woman was groundbreaking for its time and paved the way for subsequent female-led series like "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." favicon favicon favicon
5 sources


Trailblazing Actress and Activist (Photos)

Acclaimed Awards and Honors

Marlo Thomas has received numerous prestigious awards and honors throughout her illustrious career in recognition of her groundbreaking work in entertainment and activism:
Emmy Awards1967, 1968, 1970, 1971, 1974, 1986Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, Outstanding Children's Special
Golden Globe Award1967Best TV Star - Female
Peabody Award-Television
Grammy Award2006Best Spoken Word Album for Children (for "Thanks & Giving All Year Long")
Presidential Medal of Freedom2014Nation's highest civilian honor, for philanthropic leadership
Broadcasting Hall of FameInducted-
Women in Film Lucy Award1996Excellence and innovation enhancing the perception of women through television
Thomas has also received the Helen Caldicott Award for Nuclear Disarmament, ACLU's Thomas Paine Award, American Women in Radio and Television Satellite Award, William Kunstler Racial Justice Award, National Civil Rights Museum Freedom Award, Jefferson Award for Public Service, American Cancer Society Humanitarian Award, and Castle Connolly National Health Leadership Award for her activism and philanthropic efforts. favicon favicon favicon
5 sources


Thomas' Notable Film and TV Roles

Marlo Thomas has an extensive acting career spanning over six decades in film, television, and theater. Some of her major credits include:
1966-1971That GirlAnn MarieBreakthrough sitcom role, Golden Globe win, 4 Emmy noms
1970JennyJennyGolden Globe nomination for New Star
1977ThievesSally Cramer
1977It Happened One ChristmasMary Bailey HatchTV movie, also producer
1984The Lost Honor of Kathryn BeckKathryn BeckTV movie, Emmy nomination
1985Consenting AdultTess LyndTV movie, Golden Globe nomination
1986Nobody's ChildMarie BalterTV movie, Emmy win
1994-2002FriendsSandra GreenRecurring role as Rachel's mom
1997The Real BlondeBlairRomantic comedy film
2012LOLGranComedy film with Miley Cyrus
2017The Female BrainLynneComedy film
2018Ocean's 8ReneHeist comedy with ensemble cast
In addition to acting, Thomas has produced acclaimed TV specials like Free to Be...You and Me (1974) and Free to Be...a Family (1988), winning Emmys for Outstanding Children's Programming. She has appeared in numerous Broadway and off-Broadway plays over the years. favicon favicon favicon
5 sources


Entertainer and Philanthropist (Interviews)


Marlo Thomas' Marriage and Family
Marlo Thomas married television host Phil Donahue on May 21, 1980, after meeting him as a guest on his talk show in 1977. It was Thomas' first marriage and Donahue's second. Through this union, Thomas became a stepmother to Donahue's five children - four sons and one daughter - from his previous marriage to Margaret Cooney. Regarding her role as a stepparent, Thomas shared with AARP Magazine in 2011, "From the very first day, I decided that I was not going to try to be a 'mother' to Phil's children in the traditional sense—they already had a mom—but, instead, to be their friend." In recent years, the 85-year-old Thomas has remained active in the entertainment industry with roles in films and television shows. She continues her philanthropic work, particularly her advocacy for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital as its National Outreach Director. Thomas also engages directly with fans through social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and her website favicon favicon favicon
5 sources


Marlo Thomas: St. Jude Advocacy and Fundraising
Marlo Thomas has dedicated herself to philanthropic causes, most notably serving as the National Outreach Director for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, founded by her father Danny Thomas in 1962. She created the annual Thanks and Giving campaign in 2004 to raise funds and awareness for St. Jude, which provides free treatment to children with cancer regardless of their family's ability to pay. The campaign has raised over $1 billion for the hospital through partnerships with corporations, celebrities, and public donations during the holiday season. Thomas is also a co-founder of the Ms. Foundation for Women, established in 1973 to support women's social, economic, and political equality. Among its landmark initiatives was creating the nation's Take Our Daughters to Work Day to expose girls to career opportunities. Her advocacy has earned numerous honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014 for her philanthropic leadership. favicon favicon favicon
5 sources

Free to Be...You and Me

Free to Be... You and Me
Free to Be... You and Me
Children's entertainment project
Conceived by
Marlo Thomas
Release date
November 1972
Gender neutrality, individuality, tolerance, and comfort with one's identity
Free to Be... You and Me is a pioneering children's entertainment project created by Marlo Thomas in 1972, featuring songs, stories, and sketches that challenged traditional gender roles and celebrated individuality. The album, book, and later TV special brought together celebrities like Alan Alda, Rosey Grier, Michael Jackson, and Diana Ross to promote values of tolerance and self-acceptance. Deemed culturally significant, it was inducted into the National Recording Registry in 2021. The project's enduring impact on promoting gender neutrality and empowering children has been analyzed by scholars and commemorated on its 40th anniversary. favicon favicon favicon
5 sources


Marlo Thomas' Children's Project

Free To Be... You And Me - YouTube
Free To Be... You...


Closing Thoughts

Marlo Thomas has enjoyed a multifaceted career as an acclaimed actress, producer, author, and activist. Beyond her iconic sitcom role, she starred in numerous acclaimed television movies like The Lost Honor of Kathryn Beck, Consenting Adult, and Nobody's Child, earning an Emmy and multiple Golden Globe nominations for her powerful dramatic performances. Thomas was also a trailblazer for women in business, co-creating and producing her own series That Girl through her production company at a time when female showrunners were rare. Throughout her decades-spanning career, Thomas has balanced her artistic endeavors with passionate advocacy work. As co-founder of the Ms. Foundation for Women, she has championed gender equality and women's empowerment. And as National Outreach Director for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, she has spearheaded major fundraising campaigns like Thanks and Giving that have raised over $1 billion for the institution founded by her father. Her manifold achievements as an entertainer, businesswoman, author, and philanthropist have garnered her the Presidential Medal of Freedom and induction into the Broadcasting Hall of Fame, among other prestigious honors. favicon favicon favicon
5 sources
what are some of Marlo Thomas's most memorable performances on Broadway
how did Marlo Thomas's activism influence her career choices
what are some of Marlo Thomas's contributions to children's education
Keep Reading