Many well-known and highly identifiable actresses have tried and failed to make the arduous crossover from fizzy TV sitcom star to mature, dramatic artist. Usually, it was their hardcore fans who refused to accept them in any other light. Sally Field and Elizabeth Montgomery come to mind first as two actresses who somehow managed to make the none-too-easy adjustment. Marlo Thomas became another success story as well--but, like the others, it was none too easy. Adorable to a fault, Marlo seemed to have nowhere to go after the early 1970s when the cute and wholesome Ann Marie of That Girl (1966) was suddenly no more.
Born in Deerfield, Michigan, on November 21, 1937, to parents of Lebanese origin, Marlo was christened Margaret Julia Thomas. She was raised in the mad whirl of the entertainment business as the daughter of show business legend Danny Thomas, who was very determined that she not become an actress, at least until after college graduation. She actually began her adult life as a schoolteacher, but it was a very half-hearted career choice.
Marlo began with early TV appearances in the late 1950s on such series as The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959), Zane Grey Theater (1956) and Thriller (1960) Her first major break came when she was cast as Joey Bishop's sister and aspiring actress on the 1961 sitcom The Joey Bishop Show (1961) for one season. She continued to build up her resume with assorted guest shots on Bonanza (1959), McHale's Navy (1962), The Donna Reed Show (1958) and Ben Casey (1961). Following her delightful work on the London stage with "Barefoot in the Park" in 1965, she was finally given the opportunity to test for her own sitcom and passed with flying colors. Audiences adored the romantic entanglements and struggling ambition of "Ann Marie", a single, independent and very trendy young woman trying to make it as an actress in New York City. Marlo became an instant household name (as did co-star Ted Bessell) and nabbed a Golden Globe and four Emmy nominations during the show's five-year run.
Following its demise in 1971, however, Marlo was faced with a problem: being stereotyped as a perky, wide-eyed innocent. Capitalizing on her TV fame, she tried to shatter her lightweight image with a serious film part. Playing the title role of Jenny (1970) opposite Alan Alda, Marlo starred as an unwed pregnant girl who marries a filmmaker out of convenience. Although the valiant effort brought her a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Newcomer, audiences stayed away in droves, much preferring her to be chipper and upbeat. She made her Broadway debut in the Herb Gardner play "Thieves" in 1974, and later made another stab at films by recreating her role for the big screen. The reviews for Thieves (1977) were less than ecstatic and no other strong offers came her way.
Marlo decided to lay low for a time and wound up combining her deep love for children and education with her own career. She won bookend Emmy Awards as both star and producer of the children's specials Free to Be... You & Me (1974) in 1974 and Free to Be... a Family (1988). The album of the former continues to be in-print to the present day. By the late 1970s, however, audiences finally had stopped seeing her as only "Ann Marie". She earned renewed respect by stretching herself in TV movies. In the ABC holiday mini-movie It Happened One Christmas (1977), she played a troubled female version of James Stewart's It's a Wonderful Life (1946) character. She also won critical acclaim in the social, made-for-TV dramas The Lost Honor of Kathryn Beck (1984) and Consenting Adult (1985). She also copped an additional Emmy trophy as Best Actress in a Special for Nobody's Child (1986). Her subsequent return visits to Broadway with "Social Security" (1986) and "The Shadow Box" (1994) were rewarding as well. She has certainly not shied away from demanding theater roles, such as "Beatrice" in "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds" (1990), "Martha" in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1992) and Ouisa in "Six Degrees of Separation" (1992).
Although Marlo wed rather late in life, her enduring show business marriage since 1980 to talk-show icon Phil Donahue clearly indicates that the waiting was worthwhile. Still quite active on TV, she has continued to be a joy in everything from classic comedy (such as playing Jennifer Aniston's mom in Friends (1994)) to adult drama (as a lawyer/mentor in the highly-rated crime drama Law & Order (1990)).
Younger brother Tony Thomas and sister Terre Thomas have also had leanings toward show business. Tony has been a prolific TV and film producer over the years, and Terre has dabbled as an actress, once having a guest role on Marlo's sitcom, That Girl (1966). On a more personal level, Marlo has continued the tradition of her late father as both spokesperson and humanitarian for St. Jude's Children's Hospital for cancer research.