Marlo Thomas, the first single girl to front her own sitcom in the ’60s, has come full circle playing one of those women who can’t do anything for themselves in the new play George Is Dead. The play, being staged at the Arizona Theatre Company, was written by Thomas' friend, comedy legend Elaine May (The Birdcage and Heaven Can Wait).
“It’s about marriage, and it’s about rich people and poor people, and Republicans and Democrats, and it’s also about a woman facing reality,” Thomas said. “It’s also hysterically funny — and I come from a family of comedians, so (it's a pleasure) for me to find something that’s that good a part and that good a story and where the comedy is really that strong.”
Thomas, daughter of legendary television pioneer Danny Thomas, began her career as kooky wannabe actress Ann Marie on That Girl, then created the pivotal children’s show, Free to Be, You and Me in the early ’70s. In George Is Dead, Thomas plays Doreen, a rich society wife whose entire existence is “being George’s wife.” It seems a strange role since in That Girl it was so important to Thomas that her character not get married.
“When I graduated from USC as an English teacher, all of my girlfriends were getting married – I was a bridesmaid like 17 times, and I thought, ‘I don’t want to get married!’” Thomas said in a phone interview during a break from rehearsal. “I had so many dreams that I wanted to fulfill. I couldn’t get enough of life, so to me, if I got married, I’d end up like my mother, who gave up her singing career and had three children and pretty much became ‘Mrs. Somebody.’”
Although Ann got engaged to Donald in the last season, That Girl didn’t end with a wedding. “I really felt that that would be a cop-out to all the girls who’d grown up on it and loved it and trusted Ann Marie – that if she got married in the last show, that would say that that was the only ‘happy ending.’ There are lots of happy endings … I think it was really important to keep the dream open.”
Written as a way to teach her niece Dionne about life, Thomas’ Free to Be, You and Me taught a whole generation about tolerance, acceptance and not putting up with gender stereotypes, including a forward-thinking scene about a boy who likes to play with dolls. Thirty-five years later, Thomas said, “I think socially we’re doing way better. We’re not there yet for gays and for women, or anybody, but we’re better off than we were when my niece was born in the ’70s.”
In addition to her career as an actress, Thomas is a tireless advocate for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, founded by her father, for seriously ill children who can’t afford medical treatment. George Is Dead took a week off for Thanksgiving, so that Thomas can raise money for St. Jude’s. “It’s a really tough economy, and my father made a promise in 1962 when he opened the doors to St. Jude’s that no child would ever be turned away if their family couldn’t pay. That’s a very big promise to keep, and we have kept it since 1962,” Thomas said.
Arizona Theatre Company's production of George Is Dead continues through December 6 at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix. For more information, see their official website.
Interview by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.