One of Marlo Thomas’ first TV roles was on her father Danny Thomas’ sitcom Make Room for Daddy in 1961. The show’s title proved apt, as the actress has always made room for her dad in her heart and her life. “He was just so much fun and so loving,” Marlo told Closer Weekly at the recent Ms. Foundation for Women Gloria Awards in New York City. “He unconditionally loved me.”
Danny never grew tired of telling that to Marlo. “I was ‘the smartest girl who was ever born’ and ‘the prettiest girl who was ever born,'” says Marlo, 81. “He was a very affirmative dad to me, my sister [Terre] and my brother [Tony]. I would call him on the phone and he would say, ‘Hello, my beauty.'”
But Danny didn’t just give his daughter compliments; he also shared his wisdom. “He taught me to notice what’s going on around you, notice people who are being bullied or aren’t stepping up to the plate,” Marlo recalls. “If you notice things, you’re going to act. But most of us go through life in the clouds, thinking about our next party, promotion, job or date.”
Not Marlo. She’s followed in her father’s footsteps by raising millions as the national outreach director for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which Danny founded in 1962. “I always feel my father’s presence when I go to St. Jude,” Marlo shares. “I wear his ring all the time — it’s a kind of talisman for me. When things get tough, I touch it and think, ‘Dad, let’s do this together.’”
The greatest lesson Marlo learned from Danny? “That I should wear blinders in life and not look at any of the other horses and just run my own race,” she says. “It’s being true to yourself and knowing that your destiny is something only you can figure out. And if you try to change that to become like someone else, you won’t get to where you’re supposed to get.”
Danny isn’t the only relative who’s had a profound influence on Marlo’s life, however. Her paternal grandmother, Margaret Taouk, was an immigrant from Lebanon who came through Ellis Island. “She taught me to be simple, pure, kind and loving to people,” Marlo told Closer at the recent Ellis Island Medals of Honor ceremony. “She had 10 babies with no doctor — just hot water and her sister. When she died, the priest said, ‘Don’t pray for this woman. Pray to her.’”
Marlo’s mom, Rose Marie Thomas, had a powerful impact on her as well. “What I got from my mother — and this is something that’s become more apparent to me as I’ve gotten older — was a complete devotion and sacrifice that helped me to become who I am,” says Marlo, whose mother gave up a promising career as a singer to raise her kids. “During the feminist movement in the ’70s, the fact that my mother had given up so much played in the back of my head all the time and I fought, lobbied and marched, in many ways, for her. And to help women everywhere know that, if it was their choice, they could have families and live their dreams.”
The importance of family has continued to resonate with Marlo throughout her marriage to Phil Donahue, 83; the couple will celebrate their 40th anniversary next year. “We leave time for each other,” Marlo explains of the secret to their long-lasting happiness. “We take vacations alone on our anniversary — we’ve done that since the first year of our marriage. It’s kind of a ritual for us.”
Marlo even cherishes fictional relatives like Jennifer Aniston, who played her daughter on Friends. “I have a lot of gratitude towards her,” Marlo says. “She helps St. Jude, and she’s wonderful with the children.” That’s what friends — and family — are for.
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