When looking back at TV history, and the evolving role of women in it, there seems to be this jump from June Cleaver on a show like Leave It To Beaver (the woman of the house who vacuums in a dress) to Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. And Mary, of course, leads to things like Ally McBeal and Murphy Brown. Yet somehow often left out of the discussion is That Girl, the show starring Marlo Thomas, which is actually an important stepping stone in terms of female characters who broke the mold of traditional television sitcoms in the 1960s.


(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Marlo plays Ann Marie, an aspiring (in other words, hardly employed) actress who moves from her hometown of Brewster, New York to Manhattan, where she works in a variety of temp jobs. Playing her boyfriend is Ted Bessell as Newsview Magazine writer Donald Hollinger; with Lew Parker and Rosemary DeCamp as her parents (Lew and Helen Marie), and Ruth Buzzi, Bernie Kopell, and Reva Rose as Ann and Donald's friends. Although the show was created by Bill Persky and Sam Denoff (writers on The Dick Van Dyke Show), Marlo was very much in charge as her company, Daisy Productions, owned the series, giving her power that few women wielded at the time. Naturally, she had learned from the best: Her father, Danny Thomas, whose shows include TV classics like his own Make Room For Daddy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, The Mod Squad and, of course, That Girl.


(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

"Outside of Lucille Ball with Desi Arnaz, I can't think of too many women who were savvy enough to own a show, especially when it was created by somebody else," muses Stephen Cole, a musical theatre writer and author of That Book About That Girl, in an exclusive interview. "She had been asked by ABC to come up with an idea for a show. There had been an earlier pilot that had nothing to do with this called Two's Company [one of the co-stars was Paul Lynde]. She did all the hiring and her father advised her, but the big joke was that she and Lucy were the only two female executives in TV, which the sexist guys were not happy about. The joke was, 'Where's Marlo? Oh, she's in the ladies' room with Lucy smoking a cigar.'"

He had to fight to write the official book.

So with that recognition of the show and Marlo's importance in the history of television, and the professional relationship he had established with her, Stephen was under the impression that going to Marlo and her lawyer with the book idea would be a slam dunk. It wasn't.

"She just didn't want it," he explains. "She doesn't want to be remembered for only Ann Marie and That Girl. Of course, ultimately when you do a TV series for that long, that's going to be the thing you're remembered for. When she passes away, it'll be That Girl Dies, and not all the other stuff that she's done. But I really pushed and let her know that it would never be a hatchet job, because people had done hatchet jobs about her in other books. I just said, 'This will be a love letter to the TV show,' and that worked out very well. I could have gone on and done it as an unofficial companion without her, but I knew I wanted to sit down with her for the hours that I did. And then she opened up the archives of the show for me."


(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Armed with all of that, the real question is what was it about That Girl that made the show such a standout in its time and one worth chronicling in print. "The character's independence," he says matter of factly. "It was the way she was always battling her father, who didn't live so close to her and didn't really want to let her become an independent woman. It was the generation thing. She was so determined to be an actress, and that's actually not something we saw too much of at the time. Now it seems like everybody wants to be an actress, but on that show Ann Marie did anything she possibly could to break in. She did commercials, crappy, awful Off-Broadway… I always remember one episode where she did an Off-Off-Broadway play called A Preponderance of Artichokes. I saw some play — can't remember what it was now — but it was so terrible that I sent an email to Marlo that said, 'Remember A Preponderance of Artichokes? This was as bad as that.'


(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

"Ann did all these things, because she aspired to something big, which was not just getting married and being a housewife," Stephen continues. "We had had the housewives on television, including Bewitched, where she may have been magical, but all she really wanted was to be a housewife and, given how special she was, it was like pulling herself down. Ann had the boyfriend and she had the relationship, but they ended the whole series with them being engaged, but never married. She told me that the reason for that is that she didn't want to leave those girls who were watching the show with the message that in the end you have to get married. Clairol, who was the sponsor of the show, wanted that wedding. They wanted it because wedding episodes always do big, but Marlo felt that it would have meant, 'Oh, I'm now his wife and I'm never going to get that big job in a Broadway show.' At the end of the show, she was still aspiring to those things and still getting some parts and working."

There was fantasy mixed in with the reality.

That subject was something that he discussed with the show's creators. Bill Persky, who he feels is more of a feminist than Sam Denoff was, admitted that part of it is that Marlo liked the character of the starving artist, except, as the writer pointed out, "she lived at The Plaza." Not exactly, but the point is well taken that despite her struggles, Ann seemed to be doing alright for herself financially.


(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Stephen laughs, "That's part of the appeal of the show, too. We're seeing the fantasy girl, which is the one who is in every Paris fashion [magazine] and looking gorgeous with the white boots and the miniskirts, and the hair. At the same time, I remember an episode where she went to the Automat. She had no money and had to make tomato soup out of ketchup and you sit there thinking, 'Wow, you've got great clothes, but you have no money for food.' But she did look wonderful, and we didn't want her to look too real.

"The character's background," he adds, "is that she was a school teacher, but in the end she gave up the security of that to go for the dream. So I think that was part of what people loved about watching — that she was going for a dream when she could have been more secure."


(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

That Girl made its debut on Sept. 8, 1966 (the same day as the original Star Trek, for trivia fans) and aired until March 19, 1971, filming 136 episodes in five seasons. In truth, Marlo wanted to leave the show following the fourth year, but ABC talked her into staying a fifth.

"The advertisers loved it, but it was definitely wearing out," notes Stephen. "Once Ann got engaged to Donald, then it started to get a little more conventional and they were dealing with the engagement and things like that. But the truth is, Marlo's real goal was to be a movie star. She was even interested in Broadway, and had done Barefoot in the Park in London, so she felt like she conquered that a little bit."


(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

She also went on to win four Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe, a Peabody Award, and has worked — to much acclaim — in film and on stage, written children's books, and serves as National Outreach Director for St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital (founded by her father in 1962). Yet for all that, it seems that even Marlo recognizes that it is That Girl for which she has the biggest connection with the audience, though that recognition hasn't slowed her down at all.

"Marlo was and still is a very focused and ambitious woman," Stephen observes. "I worked with her recently; she's 80 now and still pushing as hard as possible."

Would we expect anything less from that girl?