Actress-author-activist Marlo Thomas

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The four-time Emmy winner unpacks her latest text, It Ain’t Over… Till It’s Over, about inspirational women who’ve reinvented themselves.

Actress, producer, best-selling author and passionate activist are all evidenced on Marlo Thomas' résumé. The recipient of four Emmys, a Golden Globe, Grammy and the Peabody Award, she was inducted into the Broadcasting Hall of Fame for her TV work, which includes the landmark series, That Girl. The Michigan native supports women's rights and children's causes and works tirelessly for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, founded by her legendary show business dad, Danny Thomas. Her books include the Free to Be… series, a memoir and, her latest, It Ain't Over…Till It's Over. Thomas also narrates the Investigation Discovery series, Happily Never After.


Tavis: There are so many tent pole accomplishments for Marlo Thomas. She’s just about invented the independent, career-minded, single woman on television, with her groundbreaking series from the ’60s, which I still watch on cable, (laughter) “That Girl.”

She was a founding member of the Ms. Foundation for Women and championed letting kids be kids with her CD and series “Free to Be You and Me.” Love that thing that you and Harry Belafonte did together.

Marlo Thomas: Oh, weren’t we cute?

Tavis: I loved that. Yes, you were. (Laughter) At least you were. Sorry, Mr. B. (Laughter) Now she’s written a new tome called “It Ain’t Over…Till It’s Over,” about never letting go of your dreams. What else from Marlo Thomas? Marlo, good to have you back on this program.

Thomas: Thank you.

Tavis: Why this, and why now?

Thomas: Well I travel a lot to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and as I go around the country and a lot of women come to see me, and they’re all stuck.

They’re stuck for all kinds of reasons. Women over 40, mostly. They’ve been laid off, lost their job, their husband died or they got a divorce, or they had this great dream, which was to raise a family.

Now they’re 42 years old and their daughter has a driver’s license and their son’s going to college and they’re out of a job, so their dream ran out on them. So there’s so many reasons why women who’ve been out of the job market now have to come up with a new way to take care of themselves.

Themselves and their children, or themselves, period, because they’re on their own. Some of these women had really hit bottom. One woman was absolutely homeless and started a company by inventing straws and party goods and sold them on eBay and Etsy, and sleeping on her friends’ couches. One woman ran away from an abusive marriage.

It’s interesting, I’ve never thought about it before, but when a woman runs away from home, the only thing she takes is her kids. They don’t have any clothes on; they have what they have on their back.

So another woman started a company to make clothes to give to women who’d run away with their children. There are women – one woman came up with something called “Commando Underwear,” which I’m wearing at this moment. (Laughter) And it’s –

Tavis: I won’t ask you to prove it.

Thomas: No, I won’t. I’ll just tell you about it. (Laughter) But I don’t know if you notice, but women notice it. Your panty line shows or your bra line shows, it looks awful, right?

Tavis: Yes.

Thomas: This woman found a fabric and invented this thing, because she couldn’t stand it anymore, and she’s made millions. Another woman found out that she was gluten intolerant and she couldn’t find any gluten-free things that tasted good.

So she created some cookies and crackers and cakes and she thought maybe she’d make a business of it, because she needed money. Her friends said, “Oh, you’ve gone crackers,” so she named her company Mary’s Gone Crackers, and she’s made millions with her gluten-free food. (Laughter)

What I love about some of these women is they’ve taken something that they’ve already done well all their lives and they’ve made a living of it. What’s great about the Internet is you don’t have to have a storefront.

You can create something and sell it on the Internet. One woman was a graphic artist doing pretty well. She always wanted to go to med school and her father said to her, “You know what? Marry a doctor. You get a job.”

So she got a job as a graphic artist and went through school, and she was about 38 years old and she was working on a medical brochure, doing the graphics for it, and she said to her colleague, “Working on this just really reminds me how much I miss that I didn’t go to med school.”

Her colleague said, “Well you can still go to med school,” and she said, “I’m 38 years old. By the time I become a doctor, I’ll be 50.” Her friend said, “Well you’re going to be 50 anyway.”

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Thomas: So she’s a doctor. So the idea of just – everybody’s so afraid of failure. I am too. Who wants to fail? But just starting over and just saying, “I’m going to do it.”

There’s a great saying that I start off my book with that Ruth Gordon, the wonderful actress and writer, she once said, “Never face the facts or you’ll never get up in the morning.”

That’s my mantra. I have that hanging over my computer. Because you can’t face the facts. Anybody else’s facts will kill you.

Tavis: There’s so much you’ve said here that I want to go back now and get you to unpack for me. Let me just say, whatever trouble it might get me in, I want to applaud your earlier notion that for guys, and so often, guys don’t confess these things.

But for guys, panty lines are the worst. (Laughter) (Unintelligible) I just want to say that, because I agree with you on that. So I’m glad she invented those, number one.

Number two, one of my favorite movies, as my staff knows, I say this all the time, one of my favorite movies has a line in it that says, it raises a question, Marlo, which is what do you do – “Broadcast News” – what do you do when your life exceeds your dreams?

I’ve been fortunate to live a life where my life has exceeded my dreams. The flip side of that is what you said a moment ago – that for some women, their dreams run out.

I love that phrase that you used, that for some of these women, their dreams have run out. So I want to turn that into a question. What do you advise them in this book and in your own work to do when their dreams run out?

Thomas: Well look within yourself and what could be the second dream or the third dream. The second dream could be something, as I say, that you do well. Like maybe you make jewelry well, and then you can sell it in the store near you. One of the women in the book did that, and sold it on Etsy and eBay.

Maybe it’s getting together with a friend. It’s scary to do something along, so maybe you and your sister or you and your girlfriend or you and your husband or you and your mom or somebody can go into business and start together.

Maybe you make cookies, maybe you’ll make clothes. Who knows what? Baby quilts. Something that you know how to do. Or maybe you have to go back and take a class and get a new skill set, or become an intern in a field you’d like to learn.

Everybody’s love to hire you for free, so you might as well – or try that. But the thing that I’ve learned the most of all those different kinds of areas which you’ll learn about when you read all these stories is that – and I make the same mistake – it’s important to think big, but you’ve got to work small.

You’ve got to take it a step at a time and figure out okay, what do I need to do today? Call somebody? Take a loan? Take a class? Join up with somebody else? Look into myself and say, “What do I do well that I could maybe make this into a livelihood,” and go for it.

I think people don’t stop to think. They just see the overall picture. “How am I going to do this,” and they get scared. One woman told me that she invented something and she took it to QVC, and QVC turned it down. I said, “QVC is the top of the mountain.” (Laughter) Come on.

Tavis: She wanted the best, I guess.

Thomas: Come on, take your cupcakes and sell them at a bakery. Take your jewelry and sell them at a local store, and then build a momentum. One woman in here created a wallet, only because she always lost her keys, she always lost her phone, she could never find her wallet.

Her husband was always tooting the horn and saying, “Let’s go,” and she’d say, “I’m coming, I’ve got to find my keys.” So she decided she needed to make something, a little wallet or something, to put her phone, her keys, her ID and some money, and also put it with a little strap around her hand, right? She loved it.

Her friend said, “Oh, make me one.” So finally she thought maybe this is a business. So she makes these now. It’s called Cell Folio. I don’t have a piece of it; I’m not making any money from it. Cell Folio, it’s fabulous.

This little thing you put on your – you take everything with you. Even if you put it in your purse, you can pick it out and it’s all in there. So it’s about thinking. My housekeeper who’s been with me 25 years said, “Why didn’t we think of that?”

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Thomas: We’d make millions of dollars with this thing. It’s a matter of noticing what you need. Probably everybody else needs it too.

Tavis: Yeah. You ain’t got time to think about stuff like that because you’re too busy thinking of those kids at St. Jude, which is a beautiful thing to think about.

Thomas: Yes. Thank you.

Tavis: How much of this is generational? Because you mention, you’re talking women over 40 more often than not who come up and talk to you.

Thomas: Right.

Tavis: To your story earlier of the woman’s father, who told her “Just marry a doctor.” You don’t need to be a doctor, go marry a doctor.

Thomas: Right, right.

Tavis: How much of this is generational? Women, their dreams being shunted, have to do with what they were told they couldn’t do because they are women of a particular age.

Thomas: Right. I think that’s very much so, and also the culture. The culture is not saying to people, men or women over 40, “Oh come on in, we’re dying to have you.”

One woman told me she couldn’t even be the receptionist at a beauty parlor. They wanted somebody in their twenties. So there’s that against you. That’s another fact that you have to ignore.

But something that’s different about our mothers and us is that my mom and my aunts used to always talk about how much time had gone by. Oh my God, that was 50 years ago, or oh my God, look, 40 years have gone by.

Women today are more saying things like, “I’ve got 40 more years. If I’m 50 years old, I’ve got 40 more years. If I’m 60 years old, I’ve got 30 more years.” If you’re 30 years old, you’ve got 60 more years.

So there’s plenty of time to do this, and don’t panic. What I’m hoping this book does is aside from learning about and reading about 60 amazing women who pulled themselves up, I hope it’s a map.

I hope you go through it and say oh, I can take a little bit from her and a little bit from her, and I can put that together. Maybe I could do this too.

Tavis: Yet you’d be the first to admit that paternalism, sexism, is real. How do you encourage women to realize their dreams at any age when we know that paternalism and sexism and ageism, not just in this entertainment business but across the board –

Thomas: Right.

Tavis: – is a reality they have to confront?

Thomas: It’s a fact that they can change.

Tavis: Another one of those facts.

Thomas: One of the things women are very good at, and I will say it’s something that we’re better at than you guys – that’s networking. Women are not afraid to say, “I need.” They’re not afraid.

Men won’t even ask for directions. Women will tell each other when they need something. Women will tell each other when their husband is having an affair. Men don’t do that.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughs)

Thomas: Women network, so you’ve got to network in order to get out of the hole you’re in. Get a couple of friends together and start a company. One woman was in a PR firm and she wasn’t doing so well.

A friend of hers was about to deliver a baby. They were in their thirties, they weren’t even older. They were in their thirties. She said to her friend, “What can I do for you,” because her friend had been laid up waiting for the baby.

She said, “Boy, I would love a manicure and a pedicure. I feel so grubby.” She said, “I’ll get somebody to come.” Anyway, it was in Ohio. She couldn’t find anybody to go to her friend, so she started a business called Nail Taxi.

She got these girls all together and they all have their own car, and she created a dispatch system. Now she’s in something like 11 states called Nail Taxi. That isn’t even hard to do. That’s girls with cars, right, and they manicure.

She herself went back to manicure school, beauty school, and they made a company. So I’m saying it’s there.

Tavis: But the flip side though, and I think you’ll concur with me on this, the flip side, though, to women talking to each other and sharing with each other is that women will take care of – I’ve seen it with my own mama – hi, Mom. (Laughter) They will take care of everybody else first –

Thomas: Yes.

Tavis: – and neglect themselves, oftentimes.

Thomas: Right. They do, but when you hit your forties, you’ve done that already. You’ve taken care of the kids and you’ve taken care of your husband and you’re looking at your life and saying, “Okay, well, it’s my turn.” If I don’t say for myself it’s my turn, who will?

Some of these women in this book don’t even have the choice. Some women do. But some women don’t have the choice. They don’t have a husband. They’re either single or divorced or they’re widowed, and some of them got laid off.

So it’s not about being a man or a woman, it’s your laid off, and in this economy, plenty of people were laid off. How do you get out of that? You have to make a living, and you can do it by, as I say, just take it a step at a time, each thing.

If you have a dream that you want, and you and I are both dreamers or we wouldn’t be where we are, if you want to get somewhere in six months, you’re not going to get there by wishing it.

My acting teacher, Lee Strasberg, used to say, “It’s not in the head, it’s in the doing.” If every day you did one thing toward that dream that you have, in six months you’d be further along with that dream. It’d be impossible not to be.

So that’s what I’m saying. It has to be calling people, taking a loan if you need it, and that wonderful saying, “It’s not always who you know, it’s who you get to know.” Getting to know somebody that could help you.

Interning somewhere, going and taking a class, all these things are doing. You start doing, and then you’ll start living the dream.

Tavis: I want to get personal for a second here. You are an advocate for at least two distinct groups, and I celebrate your advocacy on behalf of both, in no particular order, children and women.

I want to talk about the journey that you’ve been on that’s allowed you to be a voice for both of these groups, and what a wonderful link there is, obviously, between women and children.

But you referenced St. Jude earlier, and I want to talk about the work you’re doing there, and I’ll come back to the book in just a second. I would never talk to you on this program or anyplace else and not talk about the work at St. Jude.

I got a letter from you years ago inviting me to go to St. Jude and visit, and I went, and it fundamentally changed my life, just spending a day with these children at St. Jude.

A friend of mine, Richard Snow – he may be watching, hey, Richard – just got a job at St. Jude.

Thomas: Oh, great.

Tavis: He’s an executive there. He was so excited that he got this new opportunity.

Thomas: Oh, how great. I have to look out for him. Good.

Tavis: His name is Richard Snow, you look him up.

Thomas: I will.

Tavis: Richard Snow at St. Jude. But he’s thrilled to be working there and I told him he’d have a great time if he accepted this opportunity. So he’s there in Memphis now, doing his work.

But give me an update on how the work at St. Jude is coming along. I know you spend so much of your time focused on that.

Thomas: I do, I do. Well the most important thing we do is our science that feeds our treatment, so when a child comes to St. Jude with a death sentence – and that’s the truth, Tavis; a death sentence from another hospital.

I meet fathers who tell me they’d already picked the funeral music for their child. I meet mothers who tell me that the doctor told them she had four months left to live, so take pictures of her so that you’ll have memories.

So what we do at St. Jude, the reason we’re able to save these children when others are not, it’s not because they’re bad hospitals, it’s because they’re working with what they know.

At St. Jude, we’re working with what nobody knows, because we’re a research center. Every child gets a scientist and a doctor. One of the great things we’ve been working with this last couple of years, last three years, is we now have the genome map of 700 children.

The only other place in the world that has any, it has like 10 maps. We have 700 children, so we’re able to look at those cancers and find out why does a good blood cell turn into a leukemia cell, why does a healthy brain cell become a tumor.

So we can study that now with these markers, and when we have the right marker, we can create the drug to kill that gene. That’s where it is now. The genome is everything, and we are leading that all over the world.

Tavis: Yeah. In difficult times like the recession that you referenced earlier in this conversation, what does St. Jude experience with regard to its fundraising, its giving?

Thomas: Well I’ve got to tell you, it was amazing. When it happened in 2008, when the bottom fell out, we had an electronic like board meeting, on the phone, all of us, 48 members, what we were going to do.

We discussed do we cut programs? Everybody discussed it – we can’t cut any programs. We can’t stop scientists from working on programs. Well do we take less children? Bunch of conversation – can’t take less children.

So what are we going to do? We all said, “We have to work harder,” and that year we went up 11 percent in our fundraising.

Tavis: Wow.

Thomas: We just killed ourselves.

Tavis: Wow.

Thomas: Because we won’t go back. We won’t go backward. Thank God we have about nine million constant donors to St. Jude, and some of them are $25 a month. They’re the lifeblood of St. Jude, that’s who – they’re our partners in hope.

Tavis: Yeah. So we’ve known for a long time that you and your family, your father, are long-time advocates for these children at St. Jude. But I looked up some time ago, maybe I guess a couple of years ago, and realized how frequently you were contributing to Huff Post on women’s issues.

Thomas: Yes.

Tavis: Obviously this has always mattered to you. I mentioned earlier your iconic role on “That Girl.”

Thomas: Thank you.

Tavis: Was there something about that role or something else that happened that opened a door or created a lane for you to be this voice on women’s issues?

Thomas: Here’s the – you’re a very good interviewer, you know that?

Tavis: You know, your husband was the best.

Thomas: That’s right.

Tavis: Hey, Phil. (Laughter)

Thomas: Well you’re second.

Tavis: For those who don’t know, Marlo Thomas is married to Phil Donohue, who I absolutely adore.

Thomas: Well he loves you too.

Tavis: I used to watch that guy every day when I got out of school as a kid. I love Phil Donohue.

Thomas: Yeah, he’s good, but you’re a good interviewer. It’s a very, it’s an interesting link, and I’ll try to do it quickly.

Tavis: No, take your time. It’s PBS, we got time.

Thomas: Oh, okay, good.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Thomas: When I was doing “That Girl,” I was doing a comedy show, the first single girl on television, and I was having a ball. I was receiving mail, a tremendous amount of mail, because I was the only single girl, so the girls were all writing in and they loved my hair and all that.

Then I was getting mail that said things like, “I’m 16 years old and I’m pregnant and I can’t tell my father. Where can I go?” “I’m 23 years old, I have two children, my husband beats me, I don’t have any money. Where can I go?”

This was the mail I was getting. To tell you the truth, I did not know what to do. I had no idea. I came from Beverly Hills. I didn’t know anything about girls being beaten and girls getting pregnant, knowing where to go.

So my assistants and I started looking in these cities for places for these women to go and these girls to go, and there was no place for them to go in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and that politicized me.

That turned me into an activist; it turned me into a feminist. Up until then, I was a young woman happy to be a feminist on television and be leading a wonderful life. It wasn’t until then that I realized that there were so many women who had no hope at all of getting anywhere.

Of getting out of an abusive marriage, of what to do with a pregnancy, terrified of a father, terrified of being thrown out. Then I would get mail from gay kids saying, “I can’t come out to my parents.”

So I was getting a lot of mail from people who had no one else to talk to that was their age, because I was the youngest star on television at that time.

Tavis: What do you make – I’m looking at the back of this book. By the way, it’s a great book cover.

Thomas: Thank you.

Tavis: It continues on the back.

Thomas: Yes.

Tavis: There’s some strong endorsements on this book, one of them from Sheryl Sandberg, which leads me to ask, given the fact that you have been – I want to be gracious here – a long-distance runner (laughter) in these struggles, what do you make of the progress, the pace of progress, the rate of progress, that women have or have not made in our society since “That Girl” and all those letters you were receiving?

Thomas: Well a lot’s happened. Those women today do have a place to go for safety and for legal information, and you don’t have to be rich to get it. So that’s very important.

Somebody like Sheryl Sandberg has this, and not only a book called “Lean In,” but a whole movement for women to try to encourage women to lean into their careers rather than being frightened and afraid of the sexist backlash and so forth that we’ve all felt, especially in our early years.

But we have, when I was growing up, there were no women anchors on television. Now you can’t turn on cable without seeing women as anchors, women as financial experts.

Diane Sawyer with “ABC News,” you go to the Senate, there’s only 20 women, but in my day there were no women. I remember when my father took me to stand over the Senate gallery when I was 16 years old.

He was so proud to take his daughter to D.C., and I looked over, and I didn’t even know I was a feminist, and I said, “Daddy, there aren’t any women.” (Laughter) My father hadn’t even noticed it.

They were all white guys with white shirts on, and suits, and there was no color, no women, no nothing. Look what’s happened. We now have a president who’s a man of color, and we have people of color and women and all, and gay people, in office.

That’s a huge difference. So are we where we want to be? No. We should be 50 percent of everything. We should certainly not only raise the wage for all people, but certainly bring women up to what men are getting paid.

It’s a constant struggle, but I don’t get depressed by it. I really don’t. I think that the women’s movement is very much like democracy – you have to keep stoking it, or people will take it away.

Nothing is a right. Everything is a privilege; everything is what we’ve fought for.

Tavis: Does that reality scare you, though, when you see what is happening to women’s rights in this particular (unintelligible)?

Thomas: Absolutely, and what’s happening to citizens’ rights. The spying, all of the things that are happening are frightening for all of us. But we all have to be a part of the solution. We all have to be pushing back and saying wait a minute. Now how do we do that? We do that at the polls.

Tavis: It’s a beautiful thing to tell the stories of about 60 women in this text, “It Ain’t Over…Till It’s Over,” but what have you learned – it occurs to me I should ask you what you’ve learned about reinventing your own life, because you have had so many incarnations, yeah.

Thomas: So many lives in mine. (Laughter)

Tavis: And you’re still doing your thing, so obviously it ain’t over. So tell me something that I should know about reinventing myself as I stay on this road.

Thomas: Well I really think that a lot of people have ideas and they dream about them. The only difference is is that I really try to act on my ideas. I really do believe that I am a resource for myself, and that I can work forward to get what I want out of life.

I’m going to ask other people, if you know somebody that knows, that is part of what I want to get to, I’m going to ask you for it. I’ve just met you a few times and I feel perfectly comfortable to call you up and say, “Tavis, I want to meet this guy that you know. Can you fix that up?”

I will do that, because I want to get to where I want to go. If you call me, I’m there. I think that’s what we have to do for each other, is help each other get to our own dreams.

Tavis: What’s the difference between – I take your point, and I agree. But what is the difference between what you’ve just described and people who act opportunistic all the time?

Thomas: Well that’s just, they’re only for themselves.

Tavis: Right.

Thomas: They’re not there for the other side. I’ll help any friend at all with anything, and I think that that’s the difference. If you’re part of a community – my father used to always say there are two kinds of people in the world: Those who stop at a traffic accident to see if they can help, and those who just drive by. He raised us, my brother and sister and I, to stop for traffic accidents.

But to stop at a traffic accident, you have to notice it. You’ve got to notice when somebody’s in trouble and say, “Look, I can help with that. I can call Tavis for you, I can do this, I can loan you some money to get you through that.”

I do that, my husband does that, I’ll be you do it, and people have done it for me through the years. I’ve been mentored by a lot of people.

Tavis: As have I, and one of them was your husband, so you’ve been there for me a couple times, because I called and he showed up. So I appreciate that. I’m glad you showed up today, as I always am.

Thomas: Thank you. Thank you.

Tavis: The new book from Marlo Thomas, this perennial “New York Times” best-selling author, is called “It Ain’t Over…Till It’s Over.” It’s worth buying just because the book is so beautiful. “Reinventing Your Life and Realizing Your Dreams Any Time at Any Age.”

She lives that every day of her life. Marlo, I love you and I’m glad to have you on this program.

Thomas: Thank you, sweetheart, thank you.

Tavis: It’s good to see you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: May 8, 2014 at 2:27 am