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One On 1: Actress Marlo Thomas Shares Laughs, Memories

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Marlo Thomas' career has spanned four decades, influencing generations of women and men with her acting roles, books, and charity efforts. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One on 1" report.

Central Park means a lot to Marlo Thomas and her husband, former talk show host Phil Donahue, so she put those feelings in writing.

"There's a bench [in the park] that I dedicated to my husband and I for our anniversary one year," says Thomas.

Thomas has lived in New York City for almost 30 years. For generations, the image of her character as the aspiring New York actress in her popular 1960's series "That Girl" is still vivid. This Grammy, Peabody, and four-time Emmy Award-winning actress still appears on stage and screen.

She has also written six books. In her latest, "Growing Up Laughing," Thomas is looking back, interviewing funny people about their childhoods and recalling her own youth with her father, actor and comedian Danny Thomas.

"My friends always said to me, 'You should be writing these down, these are great stories, nobody grew up like this!' -- with Milton Berle doing their card tricks at their birthday parties and George Burns at the dinner table," she says of her childhood.

When Thomas was growing up in Beverly Hills, her parents never had to worry about her staying out late.

"I couldn't wait to be back home before the comics left. I wanted to be part of the cigar-smoking, brandy stuff happening in the living room," she remembers.

She has stories aplenty to tell, and to hear. Her new web site, marlothomas.com, is designed to give women of her generation and the generations that have watched her through the years a place to talk on the Internet.

"There isn't a place for grown up women to say 'What the hell is going on with my life?' and 'Why is there not this?' and 'Why are people saying that I'm no longer marketable?' and 'Why can't I get a job at 45?' and on and on. There's a lot of that happening," says Thomas.

The work Thomas is doing now with her web site, and the reaction she got from the work for which she's best known, are strongly connected.

Thomas says "That Girl," a show about a young aspiring actress running her own life and not simply waiting to get married, elicited serious letters from young women, pregnant teenagers and abused houswives with nowhere to go.

"That mail really did turn me into a feminist. It really turned me into someone with a -'Wait a minute, these women can't have these bad breaks and no place to go,'" she says.

Then, a few years later, she wasn't happy with the children's books for a new niece.

"I said to my sister Terre, 'This is all the same garbage we read. The prince is gonna come along and he's going to make everything better and all about being a passive --waiting for the shoe to fit kind of thing. There's got to be other stuff out there.' And there really wasn't," recalls Thomas.

As a result, she channeled her frustration and created the book, record, and show "Free To Be You And Me." With its themes of cooperation, independence, role models and global community, "Free To Be You And Me" earned Thomas both Emmy and Peabody Awards and is still performed today.

The project's impact has been felt in pop culture, from hit television show "Sex And The City" to even the highest court of the land.

"I called Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Supreme Court Justice Ginsberg, and I wanted her to be part of my 'Right Words' book, and she agreed, and I said to her, 'Do you even know who I am?' because she's so great and I'm just a regular person, and she says, "Oh yes, I love 'Free To Be You And Me!'" says Thomas.

She spends much of her time serving as the national outreach director for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, which her father founded. When Danny Thomas was a struggling young comedian, he made a promise to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, to do something great if he ever made it big.

By the early 1960s, he had achieved success, and helped create St. Jude in Memphis, Tenn. Its location, in a then-segregated city, came thanks to an item in the newspaper.

"He read about this little boy, a black child in Mississippi hit by a car and died because no emergency room would take him. And he said, 'That's it, I'm putting it in the South.' And it was supposed to go near St. Louis or Boston, but he completely changed, and said, 'I want to put it in the South, so that every kid gets a fair chance at this,'" recalls Thomas.

Occasionally, her father used situations from his daughter's life on his show "Make Room For Daddy."

"I was furious, just furious, because 'everybody is gonna know it was me that had the first bra!' It was like some embarrassing thing," she says.

When she told her father that she too wanted to go into show business, he disapproved strongly. Thomas says her father's response was at least in part connected to his upbringing in a family of struggling Lebanese immigrants.

"He used to say to me, "You could be a senator, you could be a governor, for God's sake. Why would you want this lousy business?" Because that, to him, was success in America. You know, that's an educated person's role," she says.

Thomas was firm in her decision, but she worried about escaping her father's shadow, even contemplating changing her name. It was then that Danny Thomas spoke the words that his daughter would never forget.

"'You're a thoroughbred. I raised you to be a thoroughbred, and thoroughbreds run their own races. They put on their blinders and run, and that's what you have to do,'" she recalls her father saying.

That race eventually led to the show 'That Girl.' She was the star of the show, but few people knew that her company, Daisy Productions, also produced it.

She says due to the climate in Hollywood in the mid-1960s, she kept that fact quiet in order to hire, in her words, "really powerful men."

"I was definitely the boss, I sign the checks, I hire and fire people, but I thought if I give them the titles it'll be better off. If you have power, you don't need a title," explains Thomas.

One of Thomas' most vivid images from that period came from a meeting with a William Morris agent and her soon-to-be lifelong friend, Gloria Steinem. Thomas says the man started the meeting by saying that he didn't know which woman he'd rather sleep with first.

"Why are we being treated this way? It was not a compliment. And I think men in those days thought it was a compliment," says Thomas.

Thomas was adamant that her character in 'That Girl' not get married. Offscreen, she also said she never wanted to get married. But then she met Phil Donahue and, at age 42, was suddenly married to a man with five children, helping to raise four of them.

"Before I met Phil, my social life was always in pencil, and my work life was always in ink on my calendar. So the social life could always be turned around. [I] could always erase that and put work in there if I needed to. The work life was in pen, and that was never going to be erased. Those were my responsibilities," she says.

From her Fifth Avenue apartment, she coordinates a schedule filled with writing, philanthropy, a new web site, and stage and screen roles, never knowing when she might meet someone affected by her work.

"Somebody comes up to me on the street ... and they say to me, 'Wow, 'Free To Be You And Me' had such an impact on my life,' or 'If it hadn't been for 'That Girl,' I wouldn't have moved to the big city,' I mean, that means everything to me," she says.

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