Were you around in the 1960s? If so, you might remember one particularly revolutionary show which hit TV screens that decade. We’re talking, of course, about That Girl, which starred Marlo Thomas as the titular “girl” Ann Marie. And its star was one of the producers as well, so she got a say in what happened onscreen. But this was a different era, and Thomas faced a number of roadblocks while she was making the show. So from allegedly sexist colleagues to meddling in the script, here are issues the star had to overcome – and some lesser-known facts about the program to boot.
20. It was Thomas who came up with the show’s concept
Marlo Thomas – the daughter of comedian Dan Thomas – wanted the show to be about an aspiring actress trying to make it in the big city. And this plot line was actually something very new at the time. Previously, most female-centric shows had starred leading ladies who were either housewives, mothers or maids. Though Thomas herself had never needed to struggle to get into acting, she was actually born into it.
The archetype of the cute young struggling actress is a common one these days. But back in 1966, the concept of That Girl was seen as something fresh and new. It also gave Marlo Thomas everything Ann Marie wanted to have. Thanks to the show she became a big star, plus the president of her own production company.
19. Thomas refused to run with some of the jokes
In a 2013 interview with the website ThinkProgress, Thomas claimed that she often warred with the all-male writing team during the first season of the show. She explained, “I was constantly saying, ‘A girl would not say that to her father. A girl would not say that. She’d be more diplomatic about this.’”
But there was something else which really annoyed Thomas during her time working on That Girl. She alleged that male colleagues would body shame her fellow actresses. The star remembered saying, “I don’t think it’s funny to make fun of how Ruth Buzzi looks. I don’t want a joke about an ugly girl. I don’t want to do that joke.” The writers apparently said it was hilarious. So what did Thomas do? Well, she understandably disagreed and hired a female editor instead.
18. Lew Parker died not long after the show finished
On the show, Thomas’s real father Dan often made cameo appearances, but her TV father was Lew Parker. His character – Lew Marie – also shared his first name. But sadly he died less than a year after That Girl came to an end, and at a fairly young age. He passed away from cancer two days before he would have turned 62.
And Thomas actually gave the eulogy at Parker’s funeral. In 2010 she told AARP The Magazine what her real-life comedian father had advised her with regards to that. She said that he’d told the star, “… Don’t make it sad. People want to laugh and remember somebody that they love. They don’t want you to make them cry. They’re going to cry all by themselves. Tell funny stories.”
17. Thomas had to add ‘just yet’ to a line
In 2014 Marlo Thomas did a panel about That Girl alongside Gloria Steinem and Debra Messing. Interestingly, she also revealed some tidbits people hadn’t heard before. In one line from the show, for instance, Ann Marie says, “I don’t know that I want to get married just yet.” But producers had allegedly made her add that “just yet” in there.
Thomas remembered, “It was very revolutionary, no one had ever said, ‘I don’t want to get married, I want a career.’” Steinem said that in that era women were embarrassed to prioritize work over marriage or children, “because it somehow puts the family down or puts the husband down or femininity.”
16. Ann Marie’s sunglasses had another purpose
Ann Marie was very fashionable and sometimes she’d wear a pair of sunglasses perched on her perfect hairdo. But what you may not know is that there was another reason for this. In April 2019 Marlo Thomas revealed on her Facebook page, “… I always had a pair of sunglasses on top of my head. I did it to keep my hair in place!”
Thomas added in her post, “But a sunglasses company jumped on it!” And indeed they did. During the late 1960s and early ’70s the brand Opti-Ray stuck pictures of Thomas as Ann Marie all over their drugstore displays. They also marketed her favored colorful, geometric shades as “the finest sunglasses in the world.”
15. Bessell didn’t like what his character ended up as
Ann Marie’s boyfriend on the show was Donald Hollinger – played by Ted Bessell. But in the original pilot for the show – which was never aired – Donald was Ann’s agent as well. Yet according to BoomtownAmerica.com, producers for the show believed that agents can be “a little sleazy,” so instead he became a magazine writer and all-round nice guy.
Bessell didn’t like playing a man so clean-cut and unthreatening, though. He also resented being typecast. In a 1989 interview with People magazine he lamented, “Donald Hollinger made me a name but took away what was the heart of me,” and called the role “an imposition on my creative needs.”
14. The show’s famous running gag was unplanned
At the beginning of every show, the words “that girl” are said just before the title shows up on screen. Originally, though, this was only supposed to happen in the pilot. After that, the writers assumed, they would have trouble finding ways to make the line be said in every episode.
Yet the writers did in fact manage it in the end. “That girl” is said before the titles in every episode, with only the odd variation here and there. For example, in one episode Donald calls himself “this man” and that leads into the titles instead. On other occasions the line’s said in a language other than English.
13. One actress left the show for personal reasons
Ann Marie’s next-door neighbor Judy was played by Broadway actress Bonnie Scott. In later years critics have pointed out that the latter didn’t really have a lot to do on the show. Instead, it was claimed that she was just there to make Ann Marie look even more glamourous and appealing. That wasn’t why Scott left, though.
Through the whole first season of the show Scott was working up to 18 hours a day, and it was taking time away from her young twins. So where did the single mom end up going after quitting That Girl? Well, it seems that she drifted away from acting and started a new career as a designer once her kids went to college.
12. Ann Marie wouldn’t have really been able to afford that wardrobe
Ann Marie was rarely seen making any money, so how did she have so much cash to splash around? Sometimes she didn’t have enough to even buy food, yet she lived in a New York apartment and had a seemingly never-ending collection of gorgeous clothes. Weird, right?
But you’re not the only one wondering where all the money came from. Even Thomas agrees that the character couldn’t have possibly had the cash to buy all of those threads. In 2003 she told the Television Academy, “No, Ann Marie would never have been able to afford [her wardrobe.] I don’t even think Marlo could have afforded it at that time.” But she also thought it “really worked” and helped make the show great.
11. Donald was supposed to be Native American
Donald Hollinger was quite different in the unaired pilot episode of the show. In addition to being Ann’s agent rather than a reporter, his full name in was Donald Blue Sky. He would explain to Ann that he was part Cherokee Indian. Ted Bessell, though, had no Native American heritage himself.
But Thomas probably wouldn’t have minded this. Speaking to Smashing Interviews in 2011, the star remembered a time when she played a Chinese girl on the show Bonanza and said, “Can’t do that today! That’s completely politically incorrect. But in those days you could do it and have the opportunity to play many parts.”
10. Sex was a no-go
If you’re a fan of That Girl, you may have noticed Donald never stays round at Ann’s apartment. Instead, he always leaves at the end of the episode. This was because network executives were incredibly uncomfortable implying that Ann might – gasp – have sex. At one point, Thomas said she’d been told by execs that they would prefer Ann to have an aunt living with her.
Thomas remembered all this during her 2014 panel about the show. She claimed, “They said they thought the American public was uncomfortable with a girl who wasn’t in a family unit.” No aunt arrived in the end, but Thomas also recollected, “Later, when I played Jennifer Aniston’s mother on Friends, they did a whole thing about the wet spot on the bed. Donald never saw a wet spot in his life!”
9. Thomas wanted a different title for the show
The show was all about a woman who wants to go it alone, so why not call it Miss Independent? That was the name Thomas wanted when she was first pitching the program. But she had deeper reasons for wanting it than because it sounded good. Those words actually meant something to her personally.
In 1993, a few years after Thomas’ father Danny passed away, she gave an interview to the Orlando Sentinel newspaper about him and the bond they shared. She said, “He figured out early on that I was the kind of spirit that would have to do it alone, do it on her own. He used to call me ‘Miss Independence.’”
8. Men didn’t like working under Thomas
During her 2014 panel about That Girl, Thomas claimed that men had objected to a woman being in charge of a TV show. She said, “I had all the power. It was my company, I signed the checks. I was the boss. There were meetings in which a male producer would get up and say, ‘I can’t do this!’”
Thomas went on, “They couldn’t do a show where a young woman had the last word. I said, ‘You guys have to understand, I’m the only authority on being a girl here, and I’m trying to tell you what a girl would say and what she wouldn’t say.’” In the end, Thomas hired another woman and the two apparently formed “a coalition.”
7. Thomas wanted to leave the show
Stephen Cole – author of That Book About That Girl – gave an interview to Closer magazine about the show in 2019. And he had an astonishing claim. He said that Thomas had actually wanted to leave That Girl after its fourth season, which would probably have meant no more show at all. But the network apparently managed to convince her to stay one more year.
Cole told the magazine, “The advertisers loved it, but it was definitely wearing out. 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, [Thomas’] real goal was to be a movie star.”
6. The network wanted the show to end with a wedding
Network execs wanted That Girl to end with a wedding between Ann and Donald, according to Thomas. They were engaged as of season five, after all. But she strongly disagreed. During her 2014 panel with Gloria Steinem, Thomas claimed that she fiercely fought against a wedding – fearing it would send the wrong message.
Thomas said, “I couldn’t do it. I can’t say to all of these girls that this is the only happy ending. Everybody else can get married but let this one show go off without a wedding.” In the end, the show finished with Ann taking Donald to a feminist meeting. Thomas recollected, “That made nobody happy but me!”
5. Thomas didn’t want the show to define her
During his 2019 interview with Closer magazine, author Stephen Cole remembered talking to Thomas about writing the official That Girl book. But he was in for quite a surprise. Cole said, “She just didn’t want it. [Thomas] doesn’t want to be remembered for only Ann Marie and That Girl.”
Cole went on, “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 he was able to convince her in the end to do the book with him.
4. Ted Bessell was a good friend to Thomas
Sadly, Ted Bessell passed away of an aortic aneurysm in 1996 at the age of 57. His old co-star Thomas had kept in touch with him, and she released a statement to People magazine. In it, Thomas remembered, “When my father died, he drove me around Los Angeles for days – talking to me while I cried. The minute you needed him, he just showed up, like an angel.”
Thomas said in that same statement, “He had a dream that we would do That Girl today. We were talking about it in the last couple of weeks. We could meet again, fall in love, end up together – That Girl would become That Woman. I’m so sorry we didn’t get the chance to do it again.”
3. Fans responded well to the show
Thomas was determined to create a show for women. In a 2003 interview with Television Academy she said the message she wanted to convey with That Girl was, “You did not have to be the wife or the daughter of somebody or the secretary of somebody, but that you could be the somebody. The story could be about you and what you wanted in life.”
And American women responded to Thomas’ vision. In her 2014 That Girl panel with Gloria Steinem, she remembered receiving bags of fan mail. The star said, “We were surprised and thrilled, but what it told me was that ‘That Girl’ was not a revolutionary figure the way the network thought she was. Every home in America had a ‘That Girl’ in it.”
2. There were plans for a movie
Did you know that plans were afoot for a big-screen adaptation? After all, many other sitcoms had made the jump to the big screen, and That Girl might have been next if things had been different. Before his sudden death in 1996 Ted Bessell told TV Guide magazine, “As long as we’re still alive and kicking, I think it’s a mistake not to do it.”
But after Bessell’s passing it became clear it wouldn’t happen. That same year a shocked Marlo Thomas told Variety magazine, “He had been perfectly healthy. I spoke to him four days ago… We talked about the movie version of That Girl. It would have had us meeting again after 30 years and falling in love again.”
1. The show made Thomas a feminist
During her 2014 panel with Gloria Steinem and Debra Messing, Thomas recollected how That Girl changed her as a person. She said, “I didn’t see myself as a symbol for anything. But then I’d receive mail that said, ‘I’m 16 years old and pregnant and I’m afraid to tell my father, where can I go?’ or, ‘I’m 22 and I have two children and my husband beats me. I have no job and no money, what can I do?’”
Thomas had looked for organizations to refer those women to, but there were none. She said on the panel, “There hadn’t been a women’s movement. There wasn’t such a thing as battered wives. There wasn’t reproductive freedom. There were no law centers, no safe houses. No place to go. And that politicized me. I became a radical feminist.”