‘This is Elaine. She’s our writer,” says Marlo Thomas, guiding me backstage at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Elaine May gives me a quizzical once-over, and through the curtain, I spy a figure in a cardigan, gesticulating at his actors. “Woody’s giving notes,” she adds.
It’s the aftermath of a preview of Relatively Speaking, a trio of one-act plays by Ethan Coen, Elaine May, and Woody Allen, and the standout performance belongs to Thomas, pulling out all the stops as Doreen in May’s George Is Dead, a rich widow ill-equipped to absorb actual grief. “When Elaine sent me the play, I thought, This dumb blonde? This is how she sees me?” Thomas tells me. “But I love Doreen. She’s so unfiltered. Very Palm Beach.”
When we pass through the stage door, Thomas embraces her way through fans wielding cameras. In her leather jacket and scoop-necked top (her bra peeks out at her shoulder, Carrie Bradshaw style), she has the practiced ease of someone used to the spotlight: She grew up the child of comedian Danny Thomas; became the iconic star of That Girl at 29; transformed herself into a producer as the creator of Free to Be … You and Me; and later became half of a high-profile activist couple with Phil Donahue. “Say hello to Mr. Donahue!” a man yells giddily as we walk away down 47th Street.
After a career in show business, Thomas seems to be on a first-name basis with half of the industry: “You know how it is, you meet one another.” She met Donahue when she appeared on his show at 39. (The divorced talk-show host had five children, four of them living with him.) She met May through playwright Herb Gardner, an old boyfriend. She met Gloria Steinem, whom she calls “a saint,” in 1967, when she was asked to star in a TV movie about Steinem’s Playboy exposé. “They called us into a meeting, but the guy who wanted me to do the project was totally sexist,” she tells me. “He looks at us and literally—he literally said this: ‘I don’t know which of you I want to fuck first.’ ”
If you don’t recall That Girl, you should: It was the original single-gal sitcom, the forerunner for the female-centered comedies dominating the network this season. (Thomas hasn’t seen New Girl, but she says everybody has been e-mailing her about it, “the ad, with the dark hair and the eyes.”) Originally titled Miss Independence (Thomas’s nickname), That Girl was based on the actress’s radical-for-1966 persona: an aspiring actress with her own apartment, in no rush to get married. By the show’s finale, the star was fighting her own producers, who wanted to end with that ratings bonanza, a wedding. “I said, ‘No!’ Just kicking and screaming: no. It would be such a cop-out.” Instead, the last episode showed Ann Marie taking her fiancé, journalist Donald, to a “women’s lib” meeting.
Ann Marie’s overprotective father was based on Thomas’s father, Danny, who died in 1991, and about whom Marlo is affectionate but balanced. On the one hand, she tells me, he gave her everything, from her work ethic to her interest in charity (she spends much of her time raising money for his cause, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital). On the other hand, he praised his daughters by telling them, “You think like a man,” and Thomas’s mother sacrificed her singing career for him. “I used to call myself ‘My Mother’s Revenge,’ which she loved,” Thomas tells me in her distinctive, husky voice, then lets out a long laugh. “And now you know everything you need to know.”
Her earlier stand against marriage “wasn’t a public thing, it was completely emotional,” she says, based on her father’s large Lebanese family and her mother’s Italian one. “I saw fifteen male-dominated marriages. It was not a big leap not to want to get married.”
And yet she’s been married for 31 years, most of them in Manhattan, where she and Donahue moved as a compromise—she didn’t want Chicago; he didn’t want L.A. He gives her notes on the play, she says, but gentle ones. “Phil and I are so connected and so in each other’s corner that he doesn’t scare me,” she says, and then begins speaking so warmly about marriage (“A roomier place than I’d ever imagined”) that she pauses, alarmed, and adds, “but I don’t want to give this a kinehora!” then knocks her knuckles on the table, warding off the evil eye.