An aspiring actress moves from her hometown to make it big in New York City.
136 episodes of 30 minute duration. ABC. 1966-71.
One of the first US comedies to feature a young single woman striking out on her own, That Girl earned its popularity because of the likeable and attractive Marlo Thomas. The daughter of legendary entertainer and producer Danny Thomas proved to be a fine light comedienne. But “That Girl’s” premise of an independent woman was undercut by several factors, and became dated by the time of its cancellation. Still, it proved to be an idea whose time finally came.
Marlo Thomas had appeared on her father’s Danny Thomas Show and other programs in the early 1960’s, but wanted to be known as an actress on her own terms. She had moved to London, where she received good reviews for her work in the UK production of the Broadway hit “Barefoot in the Park”. Soon after, she returned to America and pitched ABC the idea for a show called Miss Independence, about the life of a single, struggling actress who wanted success.
ABC has had a long history of interfering with the creative process of many television shows, good and bad. The first pilot cast Thomas as Ann Marie, a young woman who lived in a boarding house and worked as a waitress while going out on auditions for acting jobs. Ted Bessell was cast in the first pilot as her agent who had a crush on her. But the network didn’t like the pilot and ordered a second version.
The new version had Ann Marie living in a nice one-bedroom apartment in New York City; Bessell was cast as her boyfriend, magazine reporter Donald Hollinger. Lew Parker was her father, Lou Marie, whom she still relied on for money and/or support. The second version was more to ABC’s liking, and the show—now called That Girl-premiered on September 8th, 1966.
Even if you put aside any thoughts the show was realistic, questions remained: How could Ann afford a relatively nice apartment in expensive New York by getting small or short acting roles? Why didn’t she cut the apron strings with her dad? And was she serious about being an actress? Further, ABC saddled her with the likeable Hollinger because network executives feared people would think her character was a lesbian! Ann Marie was straight, but she was chaste, never engaging in any sex with Donald other than made-for-television kisses.
What made the show work was the experienced production team of Bill Persky and Sam Denoff, who gave Thomas and the cast pretty good scripts to work with. And there was a good energy on-screen between Thomas and Bessell, which made their relationship believable on a superficial level. In a 2002 interview for ABC News, Marlo Thomas admitted she was a producer on the show, but chose not to list herself as one on the show’s credits. As she put it, "I felt that if I officially made myself the boss, in black and white, it would be too intimidating for the other producers and the other men who worked on the show. In other words, I had the power, but I gave them the title."
That Girl also featured future stars as Ann Marie’s friends and neighbors, including Dabney Coleman, George Carlin, Ruth Buzzi and Cloris Leachman. But by the start of the show’s fifth season, the outside world was closing in. The woman’s liberation movement was in high gear by the fall of 1970; and Leachman was now a regular on a new CBS series about a single woman with a career. The Mary Tyler Moore Show proved to be a breakthrough, in that television finally showed a young single woman with a serious career, who wasn’t obsessed with snagging a steady boyfriend.
MTM and the real-life liberation movement made That Girl seem like a relic overnight. Even Thomas complained that Ann Marie-according-to-ABC was not able to grow and change. The network badly wanted Ann to marry Donald; he did propose to her during the final season but the marriage never took place on-screen. Thomas didn’t want to go any further with the show, and the series was cancelled by mutual agreement with the network; the final episode aired September 10th, 1971.
After That Girl, Thomas became an outspoken supporter of women’s rights, producing and hosting the now-classic 1974 television special Free To Be...You And Me. She later married popular television talk show host Phil Donahue and continues to appear in television movies and guest appearances on various programs (including a stint as Rachel Greene’s mother on Friends). She and her siblings continue to work on their father’s favorite charity, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, which cares for catastrophically ill kids, and never turns away a child because a family is unable to pay for treatment.
For all its faults, That Girl proved a comedy about a single young woman COULD succeed. It certainly paved the way for MTM, Murphy Brown and other comedies about independent females. Not a bad legacy at all.
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