When Marlo Thomas was a teenager, she was always crazy about some boy.
"I couldn't wait to go out on dates," says the Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning Thomas, who came to fame in 1966 as the struggling actress Ann Marie in the ABC sitcom "That Girl."
"But I would look at my watch and around midnight I'd say, 'I better get home because I don't want to miss the guys.' "
"The guys" were her father, comic-actor Danny Thomas, and his cronies, including George Burns, Jan Murray, Milton Berle and Bob Hope, to name just a few. They would congregate with their wives for dinner at Thomas' house in Beverly Hills and spend the evening trying to make each other laugh.
"They were smoking cigars, drinking brandy and making each other scream with laughter," she says with affection over the phone from her car while driving in New York. "My mother and the wives would be in the other room; they had had enough of their husbands' jokes. But I would sit on the floor and listen for hours. They just made each other laugh."
Laughter is the central theme of Thomas' charming, funny and affectionate autobiography, "Growing Up Laughing: My Story and the Story of Funny." Thomas will be doing a Q&A and signing her book Wednesday evening as part of the American Voices series at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills.
Thomas, 72, who has been married to former talk show host Phil Donahue for 30 years — the two met when she was a guest on his show in 1977 — had turned down offers to write her memoirs. "The idea of opening up my family closet and talking about the men in my life — I had no interest in doing that," she says. But friends encouraged her to write down all her stories of growing up the eldest child of Thomas — who starred in his own classic sitcom, "Make Room for Daddy," which was retitled "The Danny Thomas Show" — and his wife, former singer Rose Marie Thomas. Her father and his friends "have so much to do with who I am and my whole point of view of life, which is pretty much to balance what happens in life with a sense of humor."
In between each chapter of her own story, she interviews comics of today, including Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Jon Stewart. "I hadn't planned to do that," Thomas says. "But when I got to the chapter about my dad's childhood and how impoverished they were, immigrants [from Lebanon] in a new land…. My dad was given away to be taken care of by one of my grandmother's brothers. Though my father had a stern father and a quiet, passive mother, there was one person in his life, his Uncle Tony, who was so funny he was barred from family funerals. It's such a great image, and that was my father's influence. When I was writing the book, I said, 'I wonder who made Jay Leno laugh? How did Jon Stewart get funny? Who was funny in Joan Rivers' life?' "
Thomas writes and speaks lovingly of George Burns. "He was a big supporter of mine in my early years, when my dad didn't want me to be an actress. He wanted me to be a governor or a senator. He had high hopes for me, but not in the acting profession. George would say to him, 'Do you want her to be a milliner?' He said something so sweet to my father one time: 'Danny, I feel sorry for anybody who isn't in show business.' "
And it was Burns who helped Thomas' mother after Thomas died in 1991 at the age of 79. "After my dad died, my mother was in a terrible funk," she recalls. "My dad had died suddenly — he hadn't been ill — so it was quite a shock. We were up at the Hillcrest Country Club having lunch after my sister and brother's children graduated from high school. In walks George Burns, who goes right toward my mother and says, 'Rosie, I hear you're single again.' We all held our breath — and my mother fell back laughing. It was such a great funny moment. He had found the funny bone and Mother took it with good humor."
Laughter, she says, "can cushion you against sadness and anger and oppression. All of the things that life throws at us. It's interesting: When I talked to Conan O'Brien, he said when you look at the landscape of comedy today, what you see are blacks and Jews and Irish — and, might I add, women. It is the oppressed people that come with a sense of humor that make us laugh. That is how people survive — with humor."
There's a "Laugh of the Day" on her new website, http://www.marlothomas.com, which is geared to women 35 and older. "The whole point of the website," she said, "is to build a community that doesn't just talk to me, but talks to each other. It's all original programming and I am having a great time and have a great team."
Her parents also made a great team, Thomas says. "We were very lucky, I think, in two things. As busy as our father was, he delighted in his children. He liked his children's company. He liked to tell us jokes. My mother was a fine Italian wife and mother. She had one goal and that was to keep the family intact, so she spent a lot of time talking to the nuns at school and getting us off on a Friday to a Monday so we could have four days with him in Las Vegas or Miami. We were alone a lot. He was on the nightclub circuit for years, but they called us every night and we read them our essays. They were a part of our lives."
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