=1>“Believe me, getting That Girl on the air in 1966 wasn’t easy.”
“I became a writer because I wanted to be like Donald Hollinger, ‘cause he got a girl like Ann Marie.”
—Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing.
US DVD: 16 May 2006
“Dear Mom: Thank you for reviewing That Girl. I really think the show is hilarious. Can we maybe watch an episode tonight? Love, Abby”
—Abby Atwood, 11-year-old daughter of this reviewer
No one watching the promos back in 1966 for ABC’s latest sitcom about a young single who was trying to make it big in the Big Apple could have divined that the show was going to forever change the way females were portrayed on television. The commercials made That Girl“look like it was all about another ditzy dame, or, to put it into ‘60’s lingo; a cute but wacky “perky girl”. Look! Marlo Thomas is getting into a cab with a bowling ball attached to her foot! Now she’s falling out of a garbage chute! Now she’s diving into a folding bed, and look! She’s stuck in it! What wacky fun!
Perhaps the ABC executives can’t be blamed for not being quite precise about the intent of this show. Yes, the new series was going to be a comedy and yes, the pretty central character, Ann Marie, was a little on the kooky side. But guess what? This perky girl was single, planning to keep it that way, and calling all her own shots, which were all revolutionary concepts for 1966 television. Would audiences buy it?
ABC wasn’t sure but Marlo Thomas certainly was. According to her interview, “That Show . . . That Woman. . . The Creation of That Girl” (by far the most insightful extra included in the DVD), Thomas had come to the attention of the studio and sponsor Clairol after winning the central role an aborted ABC sitcom. Because Clairol was still determined to sponsor Thomas as the lead in something anything she and studio head Edgar Scherick shopped around for a vehicle, but, as she relates in the interview, the females in all the shows they considered were either, “somebody’s wife, somebody’s girlfriend or somebody’s secretary.” Thomas asked Scherick if he’d ever considered doing a show about a central female lead who “just wanted to be somebody herself.” He hadn’t, but after listening to Thomas opine about the nascent woman’s movement, he was willing to give it a shot. Ann Marie moved out of her parent’s house and into an apartment in New York City and That Girl was born.
The promos weren’t exactly stretching the truth about the personality of the show’s central character. First season Ann Marie is breathlessly hyperactive and makes her wacky plans (many of them involving her ever-changing minimum wage employment and constant pursuit of an acting career) without consulting anyone, including her own better judgment. But although she and her always-present, milk-drinking, magazine-writing boyfriend, Don Hollinger (Ted Bessel), usually suffer from her ludicrous choices, these choices are made completely free from male domination (or even input) and that independence factor was what made the show unique when it debuted.
The first season portrays the circumscribed lives of the other female characters as an obvious backdrop to Ann’s potentially expansive one, making That Girl a watershed in television history. For instance, Ann’s mother, Helen Marie (played by Rosemary DeCamp), doesn’t get much screen time in this first season and when she does, her role is limited to sweet smiles, nervous worries, and food service. She is generally allowed to be part of the show’s humor only when she interprets her husband Lou’s exaggerated statements for Ann, as she does in the following quote (featured in “Good-Bye, Hello, Good-Bye”) when Ann is about to leave home:
“Lou to Ann: I won’t stop [worrying about you] until the ambulance brings you home, starving from malnutrition at which point we’ll feed you and say ‘I told you so.’
Helen to Ann: That’s just your father’s way of saying, ‘Good luck.’”
When the two of them are present in a scene, because Lew Parker delivers his clever lines with such panache (and because the writers gave him more lines), sweet, smiling, generally silent Rosemary DeCamp becomes even more ancillary, if that is possible. She is generally not allowed to be involved in the crucial parent-child emotive elements of the series, either. Ordered off to the kitchen when Lou wants an intimate tete-a-tete with his daughter in the episode entitled “What’s In A Name?”, DeCamp finally gets some good lines and a bit more screen time in a later episode called “What Are Your Intentions?” (making it clear that she had some solid though little utilized talent). But all in all, her character is clearly in the series to exhibit the sort of female destiny that Ann is desperately trying to avoid.
The other regular female in the first season is Ann’s married, stay-at-home neighbor, Judy (Bonnie Scott), who provides an occasional dim-witted female sounding board for Ann. Everything about Judy is so blandly brainless that it’s obvious she was just dropped into the apartment next door as another foil to Ann’s quest for independence. Judy’s husband Leon (played by a young and very geeky Dabney Coleman) is an obstetrician no less, so just in case Ann forgets her other life’s option, Judy is always there to remind her about Leon’s latest delivery.
Thomas had insisted on Ted Bessel for the Don Hollinger role because, although he was masculine enough to be believable as a romantic lead, he also had a boyish, vulnerable side which would never allow him to dominate a woman. It could be legitimately argued that Ann Marie was a highly manipulative female; not because she had a thing for male emasculation, but because anyone who came under the spell of her sparkling smile or got in the way of her unstoppable joie de vivre necessarily became road kill. Donald Hollinger, was that designated road kill. Although the series made him a household name, playing Don Hollinger actually was quite detrimental to Bessel’s career, making him a perennial second fiddle; he later said that the role “took away the heart of me.”
During the first season, however, it looks like he’s having a bit of fun between grimaces, and he and Thomas are such a well-matched comedy team that, although their chemistry would have sparkled even with mediocre writing, the show’s writers provided them with some great scripts quite worthy of their talent. The following dialogue, taken from “Rich Little Rich Boy” is presented with a rapid-fire delivery worthy of an Abbott and Castello routine.
Don: He asked you for a date, didn’t he.
Don: You’re gonna see him?
Ann: Oh, Don, I don’t know.
Don: If you don’t know, then you may as well see him.
Ann: What does that mean?
Don: It means you’d know if you didn’t want to see him.
Ann: And since I don’t, I do.
Don: Do what?
Ann: Want to see him.
Don: Well if you feel that way, then see him.
Ann: I didn’t say that.
Don: Well, you didn’t say you didn’t.
Ann: Well maybe I should
Don: Well maybe you should.
The show, hilarious though it often was, also showcased moments of sincere poignance, generally involving Ann’s deepening relationships with her father and boyfriend. All three actors, Thomas, Bessel and Parker, are as equally dexterous at pulling off seriously emotive scenes as they are with humor. A particularly touching moment between Ann and Lew is portrayed in “With Paper Hats and Everything”, when she asks him if he was disappointed when he first discovered that he was the father of a girl, not a boy. “Let me put it like this,” he answers, “if there was a factory where I could have ordered to my own specifications, you would have been what I ordered, even with all your craziness.”
Similarly, when Ann tries a doomed-to-fail stint as Don’s secretary (“Help Wanted”), in what is arguably their most romantic moment in the entire first season (and incidentally, one of the few scenes which allows Bessel’s character a touch of masculine control), he gently fires her by giving her dictation that begins: “To Whom It May Concern: When someone is as crazy about another person as I am about you . . .”).
Thomas also has a scene, just between her and her dream, in which her ability to demonstrate serious, poignant emotion is well delineated. When she is understudying the lead in a play for the slinky but sick Sally Kellerman (in “Break a Leg”) and sprints to the theater only to discover that the show has been cancelled, she takes a moment to stand on the empty stage, coming face to face with her lovely, fading dream, savoring for a moment what might have been and bringing a strong, sweet pathos to the television screen.
When Danny Thomas viewed the show’s pilot and told his daughter, “you’re radiant and you’re gonna be a big star,” he wasn’t just suffering from parental prejudice. A groundbreaking show with crackling good writing would be nothing if the central character didn’t shine and Marlo Thomas, in the show’s first season, is truly radiant. While her character occasionally teeters on the edge of irritating, because her zest for life is so completely infectious, you find yourself, like everyone else in her sphere, wholeheartedly rooting for her. A character between two worlds, emotionally dependent on the man in her life, yet keeping him in orbit around her wholesome, appealing wackiness, Ann Marie held the keys to her own apartment and her own destiny and was most definitely That Girl.
* * *
Postscript: The DVD is worth the price of purchase not only because it captures the turning point of televised women’s roles, but also for the stellar list of guest stars and surprising cameo appearances it contains. Veteran greats like Sterling Holloway (who debuted in silent films and later went on to give Winnie the Pooh his voice), are featured along with 19-year-olds Richard Dreyfuss and Rob Reiner, as well as everyone in between: Paul Lynde, Patty Regan, Arlene Golonka, Steve Franken, Jerry Van Dyke and Bernie Kopell.