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Girl Most Likely

Award-winning actress (and iconic That Girl star), author, editor of marlothomas.com, producer and activist—Marlo Thomas is on a roll. Her new book, It Ain’t Over ($27, Atria Books), hit stands this spring, and currently she’s appearing in Clever Little Lies, a play by Joe DiPietro, at Guild Hall (July 16-Aug. 3). Here, Southamptonite and ABC Live wire Kelly Ripa—who’s busy herself, prepping to co-host the annual Super Saturday charity event on July 26 (ocrf.org)—has a laugh with Thomas, learning the true meaning of funny and a secret or two about life.

LADIES WHO LAUGH
“You’ve inspired me in so many ways, and I look to you constantly, probably more than you realize—or is healthy—for inspiration,” says Kelly Ripa to friend Marlo Thomas.

Kelly Ripa: I’m so excited you’re at Guild Hall!
Marlo Thomas: I am too! And I can’t wait for you to see this play; you’re going to love it.

I can’t wait, either. Tell me about it—you’re performing it for three weeks, right?
Exactly. The show’s great. It’s a family comedy, the story of a married couple, their son and his wife. And there’s a sixth character in the play I can’t tell you about...

A surprise character? Ooh, I like that.
What’s interesting is that every character’s trying to solve a huge family crisis by telling little lies—which, of course, just makes things worse. By the end of the play, you’re not sure who’s telling the truth and who isn’t.

What’s your role?
I’m the mom. I love her because she’s energetic and sassy, and she’ll do anything to keep the family together. She’s fiercely protective, very strong—the backbone of the family.

SHE'S ALL THAT
When Marlo Thomas originated the role of struggling actress Ann Marie on ABC’s "That Girl" from 1966-71, she created a cultural icon that endures to this day.

When I was in school I did plays, but as I got older I became terrified of stepping on a stage. Which do you prefer—the comfort of a TV or movie studio, or that live reaction from a theater audience?
Well, they’re two different animals. I love doing TV and films, but there’s something magical about working in the theater because it’s like a contract you make in the dark with the audience. They come in, sit down and know you’re going to tell them a story. They don’t make noise, they don’t leave. You’re together, going through the experience of this story.

You have what I consider the kind of perfect comic timing so few people have, which is so difficult to master. Do you look for, or fight for, comedic roles?
They tend to find me. I’ve been doing comedy a long time. You know, I grew up with a comedian in my house, my dad [Make Room for Daddy actor and comedian Danny Thomas], and my mother was funny. And, actually, my grandmother was hilarious too. She played the drums in a beer garden in California—the wildest woman I’ve ever known. My whole family, we all have a great sense of storytelling, and with that comes good timing. I love playing comedy. What makes a comedy really good, in my opinion, is when it has an underbelly of something very real and truthful.

Right, that’s the funniest stuff—even if it’s painful.
I think so, because you identify with it.

Every time we talk, I always say the back of my head hurts from laughing so much. Who makes you laugh like that?
Well, my father did, and my sister and brother—they can really have me on my knees crying with laughter, saying, ‘Stop, stop, stop!’ I grew up with Sid Caesar, George Burns, Bob Hope and all those people at our dinner table, and what I loved about them is that they always made room for the other person to tell a story or a joke. I think great comedians have a good sense of humor, but they can laugh at you too.

When I did my book Growing Up Laughing, I interviewed Jerry Seinfeld and Jon Stewart, and what I loved about them was that, as funny as they were, when I said something funny they laughed too.

I was actually just thinking to myself, I wonder if Marlo’s ever met Jerry? He’s such a good laugher. He loves to be told a joke and to listen to people’s stories.
If you’re an egoist who just wants to show how funny you are, that’s not nearly as fun as being in a conversation with someone who’s really funny, and who makes you funny too. That’s a real sense of humor. That’s a person who loves humor—and not just his own.

I had the privilege of reading your new book, It Ain’t Over, early, and I have to tell you, I thought it was great.
And you gave me a wonderful quote for the cover!

I meant every word. You’ve inspired me in so many ways, and I look to you constantly, probably more than you realize—or is healthy—for inspiration, because I feel like women are constantly in transition in our lives. We so often get paralyzed, saying, ‘That’s it, I’m done.’ But your book really flips that around.
You know, when I travel around the country raising money for St. Jude [Children’s Research Hospital], women come up to me and say, ‘It’s too late, isn’t it?’ I realized how many women around the country are stuck—they had a dream, and the dream just kind of ran out on them. That’s why I thought it’d be great to find women who ended up with zero and figured out how to start again, and put them all together in It Ain’t Over.

One of the things I figured out was that it’s great to dream big, but you have to work small. Do one thing today, and maybe one thing tomorrow—make that call, learn a new skill, be an intern somewhere, learn on the job, pool your resources...

I love that phrase: Dream big but work small. It’s so smart. I feel like I need to write this down—you’re giving me good life lessons and great advice! What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
When I first started, I was shocked that all the reviewers talked about my father: Would she be as good as Danny Thomas? Would she last as long? Was she as funny? It scared me to death. I thought, I’m just getting started! So I went to my father and said, ‘Daddy, I love you, but I don’t want to be a Thomas anymore. I have to make my own way.’ And he said, ‘I raised you to be a thoroughbred, and thoroughbreds run their own races. Look at any of the other horses—they just wear their blinders and they run. And that’s what you have to do. Don’t you look at me or anybody else, you just run your own race.’

A few nights later, this big box arrived at the theater where I was performing, and in it was a pair of old horse blinders and a little note that said, ‘Run your own race, baby.’

That’s incredible.
Those are the words of my life.

So The Huffington Post, which your website is part of, has called you—I love this—the Boomers’ new ‘it’ girl. What do you think of that?
I hadn’t heard that; that’s great! I’ve gone from being That Girl to ‘it’ girl. It has a nice arc to it, doesn’t it?

Guild Hall
, 158 Main St., East Hampton