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Marlo Thomas

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"That Girl" 45 Years Later -- Who Are the Game Changers This TV Season?

Posted: 09/26/11 10:02 AM ET

I received an email wishing me a happy 45th anniversary the other day and my first thought was, "Phil and I have only been married for 30 years." And then I realized it wasn't my wedding they were talking about -- it was the anniversary of "That Girl."

Hard to believe now but 45 years ago, my character Ann Marie, was the only girl in town. In this season's television lineup, there are nearly a dozen new shows starring bright, funny young women: "New Girl," "2 Broke Girls," "Whitney," and others. And as they did with Ann Marie, the young women watching today will not only be entertained by these "girls", they'll also think, "Hey, that's me!" Or, " Wow, that could be me!" And that is one of the best things television can do: give people a chance to see themselves transformed. And to let ideas and characters come from below the surface and say, "I am here! See me!"

Ann Marie seemed like a revolutionary figure at the time but, in truth, every home had a "That Girl" in it. She was the right character for that moment in time. She moved away from the traditional idea of a young woman in the society -- she was independent, living alone, not defined by her family. She was out in the world and working for the life she wanted. She was making her own choices.

Because of the collective wisdom of all of us working on the show -- co-creator Bill Persky who grew up side by side with a sister and then raised three daughters of his own, our story editor Ruth Brooks Flippen with her experience of trying to make it in a male dominated television writing community, and me, who had fought for my independence in an old-fashioned Dad Is Boss, Mom Agrees atmosphere -- we had each lived different parts of the old story ... and brought with us the passion needed to change it.

There I was playing a young woman just starting her life in the big city, struggling to get an acting job -- any acting job. And today there's Tina Fey as Liz Lemon. Liz not only has a good job on a show, she's running the show. I can't help but wonder if producer Liz would have hired actress Ann Marie? I was a great dancing chicken. And she should have seen me as a singing mop!

Bill Persky said at the time, "'That Girl' threw a hand grenade into the bunker, and all the other female characters walked right through."

Every generation has it's own grenade throwers. Chris Colfer is one as the scene-stealing Kurt Hummel on Glee -- a character that truly impacts the lives of gay teenagers. And the loving gay couple on Modern Family. These characters show us television's willingness -- however late-coming -- to embrace gay people and their relationships

When I think of the 45th anniversary of "That Girl", I like to envision a fabulous dinner party with all the women who followed Ann Marie. Mary Richards would be there, throwing her cap up in the air. Kate & Allie, who represented the first contemporary single moms on TV, would be there, too (they'd have to get a sitter, but still). I can see Ann worrying about Rosanne, who's pretty outspoken and wondering if she'd like anyone. But then sitting her next to Murphy Brown, who's got a few opinions of her own, and watching those two get along great. And then she'd put Rachel from Friends next to Carrie Bradshaw. We'd invite Donald -- but of course, he couldn't stay over. And Mr Big who could.

What a great celebration it would be. And I know every one of those women would love hanging out with each other. After all, they're all from the same family tree. And I'm sure someone would make a toast -- probably Roseanne -- who always calls it as it is. And her toast would be, "Here's to television! May it always do what it can do better than anything, open the doors to what is truly happening in America, so everyone watching can say, "Hey, that's me!" or "Wow, that could be me!"

So here's to a great new TV season. Hope you see someone you know!


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