Marlo Thomas Talks About Her Dad Danny
He was an old-fashioned dad. For all the fame and money my father had earned, at his core he was a working-class guy, the middle son of a large family from Toledo, Ohio.
I've listened to many sad "dad tales" from some of my women friends – about their distracted, non-demonstrative or simply unloving fathers. These stories have always sounded so foreign. My father truly enjoyed the company of his children. He hugged and kissed us daily, he told us that he loved us, he was emotional. We used to kid him that he cried at basketball games.
Through the years, whenever I called home, it was always a boost. When he'd hear my voice, I could hear the pleasure in his. "How's my beauty?" he'd say. I once said something to him that I was sorry about later, and when I called to apologize, he said, "Mugs, you know you can do no wrong with me."
In 1965, Dad's pal, Joe Robbie, asked him to partner with him to buy the Miami Dolphins, the first expansion team of what was then the American Football League. Dad was a big sports fan, so this was an irresistible opportunity for him.
In their first game, the Dolphins received the opening kickoff from the Oakland Raiders, and running back Joe Auer sprinted an amazing 95 yards for a touchdown. My dad was so excited that he jumped off the bench and ran along the sidelines the entire way with Auer, his cigar clenched in his teeth, his change falling out of his pockets, yelling "Go, baby, go!" When Auer finally crossed into the end zone, my father grabbed him and kissed him. He was a different kind of owner.
Dad brought that childlike enthusiasm to everything he did. When I was at USC, I got a 3.8 average one semester. He was so proud, he took my report card onto The Tonight Show with him, and boasted to Johnny Carson, "This is my kid – 3.8! I have to talk to her through an interpreter." Dad was a frequent guest of Johnny's, and spoke to him like he was sitting next door with a friend. It was there that he made the announcement to Johnny (and America) that I had gotten my first bra, the audience howling at his vivid description of it. I didn't leave the house for a week.
But most of all he was a storyteller, and he found an audience to tell his stories to wherever he happened to be. I was on a plane once, going from Los Angeles to New York, and the flight attendant told me that she'd recently had my father on a flight, and what a delight he was. She said she saw him get up to stretch, then walk around and talk to a few people in their seats. Before long, he was enrapturing all of First Class with his tales, and they were howling. He had turned an American Airlines flight into his own personal dinner show. Most celebrities board a plane and try to hide themselves for a little privacy. Not my dad. Where else can you find a captive audience . . . for five hours?! He was in heaven.
And sometimes he couldn't let go of my boyfriends, even after I had. In college, I was pinned to a boy named Jimmy Pugh, a basketball player on a scholarship who was going into dental school. My father adored Jimmy and respected him for trying to make a better life for himself. I know in his heart, Dad had hoped I would marry Jimmy, but I was restless to get to New York and start studying acting. So that was the end of Jimmy and me. What I didn't know was that it wasn't the end of Jimmy and Dad.
After I had already moved east, Jimmy would still come to our house and have beers with Dad, and they'd talk for hours. After one of these visits, Dad walked Jimmy to his car – but it wasn't out front. Somewhat sheepishly, Jimmy explained that his car was such a "heap" that he'd parked it near the alley, rather than having it sit in front of our house. When Dad took one look at that awful jalopy, he exploded.
"You're going to be a dentist!" he said. "You can't let anything happen to your hands. You'll break every bone in your body in this wreck!" Dad had just been sent a brand-new pickup truck from a company that he'd done a favor for, so he opened the garage and said to Jimmy, "Here, take this. I'll never drive it." I wouldn't learn about this until years later, after my father died, when Jimmy wrote me a condolence letter telling me the whole story.
"I was overwhelmed and reluctant to accept it," he wrote, "but your father got furious with me and made me drive it away on the spot."
I read the letter in awe, amazed that Dad had never mentioned this to me. But how typical of him – Jimmy may have lost the girl but he gained a V-8 engine with an automatic transmission.
When I was at Marymount High School, my best friend, Moya, and I were always up to some kind of mischief. We had to do something with all those unexpressed hormones. Not only was the school girls-only, but all of the teachers were nuns. There was hardly a male presence, except for the gardener – and the prettiest nun ran off with him. And there was the daily visit from FATHER from the nearby parish to say the Mass for us. The nuns were very respectful, adoring – and terrified – of FATHER.
"Oh yes, FATHER. Oh no, FATHER. Oh, thank you, FATHER."
In a regular church Mass, the priest is assisted by altar boys, who bring him the chalice of wine and place the bells. Back then, females were not permitted behind the altar rail. No female – not even a nun. So when Father came to say Mass at Marymount, he had to do it all on his own. God forbid any female should be let past that rail.
This really irked Moya and me. So one day, just before Mass, we decided to remove the altar bells. These bells are used at a very important part of the Mass. They are rung three times, one after each "Lord, I am not worthy."
The service began, and while all of the other girls were focused on the Mass as they should have been, Moya and I waited excitedly for the moment when Father would reach for the bells – which were always placed directly to his right. When the time finally came, we watched his hand reaching in vain, fumbling for the missing bells.
And then he did something that made us choke to keep from laughing. He called out in a loud voice, "Ding-a-ling-a-ling." We couldn't believe it. And then again, "Ding-a-ling-a-ling." And then a third time, "Ding-a-ling-a-ling."
The two thirteen-year-old girls doubled over in the back row were promptly suspended.
My father was summoned to a conference – "about your daughter" – with Reverend Mother Emmanuel. Unfortunately, I was invited, too. I was terrified of Reverend Mother. She was tough, no-nonsense. Her face squeezed by her binding, starched white habit, she looked out at you with severe green eyes.
On this particular day, that look was aimed at Mr. Thomas, as she told him in very strong words what a very bad girl I had been. She then rose proudly, determinedly, to her feet and pronounced her final sentence – the death sentence for Mr. Thomas's daughter.
"I'm afraid, Mr. Thomas, that Margaret does not have the poise for a Marymount girl."
Then my father rose. "I know, Reverend Mother," he said humbly. "That's why I've given her to you."
Check. I could see a glint in those severe green eyes. Reverend Mother knew she had met her match.
When we got in the car to drive home, I told my father how brilliant he was, and laughed at how he had checkmated Reverend Mother. But Dad didn't smile back. He looked at me sternly.
"I don't ever want to have to face off with that woman again," he said. "And I don't ever want to hear that you have done something unfitting at a Mass. Mass is not the place for jokes."
I felt awful. He was disappointed in me. We drove in silence for a few minutes, and then he said, "I was good though, wasn't I?" Then we laughed. It was good to have a dad on your side.