Once, my father made a movie with Margaret O'Brien and he often took me to the set. I would cue his lines as we drove to the MGM studios with the windows open and the heady mix of Old Spice and a Cuban cigar swirling about us as we carried on a kind of rehearsal in transit. On the set I played jacks with Margaret between takes, and when the bell rang, I would join the crew in their silence as the cameras rolled and the boom mike moved into position to record the dialogue I knew by heart.
I was in awe of my father and sinfully envious of Margaret O'Brien. I wore pigtails. I wanted freckles. I wanted to be Margaret O'Brien. Ten years later, at age seventeen, I got my chance.
I played the lead in "Gigi" in a summer stock production at the Laguna Playhouse south of Los Angeles. The excitement of finally being a real actress was painfully short-lived. All the interviews and all the reviews focused on my father. Would I be as good as my father? Was I as gifted, as funny? Would I be as popular? I was devastated.
I loved my father; my problem was Danny Thomas.
"Daddy," I began, "please don't be hurt when I tell you this. I want to change my name. I love you but I don't want to be a Thomas anymore."
I tried not to cry during the long silence. And then he said, "I raised you to be a thoroughbred. When thoroughbreds run they wear blinders to keep their eyes focused straight ahead with no distractions, no other horses. They hear the crowd but they don't listen. They just run their own race. That's what you have to do. Don't listen to anyone comparing you to me or to anyone else. You just run your own race."
The next night as the crowd filed into the theater, the stage manager knocked on my dressing room door and handed me a white box with a red ribbon. I opened it up and inside was a pair of old horse blinders with a little note that read, "Run your own race, Baby."
Run your own race, Baby. He could have said it a dozen other ways: "Be independent"; "Don't be influenced by others." But it wouldn't have been the same. He chose the right words at the right time. The old horse blinders were the right gift. And all through my life, I've been able to cut to the chase by asking myself, "Am I running my race or somebody else's?"