Thomas's seemingly casual knack for inspiration also inhabits the book "The Right Words at the Right Time," in which more than 100 celebrities recall a phrase or piece of advice that helped them find success. The can't-read-just-one collection has been on The New York Times best seller list since it appeared in April. All profits go to St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, founded by Marlo's father, the comedian Danny Thomas, in 1962. Marlo Thomas talked recently with Beliefnet about the right ingredients of inspiration.
Where did the idea for this book come from?
A man wrote me about his daughter, who, I got the feeling, was having some problems. She was a big fan of "Free to Be You and Me," and her father thought it would be great if I sent her a story from my life that would guide her. So I sent him the story I tell in the book, about being 18 years old, struggling to be an actress, with all the reviewers comparing me to my father. It was way too much pressure. I went to my father and said "I don't want to be a Thomas anymore. I want to change my name."
He was wise, and he knew that wasn't possible, so he told me, "I raised you to be a thoroughbred. Thoroughbreds run their own races. They don't look at any of the other horses. They just wear their blinders and they run. That's what you have to do. You just run your own race."
That's the key to calling this book "The Right Words." My father could have said to me, "Oh, don't pay attention to those people, they're silly." Instead, he gave me these words that stuck with me my whole life. And I thought a lot of people must have stories like this, about hearing just the right words at just the right time, when they were ready to absorb them. Because they don't just have to be the right words. You have to be in a place in your life where you can hear them. And the person speaking them has to know you well enough that they land. And they have a better chance of landing if they are the right words, instead of saying something that's dismissive, as my father could have done.
But they turn out to be the right words. Muhammad Ali made them the right words. We all get a lot of angry hurtful words in our life. It's all in how we use them. With all his discipline, all his skill, and he brings his Olympic gold medal back and places it on the teacher's desk and says, "Remember me? You said I'd never amount to anything. Well, I'm something. I'm the greatest." That's fascinating. It's evidence that we carry these words around.
Sometimes the right words aren't about achieving, but about getting us through something. Do you have any words like that?
When my father died, Mike Nichols said to me, "The conversation goes on. Everything you wish you could tell him, you can still tell him." I can't tell you what it did for me, to think that I could still communicate with my father. I could still think about him and speak to him in my heart. It really helped me. I don't know if I would have gotten through my father's death without that. It was the exact right words. And I've passed those words on. And that's the great thing about right words, you do pass them on.
Can you say a little about St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital?
St. Jude's happens to be in Memphis, but it's really in every community in the world. People bring their children from Japan and Zaire and Canada and Israel. And they usually come desperate. When my father started the hospital in 1962—we're celebrating our 40th anniversary this year—there was only about a 4 percent chance of a child living with leukemia, or Hodgkin's disease, and now we an 85 percent cure rate of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which is a leading leukemia in children. With Hodgkin's disease we have a 90 percent cure rate. We have a 55 percent cure rate with brain tumors.
But for every 85 percent we proudly beat our chest about, 15 percent of children are dying. There's still children dying. We try everything we can, we bring in the greatest scientists—the head of our immunology department, Dr. Dougherty, who's in the book, won the Nobel Prize in 1997. We're proud of the work we're doing, and we're proud that it's a teaching hospital. Doctors come from all over the world to study there.
People often think it's a Catholic hospital, but my father simply had a great devotion to St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes. He had met someone when he was a nightclub performer, a man whose wife was very ill. This man had prayed to St. Jude and his wife got better.
So when my father was having a very tough time, not making any money, not sure even if he was in the right career, he went to church one day, and he learned it was the feast of St. Jude. He remembered what this man said, so my father said to St. Jude, "I know you're patron of the hopeless, and I feel hopeless. I'm afraid I'm not going to be able to provide for my family." He had ten dollars in his pocket, and he put seven in the basket and said to St. Jude, "I need ten times that to get my child out of the hospital." I was about to be born, and the delivery was going to cost $50. The next day was Monday and he got a call to play a singing toothbrush in a commercial on radio for $75.
And he took it as his first sign. And my father followed those signs from St. Jude his whole life. They kept happening. He would rattle them off to you, all the times he needed a sign and got one. So he followed St. Jude's guidance.
It's always inspiring to hear that any of these people--your father, Al Pacino, Paul McCartney, Shaquille O'Neal--felt intimidated, ever.
Absolutely. We get the feeling that everyone but us is secure and never feels scared. It's a great help.
What is it that stops us from succeeding in the thing we love?
A lot of it is what people tell us, what their expectations are, I think. Expectations are very nasty little things. We're expected to live a certain way, to sit a certain way, to speak a certain way. By the time we've been through grammar school, we're lucky to have any bit of ourselves left. I went to Marymount School, which is a wonderful school, but to this day I sit with my hands in my lap with my ankles crossed. It was beaten into me, and maybe it was a good thing and maybe it was a bad thing, I don't know. But it's who I am.
And that's just a tiny thing. When I studied with Lee Strasburg, he told me, we have been taught to conform to become the boys and girls our parents wanted us to be and we have no idea who we were meant to become, the real you before there was a you, as someone once said. It takes a long time as an actress to get rid of that conformity and decide what your real feelings are about the world.
As Whoopi Goldberg's mother tells her in her piece, if you're not going to be like everybody else, it's going to be a hard road. She says, Go your own way. Just know it's going to be hard.