The opening credits of TV's iconic sitcom, That Girl (ABC, 1966 - 1971) placed viewers in the front car of a train as it barreled into New York City.
That locomotive not only carried a young woman who was filled with dreams of independence, but it also brought television into a new era of enlightenment. A groundbreaking program teeming with wit, style, and social consciousness, That Girl didn’t set out to change the world. But with its ultimate emphasis on female empowerment - long before The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS, 1970 - 1977, over the course of its celebrated five-year run, it did exactly that.
That Girl starred the effervescent Marlo Thomas as aspiring actress Ann Marie from Brewster, New York, who sets her sights on the bright lights of the Big Apple (as perfectly punctuated by the pulsating theme music that opened each episode).
She met and falls in love with Newsview magazine writer Donald Hollinger, played with chivalrous charm by the late Ted Bessell.
The show’s ace acting, writing, and directing melded seamlessly, combining its colorful sets and fabulous wardrobe to create a cheerful, intelligent, and always funny half-hour, one that dependably delivered logical stories with lively dialogue with a decidedly feminist undertone.
In the process, millions of viewers across the nation fell in love with the grace, beauty, and emotional agility that Thomas brought to the part.
As both the star and producer of That Girl, Thomas was equally in charge. Alongside Lucille Ball, she was one of the first women in Hollywood to engage in the delicate dance of headlining a weekly series on-camera while also producing the series off-camera.
It was a perilous era for any comedy show, as the 1960s were dominated by chaos - political assassinations, race riots, recreational drug use, and the sexual revolution. Through it all, however, Thomas and company successfully delivered an uplifting half-hour of escapism that rode to the top of the ratings in each year of its five-year run.
Viewers quickly embraced the independent and lively character of Ann Marie, particularly her relationship with Bessell’s Donald Hollinger, which was portrayed as innocent and serious; pure, kind, loyal, and loving. Fans of the series grew to appreciate their respect for one another. They adored how supportive Donald was of Ann’s dreams, and they loved their electrifying on-screen chemistry.
As Thomas once observed, without Bessell's Don Hollinger, "Ann wouldn’t have been the same character. In fact, because of Teddy, the show could have been called ‘That Couple.’ He was simply brilliant from the first moment we saw him. We auditioned practically every young actor in town for the part…like Charles Grodin and Bill Bixby…but when Teddy and I read a few scenes together, that was it. No contest. He had humor and a quirky kind of sexy charm that we saw immediately - and the girls in our audience just loved.”
According to the industry’s TV-Q public popularity polling, Bessell was one of television’s highest-rated male counterparts to a female lead. “He just had it,” Thomas said of Bessell’s charisma and talent. “We’d both studied acting with Sandy Meisner, so we had the same sort of center [acting technique]. We had a wonderful time working together and remained friends until the day he died.”
Sadly, Bessell died of an aortic aneurism on October 6, 1996, just as he and Thomas were developing a big-screen sequel to That Girl. According to Thomas, that film would have picked up the story of Ann and Donald who, having never married on the show, meet again years after he was divorced and she was a widow, running her own small theatre.
Both Thomas and Bessell were very excited about the prospect. “I would have loved the chance to work with him again,” Thomas said. “He was amazing, and I’ll miss him forever.”
[Note: Commentary from Marlo Thomas in this article was culled from an interview with the author. Unless otherwise indicated, certain other facts and information presented were resourced from IMDb.com.]