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Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas Talk Marriage

In this episode, we ask the famous couple what's kept them together all these years

Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue

JIM WRIGHT/AARP

Marlo Thomas:

I feel that, as a married woman of 40 years. I have somebody who has my back and I have his. And boy, there's just no better feeling than that.

Bob Edwards:

That was award-winning actress Marlo Thomas. You may know her from the classic sitcom ‘That Girl’ or as an advocate for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. She’s here with her husband, the legendary talk show host Phil Donahue, to discuss “What Makes a Marriage Last?” — the title of their new book.

 Wilma: And later, we’ll hear from four long-married, everyday couples who answer that exact question: What’s made their marriages last? And how being quarantined together has affected their relationship?

Bob Edwards:

That’s coming up next. Hi I’m Bob Edwards

Wilma Consul:

And I’m Wilma Consul

Bob Edwards:

With An AARP Take on Today.

Bob Edwards:

After 40 years of marriage, the entertainment power couple Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas decided to do something they had never done before: Work on a project together.

Marlo Thomas:

A year ago we said, "What are we going to do for our 40th?" And then we started thinking about -- everybody always asks us what was the secret to our marriage, our long marriage, and we couldn't really pinpoint it. So we thought it'd be interesting to talk to a lot of long married couples and see, put together everybody's experiences 

Bob Edwards:

Over [YJM1] nine months, they interviewed 40 famous couples -- from Michael J. Fox and Tracy Pollan to Jamie Lee Curtis and Christopher Guest to Viola Davis and Julius Tennon. Now they tell those stories in their new book “What Makes a Marriage Last: 40 Celebrity Couples Share with Us the Secrets to a Happy Life.”

Today, they discuss what they’ve discovered through their favorite interview moments, and what they’ve learned about their own marriage. And if you want to read more about their experience putting the book together, be sure to read their cover story in AARP The Magazine. We’ll leave a link in the shownotes.

Bob Edwards:

Writing a book is hard, and writing a book together has to be harder still. So why did you decide to do it?

Marlo Thomas:

Well, we never worked together. That was actually the biggest hurdle, was did we want to work on a project together?

Phil Donahue:

I'll say.

Marlo Thomas:

So for 40 years we've never accepted a project together. Maybe the reason we did this is because we thought of it ourselves, I guess really.

I think in many ways, it's almost funny to say it, but it's improved our marriage. We've learned some things that aren't really tips, but sort of the way people have gone about resolving issues and also okay with not resolving an issue, which is really huge. Because Michael J. Fox said, "Some people just keep picking it an issue, and picking and picking and picking at it, and it becomes like an illness. The truth is, they can't resolve it. You can't resolve everything." And that's very liberating.

Bob Edwards:

Your article in AARP The Magazine, is called Marriage Stories of the Happy Kind. Tell me about one of your happiest moments together.

Marlo Thomas:

Oh my, we have lots of happy moments together. Right now, we're in quarantine and we've been cooking together, and chopping and slicing, and making my mother's Italian recipes.

Phil Donahue:

And I've done the wash.

Marlo Thomas:

He's done the laundry.

Phil Donahue:

The Bounce goes in the dryer. And the Downy goes in the rinse cycle. I mean, there's so many things I can teach you, but we don't have time.

Marlo Thomas:

So I don't think that I could name like one happy moment, but I think we have happily, we have several through the week.

Bob Edwards:

Learn anything from these interviews you did?

Marlo Thomas:

Every couple, every marriage, goes through some kind of fire. And we spoke to almost all of them. They were unfaithful, there was a couple with cocaine addiction, alcoholism, they're struggling, disease, ongoing disease, breast cancer, losing all their money to Bernie Madoff. Emilio Estefan's mother-in-law hated him and broke them up before they were married.

There was absolutely every possible kind of crisis any couple could imagine, and our couples went through them. We didn't even realize when we chose these couples that they had had, each of these had had these issues, except for maybe Michael J. Fox, who we knew had an ongoing health issue. But most of them we didn't know. We didn't know that Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick had lost all their money to Bernie Madoff and how they came back from that.

So it was fascinating. The book isn't like a how-to book, it's a what book. It's what did you do when that happened? What happened and what did you do when it happened? How they got through it. And the book is ... Wait until you see it. It's over 600 pages, it's not a little book. It's a much bigger book than we expected it to be because the stories were so rich that we couldn't cut them down. And when we turned the book in, we were both thinking, "Oh, the publisher's going to make us cut these stories down and it's going to really hurt the book." And happily, our publisher at Harper's, Judith Kerr said, "No, no, I love these stories. I don't want you to cut them down."

Bob Edwards:

So are celebrity marriages any different than any other kind?

Marlo Thomas:

I don't think so. Do you, Honey?

Phil Donahue:

No, not when you get down to the core of a relationship. There's no such thing as a celebrity between two people. I think there's an appreciation of the other person's career...

Marlo Thomas:

And the work. One of the things that was interesting is that probably these famous couples had certain challenges that had to do with travel, with separating the family. Alan Alda got that big break with M*A*S*H, that was in LA, where the television show was shot. And his family, he and his family, his wife, raised their children Leonia, New Jersey. And when he got the big break, the daughters, his three daughters, didn't want to uproot their lives, they wanted to be with their friends and their school. So Arlene and the three daughters stayed in Leonia, New Jersey, and Alan Alda flew every week to do his job on M*A*S*H, and every weekend he came home.

Phil Donahue:

Every-

Marlo Thomas:

Friday night.

Phil Donahue:

Friday night. Imagine.

Marlo Thomas:

For nine years or something. But that was a great sacrifice on both of their parts, of the whole family's part, to let Alan have his dream and have the family have their life.

I remember Billy Crystal and Janice told us a story about he was making $4000 a year and they had a little baby and they couldn't make it on that. So she said to him, Janice said to Billy Crystal, "I believe in you. I believe in your comedy and I believe in you. I'm going to get a job, as a teacher in a community college for $10,000 a year with health benefits, which was very big because they were the two of them and their baby girl.

So he would go to work at night in a nightclub in New York, and he'd come back at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, and then he'd get up at 6:00 AM, and she'd go off to work and he'd take care of the baby all day. And then she'd come back at five o'clock or so, and he'd take a nap, then he'd work on his material, then he'd go into town again, into New York to play one of the clubs where he'd get paid $25 a night. And this went on. I mean, that was a real investment they made in his career and his dream. And it was a team.

I think in many ways, a celebrity marriage, it's more about these kinds of careers that makes such huge demands on the family. I found them very touching. It didn't break the marriages up and it didn't break the families up.

Bob Edwards:

You interviewed 40 couples with various backgrounds and age ranges. Have you noticed generational differences in the way that these couples think or talk about marriage?

Marlo Thomas:

I don't think. Did you, Honey? I don't think so.

Phil Donahue:

I think to me, that as the years went by, the couples we interviewed somehow got smarter and more aware of that this was not going to be, "I love you, Baby, forever." This was going to be a challenge.

Marlo Thomas:

I also think what you said was interesting too, is that they learned that everything wasn't worth a fight. Everything wasn't worth an argument. You even said that about your own ability to be angry. What did you say about that?

Phil Donahue:

Well, as the years went by, I think I got a little bit more mature in dealing with the urge to argue, and then I think, I think, you'd have to confirm this, I think the legacy of difficult times became a shorter and shorter experience as time went on.

Marlo Thomas:

Right. Yeah, and what you had said was, you started to think to yourself, "What good is this, having this argument? What is the good of it? I don't feel good about it. She doesn't feel good about it. Maybe I'll just avoid it." To make a real decision to say, "I am not going to do that."

Marlo Thomas:

And Bryan Cranston talked about that too, that he'd be in the middle of an argument and he would say to himself, "If this keeps going on this track, this is going to get to be a really big fight. So I'm going to be like a conductor with a switch, and get on another track. And I said, "Really? You can do that in the middle of the fight?" He said, "Oh yeah, I do it. I just take the conductor with a switcher and get on another track. Otherwise it'll just go over the cliff."

Marlo Thomas:

And that's, I think, something that does come, to answer your question and to add to what Phil started here, is that with the years, you realize this is the marriage you want and you don't want to escape it, and you're not going to end it. So what is the point of having this kind of a, into a row for no reason? Because you know how it was going to end. You're going to make up and it's going to be just a waste of your heart and your lungs and everything else. So as you get older, I think you just don't do it as much because it isn't worth it.

Bob Edwards:

Now, you spoke of economic challenges in various couples, but what about other types of marital challenges? And how did they benefit from dealing with those?

Marlo Thomas:

Well, several of them went to couples therapy. We interviewed Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka, who are same-sex marriage, and they go to therapy every week, not as a repair, but as that's just a piece of their life that they like to do, that they go once a week and they talk it out. Robin, I mean, Bryan Cranston said, he said, "People look at you like something's wrong with you if you go to a couples therapy. But if your car has a little warning, you don't look under the hood and say 'Oh, I'm going to fix it.' You take it to an expert. You feel a warning light in your marriage, why not go to an expert?" I thought that was really interesting.

Bob Edwards:

Any words of comfort for married couples who might be struggling right now?

Phil Donahue:

So these personal stories, very, very, I think, not only educational, but filled with hope and a realization that you're just a lot better off to solve the problem then to break it off.

Marlo Thomas:

And that marriage is a cushion in life. It helps you through rough times. It would be almost impossible to go through some of the issues that these people went through on their own. The idea that they had each other, they had the back of somebody and that somebody had their back too.:

I feel that, as a married woman of 40 years. I have somebody who has my back and I have his. And boy, there's just no better feeling than that, than knowing that you're somebody's person, that we care for each other. That even now in these terrible times, a terrible disease just ravaging peoples' lives, taking their lives, and all the controversy around it, we are, as a couple, together, making food together, talking with each other, watching old movies together, getting on the Skype and talking to our family-

Phil Donahue:

Doing the wash together.

Marlo Thomas:

Yeah, doing the wash together. Washing.

Phil Donahue:

I can't get over it, how much I didn't know.

Marlo Thomas:

You're lucky to have each other to hang on to. I think that's happening in every home in the world right now. And every family, every couple, is looking at each other and saying, "Wow, aren't we lucky we have each other at this time?"

Bob Edwards:

Well, happy anniversary. I hope you get 40 more.

Marlo Thomas:

Bless you. Thank you, Bob. Thanks so much.

Phil Donahue:

Thank you.

Bob Edwards:

Inspired by Marlo and Phil’s journey to discover what makes a marriage last, Wilma interviewed four married couples from around the country about what secrets they have to share.

Wilma Consul:

The vow to love and to hold till the end brings the promise of joy and perfection to newlyweds. Whether scrutinized under Hollywood lights or not, a lifelong commitment can’t be a smooth ride to a golden anniversary.

Let me introduce you to four couples who’ve been together for decades. They’re always asked, what’s the secret? But they’ll tell you there’s not one definitive answer. On love’s bumpy road, they each learned how to concoct, test and tweak their own recipes to always and forever.

Trudy:

Do you want to start, honey?

Alvin:

Okay, so my name is Alvin Wong. I've lived in Hawaii since 1941, when I was born. I was born and raised there.

Trudy:

My name is Trudy Ann Shandler-Wong. It's hyphenated. I was born in Brooklyn, New York 1946, and my grandparents had immigrated from Riga, Latvia. Six weeks old, I moved to North Carolina. I was there most of my life until my dad double dared me to go in and apply one day to be a flight attendant with United Airlines, and for some crazy reason I got the job, and here I am 52 years or 53 years later.

John:

I'm John Finn. I was born in Berkeley.

Art:

I'm Art DuSulio. I was born and raised in San Francisco, and we've been together for over 40 years.

John:

These have been 40 glorious years.

Jane:

I'm Jane Rufino.

Vincent:

I'm Vincent Rufino.

Jane:

And we live in Succasunna, New Jersey.

Vincent:

Which is a historical section of Roxbury Township, in the northwest section of New Jersey.

Jane:

We have been married for 47 years. It'll be 48 in June.

Don:

I'm Don Hummer.

Tammy:

And I'm Tammy Hummer.

Don:

We live up in Warwick, New York. We've been married for 34 years.

Wilma Consul:

What strikes me about these eight happily married individuals is their memory. Each one recalls vividly the moment they met.

Trudy:

One of my friends lived across the hall from Al and invited me up for drinks, and I met him there.

Alvin:

Trudy was flying a lot then, so we got together when she was in town. The romance and the friendship grew in a very short time.

Trudy:

I met him the third week in July. At the end of August I went to North Carolina to visit my family, and was taken to the hospital for emergency surgery. Alvin called me every day. He didn't realize when he said, "Maybe you should come back to Hawaii for a visit," and I said, "Oh, I don't go anywhere without a commitment." He says, "Oh, well consider yourself committed." So, I guess he didn't realize he had proposed.

John:

I was a 32 year old in a disco in San Francisco. I had known Art's previous boyfriend, but had never met Art or seen Art.

Art:

I was 18 and a half, so I was very legal, but not legal to go into a bar. But I had a fake ID, as many college students had.

John:

I said, "Well, who is your former boyfriend?" He pointed across the dance floor and he said, "There he is. He's all yours." Subsequently, it was a song that I wanted to dance to and all my friends were dancing, and I thought that Art might be willing to dance with me. So, I went over and asked him to dance.

Art:

You said to yourself, "I know who'll dance with me."

Vincent:

We met on the 4th of July 1970 in Burlington, Vermont at the University of Vermont. I was working there as a teacher, and Jane was up there taking classes, but I wasn't her teacher. We met after a dance that was being held for the holiday.

Jane:

He was sitting out on the steps, and I was leaving. He wanted to know why I was leaving early. I said, "Because most of the boys that are there are much younger than me," and it wasn't very fun.

Vincent:

Jane was living in Rhode Island and I was living in New Jersey, so I didn't think anything would come of the relationship.

Jane:

He almost scared me off though, because he asked me to marry him three months into it. I was still only 18, so to me, I wasn't ready for that yet.

Wilma Consul:

Tell me the first time that you met.

Tammy:

Labor Day of 1985. We were shaking for shots in a bar.

Wilma Consul:

Okay.

Tammy:

Married three months later.

Wilma Consul:

Three months later?

Don:

Yep.

Tammy:

Three months.

Wilma Consul:

How did you know that this was the one?

Don:

I just knew. I just kind of ticked all the boxes and it just happened.

Tammy:

I didn't have anything on my calendar three months later.

Wilma Consul:

Don, tell us about those boxes that you checked. What were you looking for in a partner?

Don:

It was more of a feeling, I think. It just kind of makes your heart race, and that special feeling, I guess.

Wilma Consul:

Tammy, do you remember his proposal? Or did you propose?

Tammy:

He actually came and knelt down next... I don't know if it was in the living room. He said, "Hey, you want to get married?" I says, "Yeah, what the hell."

Wilma Consul:

Did he have a ring?

Tammy:

No, he didn't get one until later.

Wilma Consul:

Oh, my.

Tammy:

We were just so carefree and not a worry in the world.

Wilma Consul:

Those were good times, right?

Tammy:

Yeah, and that's the way it should be instead of all these long engagements. Sometimes you just go on and on, and you plan a wedding for months and months, and-

Don:

Well, and it was the mid-80s. The economy wasn't good, and employment was tough, wages weren't that good. It was just an interesting time all around.

Wilma Consul:

Don Hummer remembering the 80s' bad economy and unemployment sounds like our situation today with the shut downs from Coronavirus. There's been buzz about an increase in divorces once the Stay-At-Home Orders are lifted.

Wilma Consul:

One reason why we wanted to do this piece was to find out how strong marriages are faring during this pandemic. Tammy and Don Hummer have been dealt with Don's diagnosis of COVID-19 in early March. They live in Orange County, New York.

Don:

I most likely contracted it on a trip I made to Indianapolis. It was a week later when I was actually diagnosed with that I was positive for the virus. When I actually first noticed the symptoms was at a yoga class, about halfway through the class and I just started feeling kind of flu-ish, and how it feels when a fever starts kicking in, and you get that tingly feeling. The next day, I had a hard time just even waking up. I was just completely exhausted, and managed to get to the airport and got home. It was really before COVID was well... There wasn't a lot of awareness around here yet at that time.

Wilma Consul:

How did you guys feel when you got the test back and they said that it was COVID?

Don:

I was a little bit anxious about it, because I've got a chronic lung condition. I'll be 60 in October, so I've got my age against me, plus a pre-existing health condition, the anxiety from the news and stuff. Chances are pretty good that I was going to struggle with it. Fortunately, that wasn't the case.

Wilma Consul:

Don isolated himself from the rest of the family. Tammy, worried most about his breathing, still slept in the same bed while caring for him. She and one of their daughters both work at a grocery store, and had to stop working for a while. Since Don has recovered from COVID-19, Tammy has returned to work. Don, with his [inaudible 00:07:57] closed and not traveling for his job, in the meantime he decided to deliver groceries for Instacart.

Wilma Consul:

For our grand musicians, Jane and Vincent Rufino, social distancing meant cancellation of a church concert.

Vincent:

We wound up hosting duets on YouTube. So, there's a duet that Jane and I do with clarinet and cello. There's another one that we did with piano and soprano saxophone, and another one we did with piano and clarinet.

Wilma Consul:

Tell us what you both play. What instruments do you play?

Jane:

I play cello, organ and piano.

Vincent:

And I play the clarinet and the saxophone.

Wilma Consul:

For our west coast couples, Trudy and Alvin Wong say their challenges are minor: going to the market every week instead of every day, not being able to eat out as often as they do, and not being able to hug people. Well, in Hawaii, the land of Aloha, that's likely a major challenge.

Wilma Consul:

For Art DuSulio and John Finn, they're rediscovering John's family roots through their five mile walks in the Oakland neighborhood where he grew up.

Wilma Consul:

If you couldn't tell already, our four couples have remained in love after so many years together. But living and breathing in the same place for a long time, even with the one you love, takes a lot of getting used to, of getting to know each other well. That's what the couples tell me. Yes, they say there have been challenges. As young couples, the heart-breaking miscarriages, the juggling of work and college while raising their children, not earning enough to be able to travel, to buy a car to ease the hours of daily commute, or a house to provide for their growing families. But for all the worse, the poorer and in sickness, they continued to cherish and move forward.

Wilma Consul:

How? They give us the ingredients. Alvin Wong, Trudy's husband who was known as "The Happiest Man in America" in 2011, you can Google it, says, "Respect is just one key in a happy marriage."

Alvin:

There's also realizing that both of us, either of us, aren't perfect. You have to say, "I'm sorry." You have to say [crosstalk 00:10:28]-

Trudy:

What's your favorite two words?

Alvin:

I tell anybody who asks me about one of the secrets of my happiness, is I say "Yes, Dear," a lot.

Trudy:

And that's the truth. Those are two words.

Wilma Consul:

That goes a long way, right?

Trudy:

Yeah. Yes, it does.

Wilma Consul:

From John Finn and Art DuSulio, one advice is simply, you better work.

John:

In all honesty, we think we have an enviable relationship, but we just don't know how to franchise it.

Art:

It's funny that John said that. Just last week a friend asked, "How do you do it?" I said, "Well, the thing is, you both have to want to be in the relationship. Both want to be happy in it, and you do have to work at it." There comes a time where it doesn't feel like work anymore, and that's the way it is with us.

John:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). One said that at least one of the people in the relationship should believe in the religion of romance, and Art's a true believer. He made a convert.

Wilma Consul:

For Jane and Vincent Rufino, their passion for music continues to strengthen their bond. After 25 years as premarital counselors at church, they have more insight to what works.

Jane:

Take one day at a time, and keep in mind when you get aggravated why it is you chose each other to begin with.

Vincent:

The most important thing in any marriage is communication. You have to keep communicating. That's probably the hardest thing, because that's where feelings get hurt the most.

Wilma Consul:

For Tammy and Don Hummer, patience and understanding have become a staple in their marriage. He says, "Every day can't be all roses," and sometimes the two agree nothing beats a good fight.

Don:

To get to a point where communications broke down, and that's the only way to reopen that door. I'm not saying that fighting needs to happen every day or anything like that, but sometimes it almost seems essential. Of course, that's followed up by makeup sex, so that's always good.

Tammy:

And that's always good. On that note, we'll have a fight.

Bob Edwards:

Thank you to all of our guests. Check out Marlo and Phil’s book, “What Makes a Marriage Last: 40 Celebrated Couples Share with Us the Secrets to a Happy Life.”  It’s available May 5th. Also read their story in the April-May issue of AARP the Magazine. Check our show notes for the link.

Wilma Consul:

If you liked this episode, please email us at newspodcast@aarp.org.

Bob Edwards:

A big thanks to our news team.

Wilma Consul:

Producers Colby Nelson, Danny Alarcon and Paola Torres

Production Assistant Brigid Lowney

Engineer Julio Gonzales

Executive Producer Jason Young

And, of course, our co-host Mike Ellison.

Become a subscriber on Apple podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher and other apps. Be sure to rate our show as well.

Bob Edwards:

For An AARP Take on Today, I’m Bob Edwards

Wilma Consul:

And I’m Wilma Consul.

Bob Edwards:

Thanks for listening, and stay safe.

What’s the secret to a lasting marriage? In this episode, Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas asked 40 famous couples for their new book, “What Makes a Marriage Last?” Then, we ask the same question to everyday couples who have endured quarantine and more.

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