Looking back, I think the most amazing thing about my father as a parent was how he included his children in his work. Most men of that era left their home and kids and went off to their jobs. Not my father. He would often take us to work at the studio with him. He let us sit in when the writers gathered for meetings in our home. He shared his passion for his work with us, and we knew he genuinely enjoyed our company.
I can still remember sitting on the floor, watching story conferences, as he and his comedy writers shaped his nightclub act or knocked around ideas for an episode for his series. Sometimes I'd laugh out loud at a joke and he'd say, "You like that?" He'd get such a kick out of my getting the joke.
My father was truly interested in his children. He wasn't at all a "kids-are-supposed-to-be-seen-and-not-heard" kind of guy. Unusual for a powerful man.
Growing up around all of this made my entry into the business so much easier. By the time I started working, it wasn't a foreign land to me. I knew the lingo; I had learned how to shape a good story. And I understood the most important thing about comedy: As my father would say, "The audience will go down any yellow brick road with you, as long as you don't lie to them. Don't veer off that road of truth to get a laugh. Have respect for the audience, and they'll stay with you."
There's a story I've told before about my relationship with my father that dramatizes how he influenced me and helped to shape my life:
When I was a little girl, around seven or eight, my father made a movie with Margaret O'Brien. It was summertime and he often took me to the set with him. I would cue him on his lines as we drove to MGM, with the car windows open and the heady mix of Old Spice and a Cuban cigar swirling about us. On the set I would play 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 mic 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 Danny Thomas? Was I as gifted, as funny ... would I be as popular? I was devastated.
I loved my Dad, my problem was Danny Thomas. So I went to him and said, "Daddy, 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 that followed. 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. 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. The words he chose touched my heart and have remained with me all through my life. Whenever I'm at a crossroads, I ask myself, "Am I running my race or somebody else's?" What a gift he gave me. I give it to you: Run your own race and ... Happy Father's Day.
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