Why did That Girl (1966-71) made my childhood list of tv programs “good beyond hope"? The tale of Ann Marie (Marlo Thomas), madcap wannabe actress on the loose in a bright, effervescent New York City, had some beefcake -- hunky guest stars and Don Hollinger (Ted Bessell) in extra-revealing 1960s pants. But there were no same-sex plotlines, no same-sex romances. It's about a boy and a girl.
But still, Marlo Thomas and Ted Bessell were both gay allies. Ted previously costarred with gay actor Jim Nabors on Gomer Pyle and bisexual Glenn Corbett on It's a Man's World. Today Marlo Thomas writes a column on gay and women's history for The Huffington Post.
And they do not portray Don and Ann as in love. Indeed, they rarely even kiss. Instead, depictions of their evenings together often fade out with Don wisecracking and Ann laughing, like warm and caring friends enjoying each other’s company (in the third season, ABC helpfully added a kissing scene to the closing credits, to remind us that they were to be taken as a romantic couple).
Instead, they often treated the romantic reading of their relationship as a joke: in “The Good Skate” (September 1967), when Don presents Ann with a small jewelry box, she concludes that it contains an engagement ring and gapes in horror: she doesn’t want to get married. But it really contains a skate key. Surely most lovers would consider such a joke rather cruel, but Ann laughs it off as mischievous fun.
ABC wanted the couple to marry in the last episode, but they refused. The series ended with Ann and Don trapped in an elevator en route to a Women’s Liberation meeting. Two decades later, when Marlo Thomas and Ted Bessell discussed a reunion movie, they agreed that Ann and Don had remained close friends, but never married.
They wanted fans to be free to explore their own feelings, instead of believing that their destiny necessarily lay in a cookie-cutter, assembly-line heterosexual romance. She and Bessell took pains, therefore, to ensure that their characters could be read in any of the many ways that women and men might approach each other as equals: perhaps as romantic partners, but perhaps as friends. In that last category it is easy to read Don as a gay man.