Broadcasting legend Phil Donahue came to Chicago at the peak of his groundbreaking television talk show, Donahue, which aired locally on WGN. Donahue’s one-hour program pioneered an intellectual, topical, and controversial approach, interviewing iconic figures from Muhammad Ali to Ayn Rand, and taking on emotionally-charged topics such as politics, religion, and sex. In this exclusive interview, Donahue is as intense and searching as ever. The 78-year-old host, who once lived in Winnetka, now lives in New York with his wife, actress Marlo Thomas.
Do you see yourself as a journalist or as a TV talk show host?
I never thought of myself as a journalist. I was a talk show host. There’s an underlying conceit among journalists though that they’re the news and I’m not. I co-hosted a debate with [ABC News journalist] Ted Koppel at Dartmouth for the 1984 presidential campaign and that did not please the boys on the bus. Every major newspaper supported the war in Iraq, so the so-called mainstream journalists have a lot to answer for. [Journalists] are way too interested in having the White House call them back.
You’ve interviewed some of the most influential people of the 20th century, such as Johnny Carson. What quality do you most associate with him?
Intelligence is one. Johnny was obviously very fast—he was at the top of the heap. Comedy is serious business. I married a woman whose father [Danny Thomas] was one of the leading comedic figures of the century.
You were divorced shortly after Donahue moved from Dayton to Chicago in 1974. Did the stress of being a single, divorced father affect your family?
Probably. Looking back, I’m not sure how all of us survived. They all still talk to me, but it was hard being the son of a celebrity. It was a strange way to grow up.
When were you last on the North Shore?
I was visiting friends of mine from Pine Street [in Winnetka] last weekend. The old pals lived two doors from me and they’re very close to me. They came into my life when I had four sons as a single parent, surrounded by these nuclear families, in a predominantly Republican suburb, where they wanted to know where Mrs. Donahue was.
One day, I was cutting my grass in front of my house and my neighbor Dennis O’Connell said, “Hi, can I get you a beer?” and I grabbed him with both hands and said, “yes!” Pretty soon Mrs. O’Connell, Susan, came over with a bowl of popcorn. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I became very emotionally dependent [on the O’Connells]. Susan would interview housekeepers for me and she’d be meeting strange women at hotel lobbies. I [told her], “I can’t have a gorgeous young nanny. I’ve got four sons here.”
Then, I interviewed a candidate once at a diner in Wilmette. She was kind of strange. She had a hoodie on in August. She took my picture. I once saw her take a picture of the inside of a garbage can. I thought, “well they thought Jackson Pollack was strange too.” I hired her. There was a room off the dining room with a bed and a TV, which was perfect. The kids wanted to know why we needed her and I said, “are you going to do your socks?”
About four years ago, I got a call from a guy who said he was a lawyer for Vivian Maier [the name of the strange nanny]. She left over 100,000 photographs and her work now hangs in galleries all over the world. There were pictures of me in this collection. I did the narration on a documentary film [about her].
[During the visit], we went down Pine Street. We came and saw [the O’Connells’] house, which was near my house. Theirs was where Donald Rumsfeld grew up. Mine had been replaced. Later, I bought a house at 1133 Pine Street at Ardsley, which was catty corner to the Nielsen family of the Nielsen ratings company. Our driveway entered off of Ardsley. We literally had five Hondas in that driveway. And that home has [since] been replaced. There’s a brand new house. So it was quite an interesting visit to the old neighborhood.
You’ve been married to Marlo Thomas for more than 34 years and she recently wrote a book about why the marriage works. Do you have thoughts on what makes a successful marriage?
Obviously, you’ve got to survive inevitable conflicts that appear to have no resolutions—conflicts that appear unresolvable—and you can’t make impetuous decisions. That gets easier to do as the years go by. Tomorrow, it won’t seem so terrible.
Your wife recently wrote about your annual anniversary vacation. Where did you two go this year?
We went to the Hamptons where she will appear on stage in Clever Little Lies [this summer] at Guild Hall. We took a trip to Sag Harbor where I’m going to have my boat during her run there. We’ll live on the boat while she’s performing. It was fun—and we’re ready for the Hamptons.
What’s your favorite TV show?
I watch the cable shout shows. I watch Fox News. If you don’t watch Fox, you’re probably culturally illiterate. I’m absorbed by it. I can’t believe the thunderous, relentless, unpatriotic, one-note criticism of the president. It really rises to personal hatefulness. They are locked into a brand. Corporate media is ruining democracy.
Do you watch any shows that would be considered unserious? What sports teams do you root for?
I wouldn’t call it unserious—I certainly check in on Colbert and Stewart—but I’m a Yankees fan. I went from the Cubs to the Yankees. [In Chicago] I’d get in the car, drive to Ashland and park at the curb. Remember, I was on a show on a channel [WGN’s Channel 9] owned by the company that owns the Cubs. I would go up and watch with Lou Boudreau in the booth—and he was the shortstop for the [Cleveland] Indians when I was a kid [in Ohio]. Chicago was a fascinating time for me.
Do you plan to revisit the North Shore?
Sure. I still have friends there. And a lot of memories.