Last week we learned a bit about The Mike Douglas Show which debuted in Cleveland. Today we get the back story on The Phil Donahue Show which also started in Ohio, in Dayton, in 1967. In 1970 it went into syndication and was seen weekdays until 1996.
Donahue was a reporter at WLWD and when the Johnny Gilbert Show ended, Phil got his chance to host his own show. In 1974, Phil moved his show to Chicago. In 1985 He moved to 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City.
Donahue described himself as “the Cal Ripken” of television hosts. With interviews every weekday for more than a decade, about 7000 total, it’s hard to argue with him. Donahue was interested less in celebrities and more about investigative-type stories and popular issues. He covered topics such as interracial marriages, homosexuality, bigotry, poverty, drug trafficking, political scandals, cross dressing, the Catholic priest abuse of young boys, and current events. However, he did do interviews with important newsmakers including Ronald Reagan, Nelson Mandela, and Jane Fonda. He shunned tabloid-type stories that Jerry Springer and Geraldo Rivera featured.
In an interview with the Television Academy, Donahue talked about some of his favorite interviews. He said he enjoyed Gloria Steinhem and the discussion they had about women’s liberation. He said this was an issue he was able to watch from the beginning through its transitions. (As an aside, I was able to interview Steinhem and later meet her at a university event in Eau Claire, and I understood his description of her charisma and insights.) The eye-opening perspectives he received from Steinhem about the oppression of women pushed him to explore views on homophobia and racism as well. He realized he could make a difference in these matters if others could understand these problems and the people who were bringing life-changing messages. He said he didn’t want the white guys doing all the talking anymore and he gave non-white guys the floor.
Another person he admired was Ralph Nader because he stuck to his guns and continued to fight for what was right when the cameras were off and he was alone.
One of the most interesting shows he did was in December of 1985. He was asked to participate in the first people-to-people satellite meeting between the US and the Soviet Union with Vladimir Pozner who had appeared on Nightline with Ted Koppel who recommended him to Donahue. They taped in Seattle and Leningrad. When he asked the Russians where they wanted to visit in the United States, he got the typical responses: Disneyland, Las Vegas, New York City, and then someone said Oxford, Mississippi. Donahue asked why and the person said that it was because one of the world’s best authors, William Faulkner, was from there. From that point on, the conversations got more interesting and culturally significant.
Donahue realized in the 90s that he could not compete with Oprah and hosted his final episode in September of 1996. His career produced about 7000 shows. Oprah always respected his show and often said, “If there hadn’t been a Phil, there wouldn’t have been a me.”
He was awarded with his first Emmy in 1977. By 1988 he was the owner of nine Emmys.
Don Grady, best known for playing Rob on My Three Sons, composed the theme music for the show. In 1979, he published an autobiography, Donahue: My Own Story.
Although Phil had five children with his first wife, Margaret Cooney, he has been married to Marlo Thomas, daughter of Danny and star of That Girl, since 1980.
I remember watching this show and Donahue was typically right in the middle of the audience running up and down the stairs to get input from his visitors. I think it was literally that bounding enthusiasm that set him apart from the other television hosts during this time. He was more concerned about improving life than improving ratings.