Marlo Thomas on Playing Real People: A “Special Responsibility”

“You can’t rob her of her truth.”

That’s Marlo Thomas’s answer when she’s asked about the challenge of playing a real-life person in a film — something she will do for the fourth time in a fact-based television movie when she portrays Sharon Rodgers Simone in ULTIMATE BETRAYAL, which aired Sunday, March 20, 1994 on CBS-TV 9:00-11:00 p.m. (ET). The film tells the true story of adult sisters — played by ms. Thomas, Mel Harris, Ally Sheedy and Kathryn Dowling — two of whom sued their father for physical and sexual abuse committed during their childhood. The case, which was legally unprecedented, inspired pending Congressional legislation setting forth conditions under which adult victims of child abuse can seek compensation.

“Playing a real person, especially one who’s alive, is a special kind of responsibility — it’s scary but exciting”, says Ms. Thomas. “In preparing for ULTIMATE BETRAYAL, I got to know Sharon Simone very well. I talked for five hours with her and her therapist. She gave me letters and poems she had written over the years. I went through the same basic procedure when I played Marie Balter in ‘Nobody’s Child,’ Sis Lewin in ‘Held Hostage’ and Laura Z. Hobson in ‘Consenting Adults.’ In all four cases, I received so much personal help, such rich material. The challenge for the actress goes beyond creating a believable character the audience will accept; there’s also an obligation to the person you’re playing. They’ve given you their truth, and you don’t want to let them down.”

During the period of Sharon’s life covered by the first half of ULTIMATE BETRAYAL, she is a woman whose world is falling apart. Her sisters have decided to file their lawsuit, and they turn to Sharon for support even though she has no recollection of childhood abuse. As she is forced to confront her denial, horrific memories of her childhood begin to surface, driving her to the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Her actions endanger her most important adult relationships –those with her husband and their children. It’s deeply intimate, highly emotional material, and Ms. Thomas took the challenge very seriously indeed –even after filming ended.

“When we’d finished, Sharon asked if she could view the rough-cut with me”, she says. “I was terrified. What if she didn’t like it? What if I’d failed her? Could she handle the emotional experience of seeing her story? Could I handle watching her try to handle it? I would up sitting several rows behind her to give her some privacy, and I remember at one very difficult point she lifted her arm and made a little ok sign with her fingers and thumbs. When it was over, she came up to me and said, ‘You got it right…you got every bit of it.’ And I relaxed for the first time.”

ULTIMATE BETRAYAL also stars Eileen Heckart and Henry Czerny. The screenplay is by Greg Goodell. Donald Wrye is director and executive producer. The film is a production of Polongo Productions in association with Hearts Entertainment Productions.