Phil Donahue: ‘I had to do this film’

“Tomas was a very bright light. I had to do this film,” Phil Donahue said.—Bryan Haeffele photo

Everyone knows Phil Donahue. He’s that guy who invented the modern talk show. He’s that guy who ran up and down the aisles on Donahue for 29 years. And he’s that guy who married “That Girl,” Marlo Thomas, in 1980.

But what many people don’t know is Phil Donahue is also that guy who co-directed the documentary film Body of War, which was named the Best Documentary of 2007 by the National Board of Review and which Time Magazine called “A superb documentary… almost unbearably moving.”

On Friday, Feb. 1, Mr. Donahue is bringing Body of War to the Ridgefield Playhouse, followed by a question  session hosted by Emmy-award winning journalist Morton Dean. Wife Marlo Thomas will also be there.

“Bringing this film to Ridgefield is very important to me,” Mr. Donahue said in an interview at his Westport home.

Body of War tells the story of 25-year old Tomas (pronounced Thomas) Young who enlisted in the Army following the events of 9/11 and President Bush’s rallying cry “Bring ’em on!”

Although Mr. Young had expected to fight in Afghanistan, he was sent instead to Iraq and after just five days was shot in an ambush while riding in an open-top truck. A bullet to his spine permanently paralyzed him from the chest down.

Against the backdrop of the congressional vote that approved the resolution to invade Iraq, the film follows Tomas as he struggles with his disability and adopts new political ideals.

Bright light

While visiting Ralph Nader in Washington, D.C., in 2004, Mr. Donahue met Mr. Young for the first time at Walter Reed Hospital. He was so moved by the wounded soldier’s story that he decided to make a documentary about him.

“Tomas was a very bright light. I had to do this film,” he said.

In the eight years since the film was made, the men still have a close bond. Gazing intently at a photo Mr. Young sent to Mr. Donahue in a text message, Mr. Donahue nods his head slowly.

“Tomas is a survivor and a remarkable man,” he said.

Though it was Mr. Donahue’s first go-round with filmmaking, it turned out to be a labor of love. He said he lucked out by having a “great co-director,” Ellen Spiro, and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam helped by offering to record two songs for the film.

“Eddie Vedder is a rock star with a conscience,” Mr. Donahue said.

After its release in 2007, Body of War was a success at film festivals and events such as the Veterans for Peace Convention. Some updates were added to the film being shown in Ridgefield.

At 77, with his expressive blue eyes and trademark silver hair, Mr. Donahue is in great physical shape and shows no signs of slowing down. Giving up beer 10 years ago, he said, keeps him “from getting puffy.”

He recently completed a film about James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, and renowned biologist Ed Wilson. He’s also kicking around some ideas for a new documentary.

Gazebo Phil

At home, Mr. Donahue caringly tends to an extensive colony of purple martins, the largest North American swallows. Assisted by the Connecticut Audubon Society, he set up rows of hollow gourds for the birds to nest.

Special webcams that do not bother the birds were installed inside the gourds and show them hatching, feeding and fledging. On his website,, visitors may get a live birdseye view of the martins from April until August, before they fly off to Brazil for the winter.

“I am fascinated by these birds,” he said. “You can learn so much from them. The parents and siblings all take turns feeding the chicks. They eat about a hundred times a day. I was in a hotel in Venice, Italy, and just had to go downstairs and use the computer in the lobby to see what was happening on the website.”

Although he’s no longer bounding up and down the aisles of a TV studio soliciting opinions about domestic violence or women’s rights, Mr. Donahue still cares deeply about social issues. Unemployment, affordable health care, and political marginalization are very much on his mind. “I try not to go around lecturing people, though,” he said. “Nobody likes a scold.”

The controversial issues he dared to tackle over the years have left a lasting impression on many people. “I’ll be at the airport and someone will come up and thank me for helping them get out of an abusive relationship, or thank me for helping them ‘come out’ to their family. Some have even thanked me for helping them learn how to speak English, and that’s really nice,” he said.

Body of War is being presented  Friday at 7:30 p.m., by the Ridgefield Playhouse Film Society. Tickets are $10 for adults, $7.50 for seniors, and $5 for students. Special tickets for $25 include a Meet and Greet with Mr. Donahue. Tickets may be purchased at, or by calling 203-438-5795. Tickets will also be sold at the door. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to the Wounded Warrior Project.

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