Rosie O’Donnell was a huge fan of the 1972 TV special ‘Free to Be … You and Me‘ produced by Marlo Thomas that used songs, sketches and poetry to salute things like individuality, tolerance, gender equality and happiness with your own identity.
So it’s no surprise that O’Donnell’s HBO special ‘A Family is a Family is a Family: A Rosie O’Donnell Celebration‘ which premieres Sunday night, is heavily influenced by that Emmy-winning TV special which first aired nearly 40 years ago. ‘Family’ focuses on the message that there are all kinds of families in this world. In addition to the traditional mom and dad ones, there are families with adopted kids, single parent families, families with gay parents, biracial families and even test tube children.
“We wanted to celebrate families and differences and give kids in all different kinds of families a way to see themselves and their life back on television,” O’Donnell said while promoting the show at the Television Critics Association press tour this month.
To do that, she kept thinking back to ‘Free to Be.’
“I still remember the songs,” she said. “I’m a kid who was born in 1962 and I grew up with the promise of equality and Gloria Steinem and the [proposed Equal Rights Amendment] and believing that we, the people, could make a difference if we got together and marched in the streets and spoke for those without a voice. So ‘Free to Be … You and Me’ was a seminal moment for me in my childhood … I had dinner with Marlo Thomas, and I said, ‘I’d like to do this. I’d like to do it with families instead of the equality thing. Can you give me the rights?'”
O’Donnell, 48, hopes the special is a chance for a lot of kids to get “to see their own lives reflected in media in a celebration as opposed to an expose or something to be criticized. … Difference is essential to the world, you know, difference should be celebrated and not feared.”
It’s been well-publicized that O’Donnell was just 10 years old when her mother died of cancer and she had a rough road with an emotionally distant father.
“I think my children know, because I tell the story over and over again, about the realities of my childhood when I was little and my desire to create a family where all the kids were safe and loved and able to express their emotions, no matter what they were,” she said. “Once I got to be an adult and was lucky enough to have a family, I wanted to help those kids who were in situations similar to the one I was in.”
One of the children interviewed on the special is Rosie’s and her ex-partner Kelli Carpenter’s daughter Vivi.
“I didn’t know if she would do it,” said O’Donnell. “So we went down to my art studio where Vivi has been every day of her life for seven years. And she was all dressed up, unbeknownst to me, with pearls and her hair done. And I was like, ‘What the hell?’ She was like Paris Hilton and she was six!”
She adds: “Vivi went through a part where she would say ‘Kelli is my real mommy.’ And I would say, ‘Yeah, you were in her tummy and you shared a heartbeat for nine months. And I get it and you look like her. And she’s like, ‘So I’m not adopted.’ I’m like, ‘Well, you are adopted because I’m your other mommy. And we don’t have any of the same cells. And if you don’t have any of the same cells as somebody who’s your mommy or your daddy, that means you’re adopted. So you’re adopted and you’re biologically born, so you’re both.’ But all kids come into families different ways, and I think our kids know that.”
Since leaving ‘The View’ a few years ago, O’Donnell said she has been more of a stay-at-home mom and her newly-launched daily talk show on Sirius Satellite Radio allows her to be around for her and Carpenter’s four children.
“They put a studio in one of my homes … and it’s unbelievably fulfilling in that you get two hours a day,” she said. “So if something happens in Haiti, it’s not like something on ‘The View‘ where you get six minutes. You can spend two hours talking about that. Or if there’s a book I love, we can have the author on no matter what the subject matter is. You know, if Liza Minnelli drives out to my house, you can two hours with Liza Minnelli and I really appreciate that kind of freedom. … Authenticity is essential for me as I’m turning 48, and I think the voice I get to use on the radio show is as close to a merged persona of truth that I’ve ever presented.”
But O’Donnell, who has done movies, appeared on Broadway and written several books, will be doing more than just radio in the coming months. She is planning to do a stand-up comedy tour this summer as well as a stand-up comedy special for HBO. She also wouldn’t mind if Ryan Murphy, the ‘Glee‘ creator for whom she worked with on several episodes of ‘Nip/Tuck,’ came up with a guest spot for her on his hit Fox show.
She already has a few ideas: “I would do it in a moment. I would sing anything they asked. I would like to have a competitive cheerleading team against Jane Lynch and then maybe she and I maybe fall in love and have a torrid affair.”