New York — `IT'S very hard to drop bombs on people you know,'' said Marlo Thomas earnestly a few days before air time for her landmark TV special, ``Free to Be ... a Family'' (tonight, ABC, 8-9 p.m.). ``The idea behind the show is: The better we [American and Soviet citizens] get to know each other, the less likely we are to continue old anger, old hatreds.'' Marlo is the daughter of comedian Danny Thomas, wife of talk-show host Phil Donahue, and winner of four Emmys, a Golden Globe, and a Peabody Award.
She is known throughout the world as the star of the ``That Girl'' TV series, as well as of dramatic specials. She is also co-author of a book and recording with the same title as the ``Free to Be...'' special.
Sixteen years ago, Miss Thomas presented her first Emmy- and Peabody-winning special: ``Free to Be ... You and Me,'' which encouraged youngsters to think about themselves in non-sexist ways. Now, in the second of the ``Free to Be...'' shows, the focus is on international understanding.
It is the first prime-time entertainment ``space bridge,'' using a satellite linkup between the Hard Rock Caf'e in New York and the Gostelradio Studios in Moscow. About 80 youngsters take part, but it is not a kiddie show; it is an entertainment for the whole family.
According to Thomas, the youngsters were introduced through letters to one another; they corresponded and exchanged souvenirs. Then Thomas played host to the show in New York, while Tatiana Vedeneyeva was co-host for the show in Moscow. The children shared their music, comedy, ideas, and personal feelings across the space bridge.
Performers such as Bon Jovi, Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin, Carly Simon, Penn and Teller, and Whoopi Goldberg donated their talents. But it is the kids who make the show unique.
``What surprised me most,'' said Thomas in an interview, ``is that it is so hard to tell the kids apart - how alike they all turned out to be. It was stunning to realize that kids are kids. They all talk about music, divorce, school, dating, kissing. I didn't expect the Soviet kids to like the same kind of music, the same kind of dance steps.
``Maybe,'' she continued, ``if we see that we dress alike, appreciate the same kind of music, have the same kind of hopes and dreams - just maybe we will realize that the USSR is not an evil empire, with a lot of people with horns and tails who want to kill us. That could help break down the walls of all this anger and suspicion and mistrust.''
Although there is some political satire in the program, it works better in concept than in execution. What's most successful is the kids - talking, singing, laughing, being kids.
One of the things Thomas feels sorry she didn't have time to include in the show was a moment when one of the Soviet youngsters asked the Americans: ``Do you fall in love?''
``Imagine that question,'' she said sadly, ``as if we are some alien people - another species. That's the kind of question a space bridge can render obsolete.''