Donna Reed’s Daughter Reveals the Side of Her Mom You Don’t Know — Plus, Donna Reed in Her Own Words

Stardom back in the Golden Age of Hollywood was a strange thing. How else could you explain someone like the late Donna Reed costarring in something as iconic as It’s a Wonderful Life, and winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as a prostitute in From Here to Eternity, but still struggling for good parts?

“The Academy Award resulted in more roles and more money,” she mused to the New York Daily News in 1958, “but never again was I offered such a great part.”

To gain a sense of the kind of person that she was, Donna refused to accept what was doled out to her and, instead — along with then producer husband Tony Owen — began looking to create an ideal part for herself, which ultimately resulted in her Classic TV series The Donna Reed Show (streaming on MeTV). “Looking for the right concept took two years,” she noted to The Journal News. “We were bombarded with ideas from typewriters in Hollywood. I could have played a lady race track tout. Someone suggested a show about an elevator operator in the Empire State Building with a new episode on every floor. There was even one about a lady bullfighter.”

donna-reed-and-mary-anne
Courtesy Mary Anne Owen

It was a suggestion from a Screen Gems exec that did the trick: Why didn’t Donna just play herself? Suddenly everything clicked and the result was The Donna Reed Show, which cast her as Donna Stone, wife to pediatrician Dr. Alex Stone and mother to their children Mary (Shelley Fabares) and Jeff (Paul Petersen).

It may not sound ground-breaking, but it was. And it somehow managed to survive despite being pit in its first season against the NBC powerhouse of The Milton Berle Show. In 1958, though, Donna didn’t seem too worried. “You see, I’m hopeful that there are lots of people in this country who will tune in a good series of family life, regardless of what else may happen to be on the air,” she said. “After all, we have a storyline that should have a wide appeal. We portray the life of a doctor — a specialist, whose life is dedicated to all children. And what wonderful two kids we have playing our children on the show: Shelly Fabares, the 14-year-old niece of Nanette Fabray, and Paul Petersen, formerly one of Walt Disney’s Mouseketeers. I, of course, am the wife. In so many TV situation comedies the man of the house is nothing more than a good-natured, lovable blunderbuss. And, of course, the wife is always the incarnation of cleverness and wisdom. Well, we depart from that. In our series, the wife doesn’t always have the last word.”

A year later she added, “We knew it would take a while to build an audience. We were like a new family on the block. We had to be known and accepted.” Known and accepted they were, especially Donna herself.

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