If there was one TV show in the 1950s that really conveyed the idea of the family sitcom, it would have to be Father Knows Best, which starred Robert Young as Jim Anderson, Jane Wyatt as his wife, Margaret; Lauren Chapin as youngest child, Kathy (aka "Kitten"); Billy Gray as son James ("Bud"), and Elinor Donahue as the oldest, Betty ("Princess"). It was wholesome without being cloying, and still remains a wonderful reminder of a bygone era. It's also something that Elinor herself is, in a way, rediscovering for the first time since she started shooting the show nearly 65 years ago.

"Father Knows Best," Elinor says in an exclusive interview from her California home, "is on at 6:00 in the morning here, and they run two episodes a day. A friend of mine was saying how much she enjoys it, and she's younger than me by a good 20 years. The morning won't go by without her watching the show. I've started watching it myself and I realized there's so much of it that I've forgotten, but I didn't even watch the show when it was on, because we were all busy working on it. By the time we'd get home at night and have our dinner, we'd be getting ready to learn our lines, go to sleep to get up and do it again. So I never saw the show, but I'm catching up and it's quite fun, actually."

Which begs the question: after so many years being away from it, what is it like to suddenly be transported back in time? "I find myself filled with great fondness," the 81-year-old actress smiles. "Fondness for the group of us, and we were very, very close. We really liked each other, and it brings generally happy memories. Of course there's always days and things where something didn't go right, but it's all kind of sweet. I was also very critical of myself when I was young, which is another reason I probably didn't watch the show. I made myself uncomfortable. But now, for heaven's sake, I'm more forgiving of myself."

She started as a child star.

Born Mary Eleanor Donahue on April 19, 1937 in Tacoma, Washington, her first experience in showbusiness was at the age of five, when she appeared in dancing-chorus films. She was also a child actress in vaudeville and scored roles in 17 films between 1943 (Mister Big, in which she played a character named Muggsy) and 1952 (Sweethearts on Parade). Growing up, she says, times were definitely tough, with a move for she and her mother to California from Washington.

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(Photo Credit: MGM)

"I had a brother and sister who were grown when I was born," says Elinor. "I don't know what the whole deal was, but when I was five or six we were sent to California for my mother's health, supposedly. But there wasn't much being sent in the way of help from Washington State. I've heard various things that he [her father] was withholding things so that mother would come home. All of which is a long way around of telling you that, yes, it was very difficult. My mother worked at the May's Company in the wrapping department, she could also sew clothing and worked for a costumer, and worked at an ice cream parlor, where she made the best ice cream sodas you'd ever want."

Eventually, though, the decision was made to focus more on Elinor's career largely for financial reasons. "She could make in a month what I would make in a week, even with salaries as they were in the '40s. If I made $125 for a week's worth, it would have taken her a month to make that. And the laws of those days said when you were on a movie set, a parent had to be with you. Since I didn't have a father with me, there was only mother. She can't work and be with me while I'm acting, so it's a no-brainer. Are you going to go for the $125 or are you going to go for the $50? One time she did say to me, 'Do you want to go home? Do you want to give this up?' In all honesty, I gave her the answer that I thought she wanted, which was, 'No, I want to stay here.' I'm not sure that I did, but you look to your parent and you look in their eyes and wonder, 'What does she want me to say?' I didn't have any great crying need to go home. We'd been alone by then long enough, and it was certainly not unusual in show business to have had a childhood like that. There are many stories very similar, and I'm not trying to make it out like it's Little Orphan Annie or something. It wasn't. But it also wasn't a walk in the park."

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(Photo Credit: MGM)

She recalls many times sitting at the table eating dinner, and being encouraged by her mother to eat while the woman stood at the stove, keeping busy. Elinor would ask her if she was going to eat, but her mom would say she wasn't hungry. "Well," she says matter of factly, "turns out there wasn't enough food. She wanted me to eat first and what I didn't eat, she would eat the leftovers. Those were the times. I had a contract at Universal, but it was dropped when the man who put me under contract died. Suddenly I was a has-been at seven and didn't work again until I was eight and a half or nine. That's when mother started working at the ice cream parlor. It's like, let's say you're 14 or 15 years old and you're in a drama class at school and you say, 'This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.' I didn't have that decision to make; it was sort of more or less thrust on me. I had fun doing it and didn't regret a second of it, but I could step away very easily and eventually did."

Father Knows Best

Shortly before Father Knows Best became a possibility, both Elinor and her mother were of the mind that she didn't have much of a career left. "I'd had a very nice career as a child actress," she reflects. "I had been on a contract to MGM and done a couple of nice movies there when I was 9, 10, 11 years old. But things didn't seem to be going terribly well for us. I was still acting, but primarily I was dancing in a chorus, like a Rockette sort of thing. At about the time that I got Father Knows Best, I was due to go to Reno to be at Harrah's Club to dance in their chorus. I loved dancing, and that was gong to be my career as far as I was concerned."

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In stepped her agent, Lily Messenger, who truly believed in her and fought to get her an audition on the show, which had been a successful radio show before making the transition to television. Lily got her in the door, but was eventually told by the producer that Elinor was "very nice, but she's too plain. She's not my Betty." So instead of just accepting that, she "fancied" Elinor up a bit and brought her back, only to be told this time that she looked too much like a "Hollywood starlet; she's not my Betty." Several weeks of pestering nonetheless resulted in Elinor getting a screentest for the show, though, by her own admission, it didn't turn out well.

"I forgot my lines," she grimaces. "I got nervous and started to cry. I was dong a scene with Robert Young being off stage. He was very nice. They wanted to just say, 'Thank you very much and goodbye,' but he said, 'You know, she's very nervous. Elinor, why don't you come and sit over here? Would you like a Coca-Cola?' I said, 'Yes, thank you; that would be very nice.' And he said, 'You just sit here and let yourself calm down a little bit and they'll fix your makeup and we'll do someone else and then come back and try you again.' So I sat there and watched another girl do her test. She happened to be the girl who was playing Kathy on the radio show, because the radio show of Father Knows Best had been on for four years. People were not exactly the ages they were playing, because you could get away with that on radio. Everybody was greeeting her and hugging her and kissing her and telling her how wonderful she was and everything. I said to myself, 'Well, that's the end of that thing.' They fixed my makeup, we did the scene, first take, fine, thank you very much, goodbye."

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And that was it. For six weeks. Then came the call from Lily telling her that she had gotten the part. "I had completely forgotten about it," Elinor laughs. "I thought I'd blown the whole thing and literally put it out of my mind."

At the time, she was living in a foster home in Beverly Hills, and was offered the opportunity to go to Beverly Hills High School for a short time before filming on Father Knows Best would get underway. She agreed, embracing the notion that it would give her an opportunity to be a "real" teenager, because she'd been working most of her life. "I'd been dancing in the chorus and working hard to try and make money," Elinor explains. "Life had been very difficult and it wasn't a normal, regular child's life with school and everything. I didn't really go to school. I sort of was what they call emancipated now, but it wasn't really. I got out of school in seventh grade, so didn't have much of an education. Mrs. Lane [her foster mother] arranged it, so I went to high school in the fall before filming started and that sort of gave me the character of Betty Anderson.

"I went to my first sockhop," she elaborates. "I went to my first football game. I had never run down a hallway with books, I never had a locker. I'd never gone to a gym class. Nothing. I had never done anything that 'normal' teenagers would do, and I loved it. I thought it was just swell. And that was sort of the genesis of Betty's character. Of course, it was written into the show the way she was and evolved over the years as all of our characters did."

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(Photo Credit: Screen Gems Television)

From hearing her enthusiasm, the impression is she would have been reluctant to leave that high school existence for one in television, but remaining there was something that was never going to happen. "What did," she notes, "was before I started shooting Father Knows Best, I got a job dancing on television in a chorus. We had to rehearse in the afternoon and do it at night. My mother said, 'Look, this is way too hard,' so I actually only went to the school for five weeks."

One exciting aspect of the series as far as she was concerned is that she didn't have to entirely leave her dancing life behind her, as the writers would pen scripts that would put Betty in different situations where she could dance. "I did a toe dance one time," she recalls, "and the other morning I caught an episode that had Bud playing the bongo drums and I was doing this faux bongo dance — whatever you do to a bongo beat. They had a whole episode about a talent show, where I had to do a tap dance, and it went on from there. So the dancing was used from time to time."

Father Knows Best ran from 1954 to 1960, producing a total of 203 episodes, and it connected in a major way with audiences during its original run and, especially, when it went into reruns. "I think the appeal of the show is the sweetness and the kindness that people had toward one another," Elinor proposes. "It has a warmth and loving energy to it that was very special. There was no mean spritedness to it. If anybody was mean-spirited, I think it was Princess occasionally. She was always on a crusade of some sort and kind of huffy about everything."

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Elinor herself got a little huffy when the show was abruptly cancelled. Part of the reason for that was a strike of the Writers Guild of America that lasted from January to June 1960, and suddenly the young cast discovered that they were out of work. "Lauren," she says, "found out when she went to the lot and were told we're not shooting anymore. I don't know how Billy found out, but Miss. Messenger called me and said, 'You're not going back anymore. Robert Young and Jane Wyatt have retired and they don't want to do it anymore, so they just stopped.' We had enough episode in the can to make an entire season without having to shoot any more; back then we were shooting 39 episodes a year. I admit, I was sad and disappointed that Mr. Young and Jane Wyatt never said anything. It was years before we actually saw each other again, and during that time I'd thought it was only Mr. Young that wanted to stop. Jane Wyatt and I became very dear friends in the later part of her life, and she told me they made the decision together."

The Andy Griffith Show

Making the transition from child performer to adult is usually a difficult situation for young actors, but Elinor managed to go right from Father Knows Best to the first season of The Andy Griffith Show. "The fortunate thing," she offers, "is that I left that show playing a young woman rather than a child. I was actually 23 when we stopped, but I was playing 19. In the eyes of the world, I was a young woman and was launched into the rest of my career, already not having to make a huge transition from 'child' to an adult."

On The Andy Griffith Show, she played pharmacist Ellie Walker, who was designed to become the girlfriend of Sheriff Andy Taylor after a rocky start between the two characters. And while the characters did begin to date, the relationship didn't last and Elinor appeared in only a dozen episodes of the first season in 1960, before asking to be released from her contract.

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"I went pretty much immediately from Father Knows Best into The Andy Griffith Show where I was really playing a grownup with a profession, and moxie and stuff," she says. "But the truth is, I felt like a bird out of a nest. I didn't feel like I had all my feathers yet and I didn't feel capable. It was the strangest feeling. I had a three-year contract for that show, but at the end of the first year I asked to be let out of it, because I didn't feel that I was playing the role properly. I just didn't feel right about it. In retrospect, from things that people have said to me — very lovely things — I was doing OK. I was just not a happy camper and there was no point in my trying to continue with it."

There have also been stories that Andy Griffith had a difficult time showing affection on set, and that hindered what was supposed to be a blossoming romance. Years later, Elinor attended an event and saw him there. She went up and apologized for having left the show. "He was as gracious to me as you could imagine," she smiles. "He said they just didn't know how to write for me. That could have been part of it. I didn't think there was any real chemistry there. They tried a lot of other women periodically, but then Aneta Corsaut came in. I have since read they had a hot and heavy thing going, and in that case he was able to relate."

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One warm memory of her time on the show came when they were shooting that first season's Christmas episode, and she was extremely nervous about singing on camera. "I didn't sing anymore, so I avoided it like the plague," she reflects. "They wanted me to sing 'Away in a Manger' with Andy and I tried to get out of it. My mother said, 'Oh for heaven's sake, you sing that in church all the time, you can certainly sing that.' But I was very, very nervous about it. So at the end of filming one day, we met at a recording studio and he got a key. He could tell I was nervous and said, 'Just sit down here on the floor and I'll just noodle around with the guitar and you come in when you feel comfortable and we'll start. Just a rehearsal.' We started singing and sang through the whole thing. Then he said, 'Oh, that was very nice. Very good. Okay, that's it.' I said, 'What?' He faked me out, because he knew how nervous I was, and that was the take that they used. It was just very sweet."

Star Trek

One of her projects that may have surprised Elinor in terms of its endurability is the single appearance she made on an episode of the original Star Trek. Titled "Metamorphosis," she played the strong-willed Ambassador Nancy Hedford, who crashlands on a planet with William Shatner's Captain Kirk, Leonard Nimoy's Mr. Spock, and DeForest Kelley's Dr. McCoy, all of whom encounter a long-missing scientist and an alien energy entity that protects him — but has actually fallen in love with him.

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(Photo Credit: CBS Television Distribution)

"When we filmed it, obviously we didn't know it would go on the way it has," she says, "but Star Trek certainly became a phenomenon very early on. You could see that it was going to have legs for a long time, because they would have those Star Trek conventions throughout the '70s. I was usually invited, but I never wanted to go, because I thought, 'Well, gee, I was only in the one episode. That doesn't seem right.' But I did go to a Las Vegas convention two years ago for the show's 50th anniversary. That was quite wonderful and quite fun. What I thought was funny is that when I was there, someone mentioned to me that they thought it was very strange — or did I feel that it was strange — that Ambassador Heford would be serving coffe to the men. I told her it didn't seem strange to me at all. In this day and age, I guess you wouldn't have a female character serving if you're a big muckity-muck in whatever service it is. But doing coffee service for someone in those days was fine."

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In terms of working with William Shatner, some people enjoyed it greatly, while others not so much (as our interview with Yvonne Craig pointed out). "He was interesting, let's put it that way," she laughs. "He was an interesting guy. We ended up getting along fine, though he was a little tough on me in the beginning, because, like I've said, I'm not good at rehearsals. I think I scare people, or used to scare people, in rehearsals, because it always seemed to me as though they thought I wasn't going to be able to do it right. I guess I kind of pull it out of the fire at the last minute. But he got a little annoyed with me during the table read and the director said, 'Just leave her alone, will you?' But it was fine. He saw that I was a professional about my work and giving my best. And that's all you can ask somebody is to do their best."

The Odd Couple

Faring better than she had on The Andy Griffith Show, Elinor appeared on the first TV version of The Odd Couple as Miriam Welby (the last name offered up in tribute to Robert Young's popular role of Marcus Welby, M.D.). She was girlfriend to Tony Randall's Felix Unger and appeaed in a total of 17 episodes between 1972's "Gloria, Hallelujah" and 1975's "The Rent Strike," which aired only a few months before the series finale in which Felix remarries ex-wife Gloria. Miriam wasn't invited.

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"That show was great fun," enthuses Elinor. "I loved both Tony Randall and Jack Klugman. We had a wonderful time, though Tony could be a little prickly. I was just supposed to do one episode and was supposed to be a blind date for him. We meet at a restaurant and had to rehearse the scene, and point of fact I always get particularly nervous at dress rehearsals. Don't ask me why, but I do. And, of course, I couldn't remember my line. He got very upset and started pounding on the table, 'Say your line, say your line, say your line,' and Jack came over and said, 'Tony, Tony, relax. Calm down. You're scaring her.' 'Say your line!' I couldn't have told you my name, I was so scared. It's not like I was a working actress; I hadn't worked for a year or two and I was feeling a little insecure.

"So the script girl comes running up and she gives me my line," she adds. "We get through the rehearsal. I just thought, 'I can't go back; it's too shameful.' But the next day we came in to do the full on taping and in my dressing room was a bouquet. Not a large bouquet, but a pretty, very sweet, beautiful bouquet from Tony apologizing and thanking me for being on the show. It was the sweetest thing, and from that time on he was just as nice to me as he could possibly be. And Jack was a doll. We just had a wonderful, wonderful time together."

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A new experience for her was being on a sitcom that shot in front of a live studio audience. "That was a very different thing for me, because I had done theater and I'd done television, but this was sort of like a hybrid," Elinor points out. "I had done live televison at CBS when I was a teenager, before Father Knows Best, actually, but that had been so long ago that I'd pretty much forgotten the experience. It felt strange, because I always felt like I was maybe over acting for the camera. But you have to sort of put it out there for the audience for them to get the full brunt of it. It just felt funny in the beginning, and it took a while for me to get used to it. Also, I'm still a pacer. If I'm going to work, I can't sit down; I walk and walk and walk. I'd be backstage and going past the guys' dressing rooms and Tony always had his door open. He'd say, 'You're driving me mashugana with the back and forth.' So I'd go just as far as his door and then I'd turn around and go back and he would say, 'I can still hear you.' It was actually very funny."

The return of Father Knows Best.

After The Odd Couple, Elinor guest-starred on many series, appeared in TV movies, was a regular on The New Adventures of Bean Baxter and Get a Life, and had a recurring role as Rebecca Quinn in Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. In between, she also appeared in the TV movies The Father Knows Best Reunion and Father Knows Best: Home for Christmas (both 1977).

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"There was great trepidation when we first had our reading for the reunion movie," she says, noting that 17 years had passed between then and the end of the original series. "You could just sense it. Billy and I were very tentative about the whole thing, but we sat down and read through it once and it was as though the years had flown by. Nothing was any different and it was wonderful. It just felt so comfortable and it didn't feel like we were going backward, we were coming forward. We brought everything that we were, everything we had been through, to our characters. We all looked at each other and it was like a huge sigh of relief. In the end, we really, really loved it. "

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And it's obvious that Elinor feels the same way about her career and all that she's accomplished, though at the same time, she admits she remains amazed that it all went on for as long as it did. "As far as I know, and nobody knows what's around the corner, it's no more. I'm done, finished," she says, sounding perfectly okay with that realization. "When I think about some of the things I've told you, I know some of it sounds quite unbelievable. If I were hearing it from someone, I'd say, 'Oh come on, that can't possibly be true.' But all told, it was all just so magical. Honestly, I've had a lot of fun."

You can order full seasons of Father Knows Best either through Amazon or directly from its distributor, Shout! Factory.