Classic Hollywood: ‘The Donna Reed Show’

Donna Reed was more than just a TV mom to actress Shelley Fabares.

Fabares played Reed’s teenage daughter, Mary Stone, on the well-loved 1958-66 ABC family sitcom “The Donna Reed Show,” which revolved around Donna Stone (Reed), the wife of handsome pediatrician Dr. Alex Stone (Carl Betz), and mother to Mary and energetic younger son Jeff (Paul Petersen)

“She definitely became my second mother,” said Fabares, 67, who left the series in 1963. “She was a role model and remains so to this day. I still periodically hear her voice in my head when I am making a decision about doing something, I hear her urging me on to make the stronger decision of the two. I just adored her. “

Petersen echoes her sentiments. “Donna and Carl were very much aware of the difficulties on other family shows,” said Petersen, 66, whose organization, A Minor Consideration, supports child actors and enforces labor laws. “They made a commitment to Shelley and me as surrogate parents to be on our side and be with us for the long haul. They kept that commitment up to their deaths. Donna’s last few words [were] to make sure Shelley’s birthday present was wrapped and ready for delivery. That is true!”

A native of Denison, Iowa, Reed became her career as an ingenue at MGM in the early 1940s. In her film career, she is best known as George Bailey’s wife, Mary, in Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas perennial, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and for her Oscar-winning turn as Lorene, a prostitute who becomes Montgomery Clift’s character’s mistress in the 1953 Academy Award-winning epic “From Here to Eternity.”


Reed’s husband, Tony Owen, produced “The Donna Reed Show.” During the 1961-62 season, Owen decided to follow in the footsteps of another family series, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” which found its ratings jump when youngest son Ricky Nelson performed his pop hits on the series. Owen told Petersen and Fabares they would record pop tunes to perform on the series.

These fourth-season episodes have been out of circulation for years and were never released on DVD. Earlier this month, MPI released the entire 39 episodes on DVD so you can relive Fabares’ No. 1 hit “Johnny Angel” and Petersen’s chart toppers “She Can’t Find Her Keys” and “My Dad,” which hit No. 6.

Petersen jumped at the chance to record. “I was friends with Ricky Nelson,” he said. “He was having fun. The girls were screaming. He drove a fast car. I was like, give me some of that. I have never been shy about singing. That is how I became an original Mouseketeer.”

Fabares wasn’t convinced this was good for her. “I remember saying, ‘Mr. Owen, Paul can do it. He can do anything.’ Maybe a month later, he came up to me one day and said, ‘Hey, kid. Do you like being on the show? Do you want to be on next year?’ Not seeing the train heading directly toward me, I said, ‘Oh, yes, Mr. Owen. I do.’ Then he said, ‘Sing.’”

Reed, who died in 1986, was the mother of four children. Mary Owen, her youngest, was only a year old when her mother began the series. Her mother, she said, was an early feminist who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. She points out that her mother and father hired blacklisted writers for the series. Her mother also gave Barbara Avedon (“Cagney & Lacey”) the opportunity to not only write for the series but also direct, which was unheard of at the time.

“She was very involved in the war effort during World War II,” Owen said. “I think that experience affected her when it came to the war in Vietnam. My brothers were of draft age, but she had seen what had happened during World War II. She co-chaired Another Mother for Peace.

“I have fond memories — I would go with her to this kind of funky warehouse they rented.”

It irks Fabares that feminists and critics dismissed Reed personally as well as her character. “It makes me angry. She was very much in the foreground of women being in charge. She did a lot of things moms on TV didn’t do at that time — she ran for things. She bucked Alex on certain issues.”

Despite her fame, Reed “was a real Iowa girl,” noted Fabares. “There is a bedrock decency to people in the Midwest. They are thoughtful and ready to help you if something needs to be done. She never lost that Midwest girl.”