Elinor Donahue Through the Decades

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Elinor Donahue always displays a warmth and comes across as a genuinely nice person. Her first sitcom became her most famous role.  She played Betty in the iconic Father Knows Best. Although none of her later sitcoms reached the same popularity, she has had a long and full career.

She was born in April of 1937 in Tacoma, Washington. She began tap dancing at 16 months old. As a toddler, she did some acting and received a contract with Universal at the ripe old age of 5. From 1955-1961 she was married to Robert Smith. She was married her second husband, Harry Ackerman, from 1962-1991. Ackerman was a producer for shows including Leave It to Beaver, Gidget, and Bewitched.  She married her third husband Louis Genevrino in 1992.

Donahue appeared in 18 movies between 1942 and 1952 including Tea for Two with Doris Day and My Blue Heaven. She made the transition to television in 1952 appearing in 8 shows in the 1950s. One of the shows I remember her in although I only saw it in reruns was one of my favorite shows, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. She was typically cast as the girl-next-door type. Her most famous role came in 1954 when she was cast in a new sitcom, Father Knows Best.

Father Knows Best – 1954-1960

This was one of the typical family shows of the 1950s. The Andersons lived in Springfield with three children: Betty, called Princess (Elinor Donahue), James Jr., or Bud (Billy Gray) and Kathy, usually called  Kitten (Lauren Chapin). The show debuted in the fall of 1954 on CBS. The show was cancelled in 1955 and the public was furious. Letters came pouring in, so it was reinstated. NBC took over the next year until 1958 when it went back to CBS.  In 1960, Robert Young decided he was done. These were warm and inviting parents, providing guidance and object lessons galore. Critics panned it later because it was not reality.  We have reality shows today, and please, give me fiction. We did learn life lessons on the show – following through on promises, working for what you want, being yourself, and taking responsibility for your mistakes.

Shortly after Father Knows Best left the airwaves, Donahue accepted the role of Elly Walker in The Andy Griffith Show.

The Andy Griffith Show – 1960-1961

Most of us are very familiar with The Andy Griffith Show and many of the characters who inhabit Mayberry:  Widower Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith) and his son Opie (Ron Howard) live with Andy’s Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) who takes care of them;  Barney (Don Knotts) is the inept deputy but also Andy’s best friend;  Helen Crump (Anita Corsaut), the school teacher and Andy’s girlfriend later in the series; Thelma Lou (Betty Lynn), Barney’s girl; Otis Campbell (Hal Smith), town drunk but nice guy; Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors), who runs the gas station; and his cousin Goober Pyle (George Lindsey). Andy had several romances early in the show.  He dated the county nurse Mary Simpson (played by several actresses), spent a limited amount of time with Daphne (Jean Carson) who had a crush on him; and in the first two seasons, he was sweet on Ellie Walker (Donahue), who ran the local drug store. Ellie cared about Andy, but she always stood up for herself and women’s rights.  Andy and Ellie never had the chemistry they were hoping for but they respected each other and like each other. Elinor raved about the cast and her opportunity to be on the show. She said Andy was in charge and expected quality but was fair and a nice man. She described Ron Howard as the best child actor she ever worked with.  She liked Frances Bavier and got along well with her.  She had a huge respect for Don Knott’s comedic ability. She is still friends with Betty Lynn.

She appeared on a variety of shows in the mid-1960s including 77 Sunset Strip, Dr. Kildare, The Virginian, Dennis the MenaceStar Trek, and The Flying Nun. She tried her luck with one other sitcom in the 1960s.

Many Happy Returns – 1964-1965

This sitcom was also about a widower.  Walter Burnley (John McGiver) ran the Complaint Department at a LA department store. The show also featured his daughter (Donahue) and a coworker Lynn Hall (Elena Verdugo). His boss (Jerome Cowan) did not want him to take in any returns, so he had to resolve complaints without making his boss mad. Apparently Burnley couldn’t solve the complaints that came in from viewers because the show was cancelled after 24 episodes.

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Father Knows Best came out with two television movies in 1977: The Father Knows Best Reunion and Father Knows Best – Home for Christmas, and Elinor was in both. While still showing up in random shows during the 1970s such as The Rookies, Police Woman, and Diff’rent Strokes, Donahue found time to appear in two 70s shows on a regular basis.

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The Odd Couple – 1972-1975

Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple came to Friday nights in 1970. Felix Unger (Tony Randall) and Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman), two divorced men who are complete opposites but best friends, try to live together without killing each other. The show had a great supporting cast including Donohue as Miriam Welby from 1972-1974, Felix’s girlfriend.

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Mulligan’s Stew – 1977

This show from 1977 starred Elinor Donahue as Jane Mulligan.   She and her husband Michael (Lawrence Pressman) are trying to raise three kids on his teacher’s salary when they suddenly add four orphaned nieces and nephews to their family. One of the kids was played by Suzanne Crough, Tracy from The Partridge Family, one of the few shows she was in. The series only lasted for seven episodes.

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The 1980s found Donahue still working regularly.  She was in Barnaby Jones, Mork & Mindy, One Day at a Time, Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, Newhart, and Golden Girls. One sitcom in the 1980s captured her attention about Beans Baxter.

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The New Adventures of Beans Baxter – 1987

Here is the plot for this one: Beans Baxter’s (Jonathan Ward) father who he thought was a mailman disappears one day.  Teenage Bean discovers that his dad worked for a secret government agency.  He is then drawn into becoming a spy for the government. The show features his adventures as he tries to find the enemy agents who are holding his father hostage while his mother played by Donahue is completely oblivious that anything strange is happening. Viewers also didn’t realize anything was happening because the show was cancelled after 17 episodes.

Entering her 60s, Elinor joined the cast of three sitcoms in the 1990s. She also made several movies including Pretty Woman in 1990 and The Princess Diaries 2 in 2004.

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Get a Life – 1990-1992

Shows don’t get much weirder than this one. Comedian Chris Elliot plays a 30-year-old paperboy Chris Peterson who lives with wacky parents (Donahue and Bob Elliott, Chris’s real father).  Some of the strange things that happen during the 36 episodes include eating a space alien, beheadings, and a robot paperboy. In this bizarre series, Chris actually dies in a third of the episodes. During the run of the show, he died from old age, tonsillitis, a stab wound, a gunshot wound, was strangled, got run over by a car, choked on his cereal, was crushed by a giant boulder, and actually exploded.

 

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Eek!stravaganza – 1992-1993

Donahue plays “The Mom” in this animated show about Eek, a purple cat who always finds himself in dangerous situations. The series was on the air for five seasons.

Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman – 1993-1997

During the six years the show was on the air, Donahue reprised her role as Rebecca Quinn ten times. The show followed the ups and downs experienced by a female doctor practicing in a wild western town.

Interestingly, Donahue appeared in three different soap operas toward the end of her career: Santa Barbara, Days of Our Lives, and The Young and the Restless.  Elinor also appeared on a variety of documentaries and award shows. She was in the Match Game/Hollywood Squares Hour. In 1998, she wrote her memoirs titled, In the Kitchen with Elinor Donahue. The book included about 150 of her favorite recipes. Elinor’s career has been long and she appeared in many shows and movies over the years. She hasn’t appeared in a movie or television show since 2010, although she did do some theater.  In September of 2015, she appeared in one of my favorite plays, “Harvey” in North Carolina.

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Donahue’s career reminds me of many of the actors we have gotten to know in this blog including William Christopher, Betty White, Ken Berry, and Shelly Fabares.  These actors and actresses all appear to be very nice, talented people who have careers they should be proud of.  In a day when bad decisions and selfish actions are splattered across our television screens and newspapers, perhaps one of the best compliments we can give someone is that they had a long and fulfilling career and didn’t step all over other people to achieve it.

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When a rainy day shows up this summer, take a moment to watch some of Elinor’s sitcom episodes. Thank you Elinor Donahue for the entertainment and memories you gave us.

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“The Ultimate Definition of Success is to Repeat It” says Jeffrey Benjamin

After reading about That Girl and what a tough time Marlo Thomas and Ted Bessell had finding new roles that did not stereotype them as Don and Ann, I thought about actors who were able to transcend that hurdle.  I could think of numerous actors and actresses who were able to have two important television roles.  Mary Tyler Moore began as Laura Petrie but Mary Richards was also a strong character.  Ron Howard grew up from Opie Taylor to Richie Cunningham.  Kristy McNichol lived out her adolescence in Family and then moved to Florida as Barbara in Empty Nest.

I started to do some research and found the following actors who had numerous television series.

Alan Alda – Of course, his iconic role was Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H.  From 1972-83 he kept us laughing or crying in Korea.  Since M*A*S*H he has taken on roles in several television series including ER (1999), West Wing (2004-06), 30 Rock (2009-10), The Big C (2011-13), and The Blacklist (2013-14).

Fun Fact:  He got his start on the Phil Silvers Show in 1957.

 

Meredith Baxter – Most people remember her as Elyse Keaton in Family Ties (1982-89), but for me it was Nancy in Family (1976-80).  Other shows include Bridget Loves Bernie (1972-73), The Faculty (1996), Cold Case (2006-07), The Young and the Restless (2014), and Finding Carter (2014-15).

Fun Fact:  Her mother was Whitney Blake, Missy on Hazel.

 

Sally Field – I think most people will always think of Sally Field as the Flying Nun (1967-70).  Her first show was Gidget (1965-66). As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, she had a role in the forgettable Hey Landlord (1967) and she was The Girl with Something Extra (1973-74).  Like Alan Alda, she also had a recurring role in ER (2000-06), and her most recent show is Brothers and Sisters (2006-11).

Fun  Fact:  She won an Emmy for her appearance on ER.

 

John Forsythe – While younger people only know him as the voice of Charlie on Charlie’s Angels (1976-81) or Blake Carrington from The Colbys (1980-86) which led to Dynasty (1981-89), one of my favorite sitcoms of all is Bachelor Father which John starred as Bentley Greg from 1957-62.  Before Bachelor Father, he starred in Lights Out (1951-2), Suspense (1951-52) and Studio One (1949-55). Before Charlie’s Angels, he was in the John Forsythe Show (1965-66) and To Rome with Love (1969-71). His last show was The Powers That Be (1992-93).

Fun Fact: Along with Harry Morgan and Meredith Baxter, he was on episodes of The Love Boat.

 

Harry Morgan – Harry Morgan is the king of shows, with 12 series to his credit.  He is probably best remembered for three of them–Pete and Gladys (1960-62), Dragnet (1967), and M*A*S*H (1974-83). His first sitcom was December Bride (1954-59) which spun off Pete and Gladys.  In the 60s before Dragnet he was in Kentucky Jones (1964-65) and Dr. Kildare (1965).  The seventies saw him in Hec Ramsey (1972-74) and Gunsmoke (1970-75).  After M*A*S*H, he literally was in After M*A*S*H (1983-85), Blacke’s Magic (1986), You Can’t Take It With You (1987-88), and Third Rock From the Sun (1996-97).

Fun Fact:  He was in an episode of the Partridge Family in the first season.

 

Bob Newhart – Bob Newhart gets the award for having the most shows with his name it in.  Fans fondly remember The Bob Newhart Show set in Chicago when he played Dr. Hartley (1972-78) or Newhart where he was the inn owner Dick Loudon (1982-90).  His first show was The Bob Newhart Show (1961).  After Newhart, he tried out Bob (1992-93) and George and Leo (1997-98).  Like Alan Alda and Sally Field, he also had a recurring role on ER (2003) and most recently has had a recurring role on The Big Bang Theory (2013-15).

Fun Fact:  The 1982-90 show had the best finale ever when the show ended with Bob in bed with his wife from the 1972-78 series thinking Newhart had been a dream.

 

Ed O’Neill – If any actor should have been stereotyped after a role, Ed O’Neill seemed doomed after Al Bundy in Married. . . With Children (1987-97), yet he now has an even bigger hit in Modern Family as Jay Pritchett (2009-16).  In between he was on the Big Apple (2001), Dragnet (2003-4), a remake of Harry Morgan’s show, and John From Cincinnati (2007).  Like Alan Alda, he took on a role on The West Wing (2004-05).

Fun Fact:  He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1969 but was cut in training camp.

 

Dick Van Dyke – Finally, we have Dick Van Dyke.  Before I researched this blog, I thought he and Bob Newhart might have the most sitcoms to their credit.  He comes in with only four starring shows overall.  Like Bob, he never wanted to stray far from his name:  We had the iconic Dick Van Dyke Show as Rob Petrie (1961-66), The New Dick Van Dyke Show (1971-74), The Dick Van Dyke Show (1988), and then Diagnosis: Murder (1993-2001). Like so many of these actors who have something in common with Alan Alda, Dick Van Dyke’s first appearance in a sitcom was also The Phil Silvers Show (1957-8).

Fun Fact:  He can trace his family line back to the Mayflower.

 

Why do some stars get locked into a role that they are never able to separate themselves from?  Think Henry Winkler as the Fonz, Lucille Ball as Lucy, or Don Knotts as Barney.  I think part of it is that we get so attached to these characters we almost want to believe they are real and the actor moving on destroys that image.

The above actors all had different situations that allowed them to move on more easily.  Alan Alda never had that hit show again.  After M*A*S*H, he took on dramatic recurring roles.  Meredith Baxter was in a  mixed genre of shows. Of her two hit shows, one was a drama, Family, and one a sitcom, Family Ties.  Dick Van Dyke had the same formula:  The first Dick Van Dyke Show, a sitcom, and Diagnosis: Murder, an action/mystery series.  John Forsythe and Harry Morgan came into show business during the golden days of television.  They were able to have extremely successful shows and characters and then start over.  Forsythe had 10 series to his credit, Morgan had 12. Sally Field, although starting out in television, was certainly better known as a movie actress.  Audiences were seeing her on the big screen as other characters so they perhaps don’t pigeon hole her into one role so much.  Ed O’Neill actually had success on two sitcoms about families.  Maybe Jay Pritchett is so successful because he shows what Al Bundy may have been like growing up in a more enlightened era where the fathers help parent and run the house.  And Bob Newhart, I think, was successful because he actually plays the same character in most of his shows, and we love that character so we keep looking for him, no matter what the show is actually titled.