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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How a Cat Becomes An Angel

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Today we look at one of the most popular shows on television forty years ago: Charlie’s Angels.  The show propelled the entire cast into national superstars.  Viewing the show today might cause someone to question what the big deal was about the show, but in 1976-77, it was a new twist on contemporary crime shows.

Forty years later, the show still has maintained its spot in pop culture history, primarily due to reruns, the movie remakes from 2000 and 2003, and an updated show from 2011.

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Aaron Spelling developed the series.  Although he had a successful track record, ABC did not feel that this show had potential. The original script called for a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead.  It was titled “Alley Cats” and the three crime solvers—Alison, Catherine and Lee—apparently hung out in alleys and carried whips and chains which they used to subdue criminals.  I can certainly understand the network thinking Spelling was losing his touch.

Kate Jackson, a brunette, was hired and cast as Kelly Garrett; the characters were now renamed Kelly Garrett, Sabrina Duncan, and Jill Munroe.  Jackson felt more affinity with the Sabrina Duncan character, so the producers moved her into that role and gave her semi control of the series development.

Spelling then hired Farrah Fawcett, a blonde, based on her role in Logan’s Run, a film from 1976.

Hundreds of actresses auditioned for the role of Kelly Garrett.  Eventually the producers set aside their wish for a redhead and hired Jaclyn Smith, based on her onscreen chemistry with Jackson and Fawcett.

Jackson disliked the concept of the whips and chains aspect of the show (thank you Kate Jackson!!!), so the girls became graduates of the police academy.  The head of the agency was a wealthy man who is never seen by his detectives. The three girls excelled at the police academy where they went to school but were forced into gender-based careers of a meter maid, an office worker, and a crossing guard, so he hires them to solve crimes for him.

One day, Jackson noticed a picture of three angels in Spelling’s office, and she suggested the name Harry’s Angels. The network thought Harry’s Angels might get confused with one of their other shows, Harry O, so it then became Charlie’s Angels.

Gig Young was brought in to read for the role of Charlie, but showed up too intoxicated, so Spelling went to ask his friend, John Forsythe to take the role.

David Doyle was then hired as John Bosley, Charlie’s assistant and office manager.  Bosley is the only one of the cast who ever sees Charlie in person. I always wondered why they named him Bosley, given that David Doyle and Tom Bosley look a lot alike and this might have contributed to the confusion.

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The pilot received enormous ratings, but ABC wanted it tested again.  Still thinking that this was one of the worst concepts for a show they had ever heard, the network wanted to double check the numbers. It still scored high, so on the air it went.

Each show began with the girls surrounding the speaker phone to get the case details from Charlie.  They then went on to solve the case and ended the show back in the office getting congratulated by Charlie.

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Before Season 2, Fawcett decided she wanted to leave the show to pursue a film career.  One issue stopping her was the fact that all three stars had signed five-year contracts. After much negotiation, the network allowed her to leave, with the concession that she return for three appearances in season 3 and three appearances in season 4. Cheryl Ladd was approached to take her place but she declined the role. When asked to reconsider, she changed her mind and accepted the role of Kris Munroe, Jill’s sister.

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In season 4, Kate Jackson also left. The year before she was offered the lead role in Kramer vs Kramer.  The network would not allow her time off to do the film.  The role then went to Meryl Streep who won an Oscar. Jackson refused to come back for season 4.

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Many actresses were considered including Barbara Bach, Connie Sellaca, Shari Belafonte, and Michelle Pfeiffer. The network opted for Shelly Hack who came on board as Tiffany Wells, a Boston police graduate. In November of Season 1, more than half the available viewers were tuned in to Charlie’s Angels, but Season 4 saw a 40% decline in its audience. Hack was fired, and season 5 welcomed Tanya Roberts to the cast as Julie Rogers, a prior model and private investigator. However, the ratings continued to decline, and the show was then cancelled.

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Why the show was so successful the first two years has been hotly debated.  Was it just a case of “Jiggle TV” as it was often labeled?  Several critics at the time, commented that despite the sexy apparel of the female detectives, the characters were still intelligent women successfully working in a predominantly man’s world. (There was $20,000 allocated per episode for wardrobe, the equivalent of $90,000 today.  Most characters averaged 8 changes per show.) This was one of the first times an all-female cast appeared in a work situation typically reserved for men’s roles.  The original cast was very close and had a chemistry never matched by their replacements.  The three women continued to be friends, each enduring a battle with cancer which Fawcett lost in 2006.

So, which Angel was the most successful?

Kate Jackson. Born in Alabama in 1948, Jackson started attending The University of Mississippi, but then transferred to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. She worked as a page at Rockefeller Center and appeared in summer stock plays in Vermont.  Her first break was being cast as Daphne in Dark Shadows.  In the 1970s, she accepted the role of Jill Danko on The Rookies. That led to Spelling offering her the Charlie’s Angel job. She later went on to star in two other series, Scarecrow and Mrs. King and Baby Boom.  She appeared in 9 films, 5 series, 15 episodes of other shows, and 29 made-for-tv movies.

Farrah Fawcett. Born in Texas in 1947, Fawcett attended the University of Texas at Austin, majoring in art.  After her junior year, her parents gave their permission for her to move to California to try a modeling and acting career. She received a contract with Screen Gems and began appearing in commercials including Noxzema, Max Factor, and Beautyrest.  She began appearing on a variety of series including The Flying Nun, I Dream of Jeannie, The Partridge Family, and Marcus Welby.  She was married to Lee Majors from 1973-1982 and involved with Ryan O’Neal from 1979-1997.

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Her iconic poster was photographed in 1976.  Many cites indicate the poster company reached out to Farrah and that led to her Logan’s Run role.  However, the photographer Bruce McBloom, who was a family friend, gave his account differently. He says ABC approached all three stars of Charlie’s Angels and offered to shoot posters for each one, with the stars getting a percentage of the sales.  Smith and Jackson declined, but Fawcett agreed. She didn’t like the original shots and asked for McBloom. She was supposed to be shot in a bikini but that was not working, so McBloom asked her what else she had in her closet because they were shooting at her home. (She did her own hair and makeup). She came out in the red one-piece and they both felt it was the one.  Fawcett picked out the photos she liked best, and more than 12 million posters were sold. The suit now resides in the Smithsonian, along with Fonzie’s leather jacket and Archie Bunker’s chair.

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Farrah ended up appearing on 21 tv shows, two of which she co-starred in. (She went on to appear in Good Sports with her then-boyfriend Ryan O’Neal.) She was in 16 films, including Logan’s Run and Cannonball Run. Like her co-stars, she also made 22 made-for-tv movies.

Jaclyn Smith.  Born in 1945 in Texas, she wanted to be a ballerina. In 1973, she received national notice as a Breck Shampoo girl and accepted the Charlie’s Angel role in 1976. Before Charlie’s Angels, Smith appeared in 6 tv shows and had small roles in 3 movies.  She appeared in 9 shows after Charlie’s Angels and 4 films.  Like Jackson, she spent most of her time in made-for-tv-movies, 30 in all.

Cheryl Ladd. Born in South Dakota in 1951, Ladd worked as a carhop during high school. Her intentions were to attempt a music career, and in 1970 she was hired to sing for “Melody” on the animated series, Josie and the Pussycats. She began accepting tv roles, appearing in The Rookies, Harry O, and The Partridge Family, among others. She was considered for the role of Nancy on Family which eventually went to Meredith Baxter. She was married to David Ladd from 1973-1980, and has been married to Brian Russell since 1981.

Ladd appeared in 31 tv series, co-starring in 5 of them.  She was in 15 films and made 30 made-for-tv films.  Still working, she appears in a new film this year, Unforgettable.

Shelly Hack. Born in 1947, Hack became a model at 16 and is well known as the Revlon Charlie Perfume girl before she was the Charlie’s Angel girl. She took a bit part in Annie Hall in 1977 and was cast as an Angel in 1979. She continued to accept tv roles after Charlie’s Angels, appearing in 11 total, co-starring in two. She was in 10 films, most of them in the 1980s, and as the trend seen by her co-stars, made 12 made-for-tv movies.

In the late 1990s, Hack left acting for a political career.  She became a voting registrar and polling station supervisor in Bosnia-Herzegovina. She produced several foreign political debates and became a media consultant for pre-and post-conflict countries, primarily in Eastern Europe. She has been married to Harry Winer since 1990.

Tanya Roberts. The youngest of the Angels, Roberts was born in 1955 and dropped out of school at 15. She studied acting while earning a living as a model and Arthur Murray instructor. She briefly married but that was annulled.  In 1974, she married Barry Roberts who passed away in 2006.

After Charlie’s Angels was cancelled, she appeared in 13 other shows, co-starring in Hot Line and That Seventies Show.  She appeared in 19 movies, the most famous being A View to a Kill in 1985 and also made 4 made-for-tv movies.

John Forsythe. It’s hard to compare any of these stars to John Forsythe.  As Charlie’s Angels debuted, he was at the end of a long and full career, while his co-stars were entering the prime of their careers.   I have shared much of his career in prior blogs.  After Charlie’s Angels, he would go on to star in Dynasty from 1981-89 and in Powers That Be from 1992-3. Overall, he appeared in 48 television series, co-starring in 6. He made 23 films and 27 made-for-tv movies.

David Doyle. Born in 1929 in Nebraska, David was the third-generation family member to become a lawyer.  Wisconsin can claim him because he graduated from Prairie du Chien high school. He went to college with Johnny Carson who remained a friend.  He gave up his law career to try his hand at acting and received his first movie role in 1956. In 1956, he married his wife Rachel and she passed away due to a fall in 1968. In 1969, he married Ann and their marriage continued until his death. He made 26 films, 18 made-for-tv movies and appeared in 62 tv shows, co-starring in Charlie’s Angels and Bridget Loves Bernie, along with several animation series.  Younger viewers might remember him as the voice of Grandfather Lou Pickles in Rug Rats. He passed away in 1997 from a heart attack.

So, which Angel was the most successful?  I’ll let you make that determination, but I might lean toward the non-female cast member David Doyle  (removing John Forsythe from the equation). It’s hard to deny any of the cast members’ success when looking at the popularity of the show.