Donna Reed (Donna Belle Mullenger)

Donna Reed

Donna Reed was born Donna Belle Mullenger on a farm near Denison, Iowa, the daughter of Hazel Jane (née Shives; 1899–1975) and William Richard Mullenger (1893–1981). The eldest of five children, she was raised as a Methodist. After graduating from Denison High School, Reed planned to become a teacher, but was unable to pay for college. She decided to move to California to attend Los Angeles City College on the advice of her aunt. While attending college, she performed in various stage productions but had no plans to become an actress. After receiving several offers to screen test for studios, Donna Reed eventually signed with MGM, but insisted on finishing her education first. In 1941 after signing with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Reed made her film debut in The Get-Away opposite Robert Sterling billed as Donna Adams. MGM soon changed her name to Donna Reed. She then starred in The Courtship of Andy Hardy and had a supporting role with Edward Arnold in Eyes in the Night (1942). In 1943, she appeared in The Human Comedy with Mickey Rooney, and They Were Expendable in 1945. Her “girl-next-door” good looks and warm onstage personality made her a popular pin-up for many GIs during World War II. She personally answered letters from many GIs serving overseas. In 1945, she struggled with an English accent and with a passive, underwritten role as Gladys Hallward in the first cinema adaptation of the Oscar Wilde novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. In 1946, she was lent to RKO Pictures for the role of Mary Bailey in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. The film has since been named as one of the 100 best American films ever made by the American Film Institute and is regularly aired on television during the Christmas season. Following the release of It’s a Wonderful Life, Reed appeared in Green Dolphin Street (1947) with Lana Turner and Van Heflin, and Scandal Sheet (1952).

In 1949 she expressed a desire for better roles. In 1953, she played the role of Alma “Lorene” Burke, girlfriend of Montgomery Clift’s character, in the World War II drama From Here to Eternity. The role earned Donna Reed an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for 1953. From 1958 to 1966, Reed starred in The Donna Reed Show, a television series produced by her then-husband, Tony Owen. The show featured her as Donna Stone, the housewife of pediatrician Alex Stone (Carl Betz) and mother of Jeff (Paul Petersen) and Mary Stone (Shelley Fabares). The show ran for eight seasons on ABC. Reed won a Golden Globe Award and earned four Emmy Award nominations for her work on the series. Donna Reed described her show as “[…] a realistic picture of small town life with an often humorous twist. Our plots revolve around the most important thing in America—a loving family.” In the show, Reed’s character, Donna Stone, is a loving mother and wife, but also a strong, smart woman with feelings and a sense of humor. But some feminists criticized the show, asserting that it promoted submissiveness among housewives. In a 1979 interview, Reed, who had raised four children, responded, “I played a strong woman who could manage her family. That was offensive to a lot of people.” In a 1984 television interview, Reed said of her show, “I felt that I was making, for women, a statement. This mother was not stupid. She wasn’t domineering, but she was bright and I thought rather forward-thinking, happily married.” In a 2008 interview, Paul Petersen (who played Jeff Stone in the series) explained, “That’s what the show was really about, the importance of family. That’s where life’s lessons are transmitted, generation to generation. There’s a certain way in which these are transmitted, with love and affection.” Petersen also stated that “[The Donna Reed Show] depicts a better time and place. It has a sort of level of intelligence and professionalism that is sadly lacking in current entertainment products. The messages it sent out were positive and uplifting. The folks you saw were likable, the family was fun, the situations were familiar to people. It provided 22-and-a-half-minutes of moral instruction and advice on how to deal with the little dilemmas of life.”

When The Donna Reed Show ended its run in 1966, Reed took time off from acting to focus on raising her children and engaging in political activism. She returned to acting in the 1970s, appearing in various guest spots in television series and television movies. In the 1984–85 season of the television series Dallas, Reed replaced Barbara Bel Geddes as Miss Ellie Ewing. Of the show, Reed explained in a 1984 interview, “One of the main reasons Dallas is successful is the family. They all stick together. They may squabble, but they pull for one another and live under one roof, which is really tribal, and it’s not true anymore! And I think deep down, everyone misses that.” When Bel Geddes agreed to return to the role for the 1985–86 season, Reed was abruptly fired. Reed failed in attempts to stop the 1985–86 season from going into production while she tried to get herself reinstated in the role of Miss Ellie, and she sued for breach of contract, later settling out of court for over $1 million. Donna Reed died of pancreatic cancer in Beverly Hills, California, on January 14, 1986, 13 days shy of her 65th birthday. She had been diagnosed with the terminal illness three months earlier. Her remains are interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.

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Born

  • January, 27, 1921
  • USA
  • Denison, Iowa

Died

  • January, 14, 1986
  • USA
  • Beverly Hills, California

Cause of Death

  • pancreatic cancer

Cemetery

  • Westwood Memorial Park
  • Los Angeles, California
  • USA

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