The Donna Reed Show is an American sitcom starring Donna Reed as the middle-class housewife Donna Stone. Carl Betz co-stars as her pediatrician husband Dr. Alex Stone, and Shelley Fabares and Paul Petersen as their teenage children, Mary and Jeff. The show originally aired on ABC from September 24, 1958 to March 19, 1966. When Fabares left the show in 1963, Petersen's younger sister, Patty Petersen, joined the cast as adopted daughter Trisha. Patty Petersen had first appeared in the episode "A Way of Her Own", on January 31, 1963. Janet Landgard was a series regular from 1963-1965 as Karen Holmby.
Bob Crane and Ann McCrea appeared in the last seasons as Dr. Dave Kelsey and his wife, Midge, friends of the Stones, and Darryl Richard became a near regular in thirty-two episodes as Smitty, Jeff's best buddy. The show featured a variety of celebrity guests including Esther Williams as a famous dress designer, baseball superstars Don Drysdale and Willie Mays as themselves, teen heartthrob James Darren as a pop singer with the measles, canine superstar Lassie, and young Jay North of CBS's Dennis the Menace.
The series was created by William S. Roberts and developed by Reed and her then husband, producer Tony Owen. Episodes revolved around typical family problems of the period such as firing a clumsy housekeeper, throwing a retirement bash for a colleague, and finding quality time away from the children. Then-daring themes such as women's rights and freedom of the press were occasionally explored.
The show had an uncertain start in the ratings and was almost cancelled, but fared better when it was moved from Wednesday to Thursday nights. In the show's middle seasons, Fabares sang what became a #1 teen pop hit "Johnny Angel", and Petersen had above average success with the song "My Dad", also introduced during the course of the series.
The Donna Reed Show was one of television's top 25 shows in 1963-1964. Reed was repeatedly nominated for Emmy Awards between 1959 and 1962, and won a Golden Globe as Best Female TV Star in 1963. She eventually grew tired of the workaday grind involved in the program, and it was cancelled in 1966 after 275 episodes.
The series was sponsored by Campbell Soup Company, with Johnson & Johnson as the principal alternate sponsor (succeeded in the fall of 1963 by The Singer Company). Following first-run, the show entered daytime reruns on ABC and then syndication on Nick at Nite and TV Land for several years. It is currently shown on Decades (TV network). The first five seasons have been released on DVD.
This show was the first TV family sitcom to feature the mother as the center of the show. Reed's character, Donna Stone, is a loving mother and wife, but also a strong woman, an active participant in her community, a woman with feelings and a sense of humor. According to many of Reed's friends and family, Reed shared many similarities to the character that she portrayed on screen, implying that the fictional Donna Stone was a near-identical copy of Reed herself.
In a 2008 interview, Paul Petersen (Jeff Stone) stated:
Episodes revolve around the lightweight and humorous sorts of situations and problems a middle-class family experienced in the late 1950s and the early 1960s set in fictional Hilldale, state never mentioned.
Donna, for example, would sometimes find herself swamped with the demands of community theatricals and charity drives; Mary had problems juggling boyfriends and finding dresses to wear to one party or another; and Jeff was often caught in situations appropriate to his age and gender such as joining a secret boys' club, avoiding love-smitten classmates, or bidding at auction on an old football uniform.
Alex was the family's Rock of Gibraltar, but often found himself in situations that tested his patience: in one episode, Donna volunteered him as the judge of a baby contest, and, in another episode, Mary insisted her gawky, geeky boyfriend was the spitting image of her father. Very occasionally eccentric relatives would descend on the Stones to complicate the household situation.
When Mary left for college in the middle seasons, a runaway orphan named Trisha was adopted by the family. In the last seasons, Jeff would spend much time with best buddy Smitty, and Donna and Alex would find best friends in Dave Kelsey, Alex's professional colleague, and his wife Midge. While mainly concerned with various household and family affairs, the show sometimes addressed edgier issues such as women's rights ("Just a Housewife" and "All Women Are Dangerous") freedom of the press ("The Editorial"), and in the final season drug addiction was seriously addressed ("The Big League Shock").
David Tucker writes in The Women Who Made Television Funny that most family sitcoms of the 1950s such as Father Knows Best, The Life of Riley, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet focus on the father figure with the mother as "adjunct". He points out however that The Donna Reed Show "established the primacy of the mother on the domestic front" and notes that Mother Knows Better was even briefly considered as the show's title. Though The Donna Reed Show did sometimes use recycled Father Knows Best scripts that had been slightly altered, such as character name changes.
The series was created by William Roberts and developed by Reed and her then husband, producer Tony Owen (the production company "Todon" is an amalgamation of their first names.) Roberts intended the show to respectfully picture the many demanding roles a stay-at-home woman was expected to master - wife, mom, companion, housekeeper, cook, laundress, seamstress, PTA officer, choir singer, scout leader, etc. - all the while being "effervescent, immaculate, and pretty." Reed stated, "We started breaking rules right and left. We had a female lead, for one thing, a strong, healthy woman. We had a story line told from a woman's point of view that wasn't soap opera." In addition, Reed described her show, accordingly: "I would call The Donna Reed Show 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 its first year on the struggling ABC network, the show was up against Milton Berle's popular Texaco Star Theater and Reed ratings were low. ABC nearly cancelled the show, but it was renewed and ratings improved when the show was moved from Wednesday to Thursday nights. The series flourished for the next seven years, but made television's top 25 only in 1963-1964. In a 1964 interview, Reed said, "We have proved on our show that the public really does want to see a healthy woman, not a girl, not a neurotic, not a sexpot...I am so fed up with immature 'sex' and stories about kooky, amoral, sick women."
The opening credits showed Reed coming down the stairs to answer the telephone. She hands the receiver to Alex, then goes to the front door to hand the children their bag lunches and schoolbooks as they leave for school. Alex then leaves, kissing his wife good-bye. On some opening themes, he forgets to kiss Donna good-bye, but returns as she closes the door to give her a quick kiss. She closes the door and smiles happily. A late series variant showed Donna departing after her husband, possibly for shopping, church or community matters, or some other concern. Reed brought personal friends Esther Williams, Jimmy Hawkins, and Buster Keaton to the program in guest spots.
On February 1, 1962, Fabares debuted her single "Johnny Angel" in the episode "Donna's Prima Donna". It rose to #1 and sold over a million copies. Petersen introduced his single "My Dad" eight months later on October 25, 1962. It peaked at #6.
By 1962 Reed felt the writers were running out of fresh ideas and had exhausted plot devices. She also wanted to spend more time with her family and was worn out from producing nearly 30 episodes a year. To coincide with Fabares's plans to leave at the end of season 5 (1962-1963), Reed and her husband decided to end the show. Since the series was still very popular ABC offered Reed a more lucrative contract with an extension of three seasons, to which she agreed. Their new contract called for fewer episodes and other incentives to allow Reed more personal time.
Beginning in Season 6 there was a reduction in the number of episodes produced, and work hours were shortened to please Reed. In season 5, (1963) Mary departed for college, reducing Fabares's appearances, something which continued yearly with her role becoming a minor character. Fabares left the full-time cast to pursue opportunities in films. She eventually returned seven times for guest appearances (Season 6 episodes 8, 11, 14-Season 7 episodes 5, 15, 30 & Season 8 episode 13). Following Fabares's departure, Petersen's real-life sister Patty Petersen joined the show as Trisha, a runaway orphan eventually adopted by the Stones. The program achieved its highest Nielsen ratings in Season 6, reaching #16 after Fabares' departure. A possible reason for higher ratings was the addition of new characters, Ann McCrea and disc jockey-turned actor Bob Crane as the Stones' neighbors, Midge and Dave Kelsey. This not only provided both Donna and Alex with best friends, but co-conspirators, as well. So popular were their roles that by the fall of 1964, both McCrea and Crane began receiving billing in the opening credits of the program. Crane left the series in 1965 to star in the CBS sitcom Hogan's Heroes. As a result, he was written out of the show although his character continued to be referred to and McCrea's character remained with the program. Also, towards the end of the series, actor Darryl Richard was regularly featured as Jeff Stone's best friend, Morton "Smitty" Smith. Richard first appeared in 1962 and "Smitty" became a major character after Season 6.
In the spring of 1966, Reed had grown tired of the weekly grind and wanted to retire. The program was rated #89 during its final season. After 275 episodes and eight seasons on ABC, The Donna Reed Show ended its prime-time run. Reed expressed no interest in taking on another series, declined television guest appearances, and shunned films because she thought their depictions of women vapid.
She did express interest in a television reunion for the Stone family at one point, but the concept was discarded after Carl Betz's death in 1978. Tucker writes that women libbers of the 1970s targeted the Donna Stone character as an unrealistic portrait of a modern woman and a stereotype of the impossibly perfect wife and mother. He believes that Reed "gave motherhood a tinge of glamour it usually lacked on TV".
Characters and cast
- Donna Stone (Donna Reed) is the idealized middle class housewife to Alex, and the mother of Mary and Jeff. She grew up on a farm and became a nurse. She sometimes works as a nurse on the show. Donna was married to Alex when she was 18 and the couple live in fictional Hilldale. She participates in community activities such as charity campaigns and amateur theatricals. Like several television wives and mothers of the 1950s, she inexplicably wears heels, pearls, and chic frocks to do the housework. (Note: In one episode, it is revealed that Donna Stone's maiden name, like Donna Reed, is Donna Belle Mullenger and she is also from Denison, Iowa.)
- Alex Stone (Carl Betz) is a pediatrician. Like most television couples of the 1950s, Alex and Donna sleep in twin beds. The two show a physical affection for each other slightly more intense than other television couples of the period.
- Mary Stone (Shelley Fabares) is 14 "almost fifteen" and a freshman in high school when the show opens. She has a few boyfriends during the course of the show with Jimmy Hawkins as Scotty being a regular. Mary plays the piano like a professional and studies ballet. She leaves the show to attend college.
- Jeff Stone (Paul Petersen) is "almost twelve" when the show opens. He is a typical American boy; he plays sports, likes to eat, and teases his older sister. Jeff is a complex character: he champions the underdog at school but cheats at board games. Atypical for the fictional children in 1960s sitcoms, Jeff and Mary often get away with "talking back" to their parents.
- Trisha (Patty Petersen) is a runaway orphan about the age of six whom the Stones adopt after Mary leaves for college. She remained for the duration of the program.
- Dr. Dave Kelsey (Bob Crane) and his wife Midge (Ann McCrea) are friends of the Stones. Dave, Alex's colleague, appeared for the first time on March 14, 1963 in the episode "The Two Doctor Stones". Dave continued on the series until 1965; Midge appeared from 1963–1966. Crane's character was written out of the show at the end of season 7 when he was cast in the CBS series, Hogan's Heroes. McCrea remained with the show until its conclusion.
- David Barker (Charles Herbert) - a young military school student who the Reeds look after in many episodes. David is very disobedient and troubled in the beginning but the Reed family soon grow to love and reform him.
- Uncle Bo (Jack Kelk) is Dr. Boland, Alex's bachelor colleague and friend in the first season.
- Morton "Smitty" Smith (Darryl Richard) is Jeff's best friend and first appeared on the show in 1962.
- Zachary Blake (Stephen Pearson) is Jeff's friend in the early seasons.
- Herbie Bailey (Tommy Ivo) is Mary's fairly regular boyfriend.
- Scotty (Jimmy Hawkins) is another of Mary's boyfriends. He appeared in two first season episodes as her boyfriend 'George Haskell'. Hawkins' character returned to the show in season 3 as 'Scotty', one of Mary's dates (for seasons 3-4) then as 'Jerry' for seasons 7 & 8 (his last appearance was in December, 1965).
- Roger (Jan Stine) is Mary's boyfriend in several third season episodes.
- Angie (Candy Moore) is Jeff's girlfriend in several fourth season episodes. Moore returned to the program during season 8 as Jeff's 'new' girlfriend Bernice/Bebe, in episodes 3, 12, 16, & 19. Moore had just finished 3 seasons playing Lucille Ball's teenaged daughter Chris on The Lucy Show. Moore was written out after season 3 (1965). Moore had acted on the program from 1962-1965. 'The Lucy Show' was her last acting assignment as a major character on a regular network program.
- Babs (Melinda Plowman) is Mary's first season best girlfriend.
- Mr. and Mrs. Wilgus (Howard McNear and Kathleen Freeman) are busybody Stone neighbors in season one.
- Lydia Langley (Mary Shipp) is Donna's snobbish acquaintance in the early seasons.
The Donna Reed Show featured several celebrity guest stars appearing as themselves during its eight-year run. Baseball player Don Drysdale appeared in four episodes while Willie Mays appeared in three episodes and Leo Durocher once. Musician Harry James and singers Tony Martin and Lesley Gore appeared as themselves. Gore was featured in the series' finale, "By-Line--Jeff Stone", on March 19, 1966. Lassie and film director George Sidney appear as themselves in the 1961 episode "The Stones Go To Hollywood". The episode plugged Sidney's then current feature film, Pepe, in which Reed made a cameo appearance.
Silent film comedian Buster Keaton guest starred in two episodes, "A Very Merry Christmas" (December 24, 1958) as Charlie, a hospital janitor who brings gifts to the children's ward, and "Now You See It, Now You Don't" (1965). Child actor Charles Herbert also had a recurring guest role in four episodes as David Barker, a runaway child whom the Stones assist. In the 1960 crossover episode "Donna Decorates", Jay North appeared with his Dennis the Menace co-star, Joseph Kearns as Mr. George Wilson. Esther Williams guest starred as Molly, a fashion designer and friend of Donna's who is herself about to marry a doctor in "The Career Woman" (1960). In real life, Williams and Reed had been close friends since the early 1940s, when they were rising MGM contract stars.
As Fabares co-starred in the Mickey Mouse Club serial Annette before the Donna Reed Show, four other Annette co-stars (Deacon, Cheryl Holdridge, Doreen Tracey & Mary Wickes) would also make respective guest appearances on this show.
Other notable guest stars include:
- Lee Aaker
- Jack Albertson
- John Astin
- Raymond Bailey
- Bobby Buntrock
- Bobby Burgess
- Harry Cheshire
- Dabney Coleman
- Richard Conte
- Ellen Corby
- Johnny Crawford
- Kim Darby
- Stuart Erwin
- Tiger Fafara
- Jamie Farr
- Florida Friebus
- Harold Gould
- George Hamilton
- Arte Johnson
- DeForest Kelley
- Ted Knight
- Sheila James Kuehl
- Charles Lane
- Cloris Leachman
- Gigi Perreau
- Marion Ross
- William Schallert
- Hal Smith
- James Stacy
- Tisha Sterling
- Olive Sturgess
- Stephen Talbot
- Marlo Thomas
- Mary Treen
- Jesse White
- William Windom
- Estelle Winwood
- Will Wright
The series was originally syndicated by Screen Gems, and, later, Columbia Pictures Television and Sony Pictures Television. In 2008, Sony lost the full rights to the estates of Donna Reed and Tony Owen, but reruns aired on Nick at Nite from 1985 through 1994 and on TV Land from 2002 through 2004.
MeTV began airing reruns of the show (seasons 1 through 5) starting in September 2011.
In 2017 Decades began airing the show as part of their daytime "Through The Decades" lineup.
As at 2018, the first five seasons of the show are available on Prime Video in Canada.
For a limited time in 2004, General Mills offered a DVD of two episodes inside boxes of Total cereal and Oatmeal Crisp. Virgil Films and Entertainment (under license from the estates of Donna Reed and Tony Owen) released the first three seasons of the show on DVD in Region 1. Virgil also released a four-episode "best of" DVD on April 13, 2010.
On December 17, 2010, it was announced that MPI Home Video had acquired the rights to release seasons 4 and 5 of The Donna Reed Show. Season 4 was subsequently released on December 20, 2011 and Season 5 was released on December 4, 2012.
Awards and nominations
In popular culture
- In Gilmore Girls season 1 episode 14 "That Damn Donna Reed", Rory and her boyfriend Dean have a disagreement about women's roles after watching an episode of the show. The episode involved Reed's character making a ton of food. Later, Rory dresses up in a dress like Donna Reed and serves Dean a steak dinner.