Donna Reed Biography
Donna Reed Biography (1998) Donna Belle Mullenger.
Donna Reed (born Donna Belle Mullenger, January 27, 1921 – January 14, 1986) was an American film and television actress and producer. Her career spanned over forty years with appearances in over forty films. She is well known for her role as Mary Hatch in Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life. In 1953, she received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Lorene Burke in the war drama From Here to Eternity.
Reed worked extensively in television, notably as Donna Stone, an American middle class mother in the sitcom The Donna Reed Show (1958–66), in which she played a more prominent role than many other television mothers of the era and for which she received the Golden Globe Award for Best TV Star in 1963. Later in her career, Reed replaced Barbara Bel Geddes as Miss Ellie Ewing in the 1984–85 season of the television melodrama, Dallas, and sued the production company for breach of contract when she was abruptly fired upon Bel Geddes’ decision to return to the show.
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, Reed eventually signed with MGM, but insisted on finishing her education first.
After signing with MGM in 1941, Reed made her film debut that same year in The Get-Away, opposite Robert Sterling. Billed in her first feature as Donna Adams, MGM decided against the name and changed it to Donna Reed. She 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 on-stage 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 1953, she played the role of Alma “Lorene” Burke, and girlfriend of Montgomery Clift’s character in the World War II drama From Here to Eternity. The role earned Reed an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for 1953.
The Donna Reed Show
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 Dr. Alex Stone (Carl Betz) and mother of Jeff (Paul Petersen) and Mary Stone (Shelley Fabares). It ran for eight seasons on ABC. Reed won a Golden Globe Award and earned four Emmy Award nominations for her work on the series.
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. However, some feminists criticized the show, asserting that it propagated the image of a subservient housewife. In a 1979 interview, Reed, who had raised four children, responded to the criticism, “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 product. 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 instructions 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 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 they 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.
From 1943 to 1945, Reed was married to make up artist William Tuttle. In 1945, she married producer Tony Owen (b. 1907–d.1984), with whom she raised four children: Penny Jane, Anthony, Timothy, and Mary Anne (the two older children were adopted). After 26 years of marriage, Reed and Owen divorced in 1971.
Three years later, Reed married retired United States Army Colonel Grover W. Asmus. They remained married until her death in 1986.
Reed, who was a registered Republican, was interested in politics. Her interest peaked during the Vietnam War when she became concerned that her oldest son, Tony, might be drafted. In a 1971 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Reed said, “In the beginning, we felt Tony should serve his country in a noncombatant role. But he wouldn’t even accept that, feeling the whole thing was immoral. He didn’t trust the government or the military. I’ve learned a lot from Tony.” In 1967, Reed became a peace activist and co-chaired the anti-war advocacy group, Another Mother for Peace. The group’s slogan was, “War is not healthy for children and other living things.”
In addition to being an opponent of the Vietnam War, Reed also opposed nuclear power plants. She supported Democratic anti-war Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy in the 1968 presidential election.
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.
In 1987, Grover Asmus (Reed’s widower), actresses Shelley Fabares and Norma Connolly, and numerous friends, associates, and family members created the Donna Reed Foundation for the Performing Arts. Based in Reed’s hometown of Denison, the non-profit organization grants scholarships for performing arts students, runs an annual festival of performing arts workshops, and operates “The Donna Reed Center for the Performing Arts.”
Reed’s hometown of Denison, Iowa, hosts the annual Donna Reed Festival. Reed’s childhood home was located on Donna Reed Drive in Denison but was destroyed by a fire in 1983.
Reed’s Academy Award is on display at W.A. McHenry museum house in Denison, Iowa.
For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Donna Reed has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1610 Vine Street.
In May 2010 Turner Classic Movies honored Reed as their star of the month which saw Mary Owen pay a special tribute to her mother.
In a 2011 article in the Los Angeles Times, actress Shelley Fabares (who played Mary Stone on The Donna Reed Show) stated, “Donna Reed definitely became my second mother. 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.” Fabares also described Reed as “a real Iowa girl. 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.”