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Elinor Donahue Dishes on ‘Father Knows Best,’ ‘Andy Griffith’ and ‘The Odd Couple’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Her classic TV history is extensive, and in this Q&A the actress looks back at some of her biggest hits

What do Father Knows Best, The Andy Griffith Show, The Odd Couple and the original Star Trek have in common? It’s not as odd a question as you might think. The commonality is actually actress Elinor Donahue, who became a part of classic TV history on Father Knows Best and, ever so briefly, The Andy Griffith Show, the latter for about a dozen episodes.

A few years after her stint in Mayberry, Elinor guest starred on the 1967 Trek episode “Metamorphosis,” which, while not usually on Top 10 lists, is an extremely powerful story exploring the nature of love. Several years later she joined Oscar Madison and Felix Unger on the TV version of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, playing Felix’s girlfriend, Miriam Welby. All in all, Elinor Donahue has proven herself to be the face of classic TV.

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Get to know Elinor Donahue

Donahue was born on April 19, 1937 in Tacoma, Washington, and was a child actress who worked in vaudeville and had small parts in several movies. Her focus really shifted to dancing, until she was hired to play Betty Anderson — aka “Princess” — on Father Know Best, which ran from 1954 to 1960.

After which, beyond the shows noted above, she appeared in several films and TV movies, and made numerous guest appearances. She had starring or recurring roles in Many Happy Returns (1964 to 1965), The Flying Nun (1968 to 1970), Mulligan’s Stew (1977), The New Adventures of Beans Baxter (1987), Get a Life (1990 to 1992), Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993 to 1997), and her final role, as Judge Marie Anderson, in four episodes of The Young and the Restless (2010 to 2011).

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Now 86 and retired, Elinor Donahue has been married four times and is the mother of four.

In this conversation, Elinor looks back at her days as a star of classic television.

Father Knows Best
The Father Knows Best cast©NBC/courtesy

FIRST FOR WOMEN (FFW): When you consider that Father Knows Best made its debut 70 years ago, is it strange to still be talking about it so many years later?

ELINOR DONAHUE: I think so; yes, of course. It was a long, long time ago.

FFW: It is, but it’s amazing how these things continue to live on.

ELINOR DONAHUE: It’s running here in California at least in our area in the morning and I didn’t realize it until a friend of mine, whose husband gets up very early to go to work and she stays in bed and turns on the TV, told me about it.

She’s younger by a good 20 years and the morning won’t go by without her watching Father Knows Best. I started checking it out and realized how much I didn’t know. I didn’t watch the show back then, because we all were busy working on it. By the time we’d get home at night and have our dinner, we’d be getting ready to learn our lines and go to sleep to get up and go do it again. I never saw the show. So I’m sort of catching up, and it’s quite fun, actually.

FFW: So what goes through your mind when you look at those shows now?

ELINOR DONAHUE:  Great fondness. Fondness for the group of us. We were very, very close and really liked each other. It brings, generally speaking, happy memories. I was very critical of myself when I was young, which is probably another reason I didn’t watch the show. I made myself uncomfortable. I didn’t like looking at it. Now I can be a little bit more forgiving.

Three Daring Daughters
Edward Arnold stars with young Elinor Donahue in the ‘The Birds and the Bees’, aka ‘Three Daring Daughters,’, 1947Archive Photos/Getty Images

FFW: When you joined the show, for you was it about a steady gig or was there something special about it?

ELINOR DONAHUE: What drew me to it was that I had an agent who really believed in me. Mother and I didn’t believe I had much of a career left. I’d had a very nice career as a child actress; I had been on a contract to MGM and done a couple of movies there when I was 9, 10, 11 years old. But things didn’t seem to be going terribly well for us — I was still acting, but primarily I was dancing in a chorus, like a Rockette. I was due, about the time that I got Father Knows Best, to go to Reno to be at Harrah’s Club in Reno to dance in their chorus. But this woman named Lily Messenger really believed in me and she fought for me and got me the audition.

It didn’t go well, but she decided she would fancy me up a little bit, so she took me to her hairdresser and bought me some more grown up clothes and begged them to see me once more. When she made sure that I had lipstick and the full makeup business on, I went back and I read the same scene again, I left, she calls him and he says, “Well she’s very nice, she read the scene just fine, but she’s too much of a Hollywood starlet, she’s not my Betty.”

The cast of Father Knows Best
The cast of Father Knows BestScreen Gems/Getty Images

FFW: The assumption is that Lily Messenger kept pushing.

ELINOR DONAHUE: She would pester Mr. Rodney and the secretary was getting very upset and after several weeks she finally put Miss Messenger through to Mr. Rodney. He said, “Listen, Miss Messenger. If I test your girl, will you leave me alone? ” and she said, “Why yes, Mr. Rodney.” So I went in and I did a screen test which on the face of it didn’t turn out terribly well, because I forgot my lines, I got nervous, I started to cry.

I was doing a scene with Robert Young being off stage and he was very nice. They just wanted to say thank you very much and goodbye. He said, “You know, she’s very nervous. Elinor, why don’t you come and sit over here? Would you like a Coca-Cola? ” I said, “Yes, thank you, that’d be very nice.” And he said “You just sit here and let yourself calm down a little bit and they’ll fix your makeup and we’ll do someone else and then we’ll come back and we’ll try you again.”

So I sat there and I watched another girl do her test. She happened to be the girl who was playing Kathy on the radio show, ’cause the radio show of Father Knows Best had been on for four years. People were not exactly the ages they were playing, because you can get away with that on radio. Everybody was greeting her and hugging her and kissing her and telling her how wonderful she was and everything. I said, “Well that’s the end of that.” I sat down and they fixed my makeup, my nose was still a little bit red. We did the scene, first take, fine, thank you very much, goodbye.

Robert Young was very sweet and shook my hand. My mother and I got to the bus stop and I hadn’t said a word. She had been waiting in the ante room. She said, “Well, how did it go?” And I said, “I don’t want to discuss it. It’s over. That’s it.” And never a word was spoken. Six weeks later I was babysitting and I get a call from Miss Messenger and she’s screaming in the phone. She said, “You got the part.” And I said, “What part?” “Betty Anderson,” I thought I had completely just blown the whole thing and literally put it out of my mind.

FFW: You’ve mentioned how important dancing was to you. Were there any regrets giving up dancing to sign a multi-year contract for Father Knows Best?

ELINOR DONAHUE:  We got so busy with it that, no, kind of not. Then they started writing shows where Betty could dance. I did a toe dance one time. I hadn’t been en pointe for years and years and years. That really scared me. The other morning I happened to be watching a show wher Bud was playing the bongo drums and I was doing this faux Bongo dance — whatever you do to a bongo. They also had a whole big episode about a talent show where I had to do a tap dance. That ended up on YouTube, and I guess it was quite the thing for awhile, me doing my tap dance.

Father Knows Best
From left: Billy Gray, Jane Wyatt, Robert Young, Lauren Chapin, and Elinor Donahue, 1956. NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images

FFW: Was it difficult making the transition from child star to adult star?

ELINOR DONAHUE: I grew so tall so young, that I was sort of forced into seeming older than I really was, if that makes any sense.Then when I was doing Father Knows Best, the fortunate thing is that I left that show playing a young woman rather than a child. I was actually 23 when we stopped, but I was playing 19. In the eyes of the world, I was a young woman; 19 in those days wasn’t unusual for women to get married. They don’t do that anymore, but back in the 1960’s I think they still were. I was launched into the rest of my career, already not having to make a huge transition from “child” to an adult. However, when we stopped Father Knows Best, Lauren and Billy and I didn’t realize that we were stopping.

Portrait of the actress
Elinor Donahue, circa 1960Getty Images

FFW: What do you mean?

ELINOR DONAHUE:  We stopped because there was a writer’s strike, I believe in 1959. It had to have been or 1960. Either way, we were down for about six weeks and Lauren tells the story that at the end of six weeks she went to the studio and they wouldn’t let her in. They said, “We’re not shooting anymore.”

I don’t know how Billy found out, but Miss Messenger called me and said, “You’re not going back anymore, Robert Young and Jane Wyatt retired and they don’t want to do it anymore,” so they just stopped. We had enough in the can to make an entire season without having to shoot anymore. We had shot maybe six to ten for the fall season and that was about the time when the orders for shows were becoming fewer and fewer. When we started it, we were doing 39 episodes a year.

Elinor Donahue in 1959
Elinor Donahue, in Girls Town, 1959 Virgil Apger/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Then we would take six weeks off and then we’d go back and do 39 again. Then they went to 32 and then they went to 21 or something. They just spread them out. We had more reruns in the summer. Then after that, they kept running them in prime time and during the day in reruns. The only sad thing about that, and the point I was kind of getting to, was I went pretty much immediately from Father Knows Best into The Andy Griffith Show, where I was really playing a grown up.

FFW: Was it a comfortable transition?

ELINOR DONAHUE: To be honest, I felt like a bird out of a nest. I didn’t feel like I had all my feathers yet and I didn’t feel capable. It was the strangest feeling. I had a three year contract for that show, but at the end of the first year I asked to be let out of my contract, because I didn’t feel that I was playing the role properly. I just didn’t feel right about it. In retrospect, and from things that people have said to me — very lovely things — I was doing okay. I was just not a happy camper and there was no point in my trying to continue with it.

Elinor Donahue and the cast of The Andy Griffith Show
Elinor Donahue and the cast of The Andy Griffith Show in 1960©Paramount Pictures/courtesy

FFW: Andy Griffith supposedly felt that he wasn’t comfortable in a romantic relationship with somebody on camera.

ELINOR DONAHUE: They also said that. I saw him at a party and I went up to him and he was very gracious to me. His manager, Dick Lank, was with him. He said, “We just didn’t know how to write for you.” That could be part of it, but I didn’t think there was any real chemistry there and, fortunately, they would sporadically try other women. When Aneta Carsout came in, I have since read they had a hot and heavy thing going. He was able to relate to her.

FFW: Any particular memories working with Andy Griffith?

ELINOR DONAHUE: When we filmed the Christmas episode, he was so kind, I was very nervous about singing, I didn’t sing anymore and I avoided it like the plague. They wanted me to sing “Away in a Manger” with Andy. I tried to get out of it. My mother said, “Oh for heavens sake, you sing that in church all the time, you can certainly sing that.” But I was very nervous about it.

So at the end of filming one day, we met at a recording studio and we got a key to get in. He could tell I was nervous and said, “Just sit down here on the floor and I’ll noodle around with the guitar and you come in when you feel comfortable and we’ll start. Just a rehearsal.” We started and sang through the whole thing. He said, “Oh that was very nice, very good, okay that’s it.” I said, “What?” So he faked me out, ’cause he knew how nervous I was. That was what they used. He was a very, very kind and nice man. Very sweet.

FFW: Moving backwards for a moment, what do you think the ongoing appeal of Father Knows Best is?

ELINOR DONAHUE:  I think the sweetness and the kindness that the people had toward one another. It has a warmth and an energy — a loving energy — to it that was very special. And the dialogue was always thoughtful, never mean. If anybody was mean spirited, I think it was Princess occasionally. She was always on a crusade of some sort, kind of huffy about everything..

Father Knows Best Reunion
FATHER KNOWS BEST: HOME FOR CHRISTMAS, (from left): Lauren Chapin, Elinor Donahue, Billy Gray, Robert Young, Jane Wyatt, 1977©NBC/IMDb

FFW: There were a pair of reunion movies in the 1970s. What was it like stepping back into that world again?

ELINOR DONAHUE: They were quite fun, but there was great trepidation when we had our first reading. You could just sense it, Billy and I, we were very tentative about the whole thing; we said, “I don’t know how this is going to work.” We read it through once and it was as though the years had flown by. Nothing was any different. It was wonderful. It just felt so comfortable. It didn’t feel like we were going backward, it felt like we’d come forward. We brought everything that we were, everything that we had been through, each of us, to our characters.

We all looked at each other and it was like a huge sigh of relief and everybody kind of smiled, some smiles bigger than others, but everybody smiled. We really loved it. The second reunion show I was barely in, because NBC wanted me for a series called Mulligan’s Stew. They wouldn’t release me to shoot Father Knows Best, even though it was on the same network. So they had to keep shooting around me and shooting around me and cutting the part down. When I was finally allowed one day to go over and shoot that, Robert Young said., “Boy, you better be good. This is the biggest build up ever.” But we had fun.

Elinor Donahue, Tony Randall and Jack Klugman in The Odd Couple
Elinor Donahue, Tony Randall and Jack Klugman in The Odd Couple©Paramount Pictures/IMDb

FFW: Your next recurring gig was as Miriam Welby, Felix’s girlfriend on The Odd Couple. Was that an enjoyable experience with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman?

ELINOR DONAHUE: I loved both the guys and everybody on that show. We just had a wonderful, wonderful time, although Tony Randall could be a little prickly with people sometimes. I was just supposed to do one episode and I was supposed to be a blind date for him. We meet at a restaurant and we were doing a dress rehearsal — and bear in mind, I always get particularly nervous at dress rehearsals — and I couldn’t remember my lines. He got very upset and he started pounding on the table, saying, “Say your line, say your line, say your line!” And Jack Klugman said, “Tony, Tony, relax! Calm down; you’re scaring her.” At that point I couldn’t have told you my name., I was so scared.

It was not like I was a working actress, I hadn’t worked for a year or two, but somebody called me up and said, “How would you like to come down and do a small part in a show?” I thought it could be fun, but I was feeling a little insecure.

So the script girl comes running up and she gives me my line. We get through the rehearsal. I just thought, “I can’t go back, it’s too shameful.” The next day when we came in to do the full on taping, in my dressing room was a bouquet. Not a large bouquet, but a pretty, very sweet, beautiful bouquet from Tony apologizing and thanking me for being on the show. It was the sweetest thing, and from that time on he was just as nice to me as he could be possibly be. Jack was a doll. We just had a wonderful, wonderful time together.

The Odd Couple
Elinor Donahue, Janis Hansen and Tony Randall in The Odd Couple, 1973©Paramount Pictures/IMDb

FFW: How did you enjoy filming in front of a studio audience, which was certainly different from Father Knows Best and The Andy Griffith Show?

ELINOR DONAHUE: That was a very different thing for me, because I had done theater and I’d done live television, but this is sort of like a hybrid. It felt strange, because I always felt like I was maybe over acting for the camera. But you have to sort of put it out there for the audience to get the full brunt of it. It just felt funny in the beginning. And, again, Jack and Tony could make anything funny; they were perfectly matched for their characters.

Elinor Donahue at a Star Trek convention
(L-R) Actress Elinor Donahue, actor Gregory Itzin and television personality Scott Mantz, 2016 Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images

FFW: Any discussion of your classic TV work is incomplete unless we talk about your episode of the original Star Trek, “Metamorphosis,” in which you played Commodore Nancy Hedford. What was it like working with William Shatner, who you shared most of your scenes with?

ELINOR DONAHUE: I went to a Star Trek convention in Las Vegas a few years ago, and that was quite amazing, although Star Trek certainly became a phenomenon very early on. You could see that that was going to have legs for a long time. And William Shatner was interesting, let’s put it that way.

We ended up getting along fine. He was a little tough on me in the beginning, because, like I said, I’m not good at rehearsals, I think I scare people or used to scare people in rehearsals, ’cause it always seemed to me as though they thought that I wasn’t going to be able to do it right. I guess I kind of pull that out of the fire at the last minute. He got a little annoyed with me during the table read and the director said, “Just leave her alone, will you?” But it was fine. He saw that I was professional about my work and giving my best. That’s all you can ask somebody, is to do their best.

Star Trek, "Metamorphosis"
William Shatner, Elinor Donahue and Leonard Nimoy in the Star Trek episode “Metamorphosis” in 1967©Paramount Pictures/IMDb

FFW: When you look back at all of these classic TV shows, what are your thoughts ?

ELINOR DONAHUE: I’m just kind of amazed that it all went on as long as it did. Some things sound unbelievable and if I heard it from someone I’d say, “Oh, come on, that can’t possibly be true.” But it was all just magical. It was just kind of a magical life. I’ve been so fortunate and had a lot of fun along the way.

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