When a star achieves success, people oftentimes don’t recognize how bumpy the road to fame can actually be. For example, actress Donna Reed worked hard to navigate the entertainment world. Her 1958 to 1966 television series, The Donna Reed Show, actually represented some major ambitions on her part.
Reed’s career includes 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life and 1953’s From Here to Eternity. The former became a holiday classic and the latter netted her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She got offers. But none quite provided the altitude one would expect. Her show sought to change that.
Trial and error
Despite the success of the aforementioned movies, Reed still had to seek out work, because hit roles early on did not guarantee career longevity. Or allowed parts to reflect her own personal identity. Reed wanted to convey a sense of who she was as a person in the movies and television shows she worked on. So, she did not accept every offer that came her way, but worked with then-husband Tony Owen. Together, they and William S. Roberts formulated a show that would present Donna Reed as Donna Reed.
They did not arrive on the concept of The Donna Reed Show immediately, developing and exploring a variety of ideas until they found the right one. Ultimately, Reed informed The Journal News, “Looking for the right concept took two years. We were bombarded with ideas from typewriters in Hollywood. I could have played a lady race track tout. Someone suggested a show about an elevator operator in the Empire State Building with a new episode on every floor. There was even one about a lady bullfighter.”
Flipping the script with ‘The Donna Reed Show’
Author David Tucker penned The Women Who Made Television Funny, which noted most shows of the time focused on the father figure and the wife acted as “adjunct.” Instead, both play a relatively important role. Reed was not afraid to sing her TV husband’s praises, because the spotlight was theirs to share. By rights, though, it maybe shouldn’t have made it as far as it did. The show had a shaky start early on and the studio could have pulled the plug. “We knew it would take a while to build an audience,” Reed admitted of The Donna Reed Show. Fortunately, she maintained a patient optimism. “We were like a new family on the block. We had to be known and accepted.”
Even competing against hit shows of the age, Reed stayed calm, cool, and collected. “You see, I’m hopeful that there are lots of people in this country who will tune in a good series of family life, regardless of what else may happen to be on the air,” she explained in 1958. She believed in their show’s concept and its ability to attract viewers. “You see, I’m hopeful that there are lots of people in this country who will tune in a good series of family life, regardless of what else may happen to be on the air.” The Donna Reed Show also strayed from even more conventions of the era. Reed explained, “In so many TV situation comedies the man of the house is nothing more than a good-natured, lovable blunderbuss. And, of course, the wife is always the incarnation of cleverness and wisdom. Well, we depart from that. In our series, the wife doesn’t always have the last word.”
Through it all, Donna Reed consistently conducted herself with poise, because she knew worrying would gain her nothing and give the doubters everything.