The Donna Reed Show: Freeing The Housewife One Episode At A Time

Donna Reed and former husband and producer Tony Owen created “The Donna Reed Show” in 1958 and the popular TV series ran until March 1966. “The Donna Reed Show” wasn’t doing so hot when it first debuted. Producers eventually moved the show from Wednesday to Thursday nights, which helped bring in more viewers, but not as many as they had hoped to receive.

A Hit Song Saved the Show

The series held on and in the middle of its run Fabares released the #1 hit pop song “Johnny Angel.” The single sold more than 1 million copies. That hit brought in an entirely new audience to the show and was followed up by a moderate hit from Peterson called “My Dad” which peaked at #6.

After walking away from “The Donna Reed Show,” the show’s star decided to avoid a new series, refused to appear in guest spots on other shows, and shunned Hollywood films because she hated the way they depicted women as vapid. She was a trendsetter for women characters and wanted to make sure her views on strong, independent women remained untainted.

The Munsters and Donna Reed

When “The Munsters” debuted on TV in 1964, the show’s creators decided to create a parody of “The Donna Reed Show” during its opening credits sequence. Lily Munster can be seen passing out lunches to her children, something Reed did at the start of every show with her TV children.

Watch closely during supermarket scenes and you will notice a ton of Campbell’s Soup, Franco-American Spaghetti, and various other products from Johnson & Johnson. The show was heavily sponsored by the company and that made it seem like we are all just living in a Johnson & Johnson endorsed world.

A TV Dad for the Ages

Donna Reed may have been a strong and independent mom but that didn’t discount the accomplishments of “Dr. Alex Stone.” He was ranked at #16 in TV Guide’s list of the “50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time.” The family dynamic was strong with this show which explains why he would be selected towards the top one-third of the list.

Donna Reed and recurring cast member Jimmy Hawkins were familiar with each other’s work before he started appearing on “The Donna Reed Show.” Years before the TV series debuted he played her son in the holiday classic “It’s A Wonderful Life.” He would eventually become Mary’s steady boyfriend on the popular TV series.

Shelley Fabares Beat the Child Star Curse

Shelley Fabares started her career in Hollywood at a very young age. She was a child model by 3-years-old and by 8 she landed a regular role on the series, “Annie Oakley.” In 1953, she appeared on TV as Frank Sinatra’s dance partner. She went on to co-star in three Elvis Presley movies. In 1989, she took a turn for the best as one of the stars on the hit TV series “Coach.”

Donna Reed wanted to host a reunion show, but those plans were canceled after Carl Betz died in 1978. The rest of the crew agreed that it wouldn’t be a reunion show without all of its main characters returning for one last TV show episode so it never ended up happening.

A Ton of Special Guests

As is often the case with a popular TV show, there were plenty of stars who made guest appearances. Among some of the most popular people to grace the TV screen on “The Donna Reed Show” was Willie Mays, Dony Drysdale, musician Harry James, and singers Tony Martin and Lesley Gore.

For decades the TV series continues to air on TV. However, in 2008, Sony, the last company to own airing rights, lost them to the estates of Donna Reed and Tony Owen. While the show ran from 1985 to 1999 on Nick at Nite and from 2002 to 2004 on TV Land, it is rarely seen on TV now because of the cost to air the TV series in syndication.

The Prize In The Cereal

In 2004, General Mills offered a DVD of two episodes of the TV series inside boxes of Total cereal and Oatmeal Crisp. That was a pretty big win for fans of the show because of its lack of airing on any major TV networks. It was definitely one of the more unique cereal box items to ever be given away inside cereal boxes.

“The Donna Reed Show” ran until 1966 and was canceled after 275 episodes aired. The show’s star no longer wanted to be a part of the daily grind that took a toll on her personal life. The TV series was still incredibly popular when Donna Reed decided to turn down the opportunity to renew her contract and the show.

A First For Women


Donna Reed’s character, Donna Stone, was a loving mother, an amazing wife, and a strong central female character. In fact, this was the first sitcom to feature the mother as the central character for a TV show. She was strong, funny, and engaging to watch and many of Reed’s own friends say her character was a mirror of her real-life persona.

The series would eventually win over the hearts of millions of Americans, but it only broke into the top 25 shows in one season. From 1963-1964 the show managed to become one of the 25 most popular shows in America. Reed said that she was happy with the results because it showed that a TV series about a healthy, non-neurotic, non-sexpot female lead could be a big success. Read on to hear what a trendsetter Reed was.

The Show Has Started To Trickle Back Out

MPI Home Video acquired the rights to release the TV series on DVD. On September 30, 2014, the company re-released the first season on DVD. That was followed up by a 2nd season re-release on March 24, 2015. The company released season 3 June 30, 2015. There are still more seasons to go but it was a good start of a classic TV show that deserves its second chance to shine — this time in the 21st century. The smaller TV network Me-TV started re-runs of seasons 1 through 5 in September 2011.

“The Donna Reed Show” was so popular that it translated into an episode of “Gilmore Girls” in the 21st century. Season 1 episode 14 of the TV series is titled “That Damn Donna Reed” and focuses on a disagreement Rory has with boyfriend Dean about a women’s role in the household. They have a disagreement after watching an episode of the iconic TV series.

A Pretty Amazing Homage

The entire idea of the 1950s nuclear family featured on “The Donna Reed Show” was a big inspiration for the surprisingly good 1998 American fantasy-comedy-drama “Pleasantville.” This iconic TV show was a huge inspiration for TV and movies many years later and once you realize that fact, it’s easy to spot the references.

It was not uncommon for TV show casting agents to bring back actors into various roles back in the day. The following actors all appeared more than once and as different characters on “The Donna Reed Show.” The actors included Richard Deacon, Gale Gordon, Miyoshi Umeki, Harvey Korman, Doodles Weaver, and Dick Wilson.

A Close Friend Connection

Esther Williams guest starred as Molly, a fashion designer, and friend of Donna’s. That was in 1960 and the women had been friends in real-life since the 1940s. They were both signed to MGM and were considered rising stars at the same time. Talk about bringing your friends around for an amazing ride during your awesome career!

Donna Reed and her husband, along with a team of writers, had run out of fresh ideas and plot devices by 1962. They were ready to call it quits because they didn’t want the show to drag on without any originality. It was a noble effort to call it quits so fans didn’t grow bored with the popular TV series.

A New Deal

ABC did not want to see the show end as it had grown so popular, so they made Donna Reed a new deal.

In exchange for three more seasons, Donna received more money and reduced the number of episodes per season, along with other incentives to convince Donna to keep the show going.

Time For Family

Donna agreed to the terms of the new contract. Filming 30 episodes a year was exhausting, and was taking time away from her family.

Instead of ending the series when Fabares’ character went off to college, a new character was introduced to the series and “The Donna Reed Show” kept filming.


Adoption was not a theme that was often explored on television shows back in the 1950s and 1960s.

When Fabares’ character, Mary, went off to college, ending her run as a series regular, the family adopted an orphan named Trisha, played by Patty Petersen. Patty remained on the show for the remainder of its run.

Cutting-Edge Issues

While the show mainly explored the dynamics of middle class American family life, it occasionally touched on other topics that were not often found on mainstream television.

Some issues that were addressed include freedom of the press, women’s rights, and even drug addiction, bringing some very important issues into the living rooms of Americans.

Hilldale, USA

The location of Hilldale, the setting for “The Donna Reed Show,” is stateless, or at least the creators of the show would have us believe that.

While we know that the Reed familiy lives in a town called Hilldale, at no point in the show is it revealed which state, or even which area of the country, Hilldale is located.

Contract Issues

Donna Reed knew her rights and fought for them. After “The Donna Reed Show” was over, Donna joined the cast of the show Dallas taking over the role of Miss Ellie Ewing from Barbara Bel Geddes.

When Bel Geddes returned for the next season, Donna was fired. She was furious and sued the studio for breach of contract, winning a seven figure settlement.

A Sentimental Streak

During World War II, Donna Reed wrote to soldiers to help keep their spirits up while they were fighting. Many of them wrote back to her.

Donna saved the letters she received from the brave servicemen. In 2009, a box of 341 letters from soldiers was discovered in her garage.

Donna Reed Or Julia Child?

Donna Reed, like her character on the show, was the consummate homemaker. While she may have been most famous for her acting talents, she made a mean bundt cake, and the recipe can be found online!

All you need is four eggs, lemon cake mix, lemon pudding mix, a cup of water, and half a cup of oil.

Lifelong Friends

The cast of “The Donna Reed Show” was quite close, and many lifelong friendships were formed on the set of the television series.

After the series ended, Donna maintained particularly close relationships with Paul Petersen and Shelly Fabares, who frequently visited her, proving that some friendship really do last forever!

Conservative Or Not?

While Donna Reed was a conservative, registered Republican for much of her adult life.

During the late 1960s she was so opposed to the war in Vietnam that she became more liberal and campaigned against the war, serving as the co-chair of an anti-war organization called Another Mother for Peace.

Mad Men

“The Donna Reed Show” is prominently featured on the AMC hit series “Mad Men.” Throughout the series, characters on “Mad Men” can be seen watching episodes of “The Donna Reed Show.”

“Mad Men” was set in the 1960s, so airing clips from one of the decade’s most popular shows gave it more authenticity.

It’s A Wonderful Life

Starring on “The Donna Reed Show” was not Donna Reed’s only iconic character. She also starred as Mary in one of the most famous Christmas movies of all time, It’s A Wonderful Life, portraying Jimmy Stewart’s love interest.

These two roles made her one of Hollywood’s most beloved stars of all time.

A Star That Almost Wasn’t Born

Donna Reed did not always want to be an actress. In fact, her childhood dream was to become a teacher.

She starred in some stage productions while attending Los Angeles City College, and began to received many offers from various studios for screen tests. She eventually signed with MGM, but insisted on finishing school first.

Name Change

Donna’s original was not Reed, but Mullenger. When she began her professional acting career, WWII was being fought around the globe and anti-German sentiments were high.

She first performed under the name Donna Adams, later changing it to Donna Reed which would become her professional stage name from then on.

Sibling Connection

Patty Petersen, who played the character of Trisha on the show’s later seasons, was actually Paul Petersen’s real-life sister. On “The Donna Reed Show,” she starred as his adopted sister.

It probably was not too hard for them to fake having a brother-sister relationship since they actually had one in real life!

Strong Work Ethic

Carl Betz, who played Donna’s husband on the show, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 1977.

He did not want anyone to know about his condition as he wanted to be able to continue working for as long as he could. He passed away less than one year later.

Singing Sensations

One of the more notable events to occur on the show was that of the unexpected breakout song hits. Shelley Fabares sang the song “Johnny Angel” on the show, and her rendition became a number one hit, helping to launch her singing career.

Paul Petersen also sang on the show which later led to a successful singing career of his own.

My Dad

When Paul Petersen performed “My Dad” on the show, it became quite popular. It was released as a single in the same year, and eventually reached No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.

Paul went on to receive many recording offers. He had many other hit songs, including “She Can’t Find Her Keys” which was also featured on the show.


Every year, Donna Reed’s hometown of Denison, Iowa, hosts a Donna Reed Festival in her honor, held in the third week of June.

Paul Petersen, who played Donna’s son on the show, is one of the organizers of the festival. He is also a board member of the Donna Reed Foundation.

A Lasting Legacy


After Donna Reed passed away, her widower, Grover Asmus, along with many of her friends and family members, created the Donna Reed Foundation for the Performing Arts which offers grants and scholarships for performing arts students.

Her many contributions along with the foundation ensure that Donna Reed’s legacy will never be forgotten.

She Helped Bob Crane’s Career

After Donna Reed saw Bob Crane’s acting abilities on The Dick Van Dyke Show, she asked him to make a guest appearance on her own program.

His character, Dr. David Kelsey, was such a success that he was written into the show permanently until he departed the show in 1964. The following year, Crane was given the starring role on Hogan’s Heroes, and the rest is history.