Question: What was Donna Reed's character's name on her show? I remember she had the same first name. And come to think of it, was Donna Reed her real name? Thank you. — Curtis R., Neely, Miss.
Televisionary: Reed's name on the hit Donna Reed Show, which ran on ABC for eight years beginning in September 1958, was Donna Stone, Curtis. And no, she didn't use her birth name when working. The Iowa farm girl was born Donna Mullenger, but after moving to Los Angeles to attend college, winning a beauty contest and gaining entree to a casting director, she became a contract player for MGM, where her name was changed to Reed.
The thing was, she didn't pick the name and despite her sunny personna, she never pretended to be happy about it. "I hear 'Donna Reed' and I get a picture of a tall, chic, austere blonde, which isn't me," she told TV Guide in 1961. "I've never liked that name. It has a cold sound.... For a while, when the publicity department at MGM was renaming me, I was Donna Adams. I liked that. But they heard about another Donna Adams somewhere, an actress. For a few hours one day I was Donna Drake. Then someone remembered an actress named Dona Drake, and that ended that. So I got stuck with Donna Reed."
Such honesty from the woman inhabiting the prim and proper Mrs. Stone — smiling, perfect wife of pediatrician Dr. Alex Stone (Carl Betz) — may be a tad bracing for fans of the show. But the candor didn't stop there. Take the time a year later, when an interviewer asked her what TV had given her. "Money," she said.
The tell-it-like-it-is reflex applied to herself and her performances, too — despite her success, Reed could be hard on herself. Of a 1957 G.E. Theater performance, she said: "It's the worst thing I've ever done, but I'm told it got one of the series' highest ratings. Personally, I think people were fascinated by how bad it was, too hypnotized to turn it off."
Despite winning an Academy Award for her work in From Here to Eternity before launching her successful show, self-flagellation was such a habit that it eventually wore on her husband, agent and Reed Show producer Tony Owen. "I think Donna's perfectionism can be a drag," he admitted. "She could win five more Oscars and still be unsure of herself as an actress."
Mind you, insecurity has always run rampant in Hollywood, but mostly that's due to the "friends" who are so willing to run you down even after the reviewers have had their way with you. Take, for instance, the unnamed long-time friend who tried to explain why Reed had such a long-lasting career compared with other pin-ups from the '40s who'd disappeared by the time she landed her own show. "Let's be realistic," the pal said. "Donna was no prettier, no more talented than the other girls. But what she had was — here's an old-fashioned word for an old-fashioned virtue — character."
Gee, thanks. But the friend had a point. Reed, despite her tendency to run herself down, was one tough, opinionated cookie. After her series had been on a while, friends talked about her "whim of iron" and joked that she wore the pants in the marriage. That impression was helped along by her hubby, who reportedly was once asked how he liked a batch of new scripts and replied: "I don't know. Donna hasn't read them yet."
And if you really wanted to get the actress going, all you had to do was ask her about the appeal of her Donna Stone over Hollywood's, shall we say, livelier female characters. "I'm fed up to here with stories about kooky, amoral or sick women," she complained in 1961. "[W]ith the producers today it has to be Butterfield 8. I just don't believe the public wants a diet of these sick females."
Three years later, she was still going. "Directors seem to hate women — make them look as if they'd never seen a comb, and give them roles of unwed mothers and tramps," she said in 1964. "There's nothing left for families but Walt Disney and Doris Day.... Doris never says yes until the fellow marries her."
Fair enough. But chalk it up to the complexities of a career in Hollywood, then, that her Eternity Best Supporting Actress statue was earned by playing the embittered Alma Lorene — who, after all, was a prostitute.