Donna Reed was an Iowa farm girl who never forgot her Midwest roots. Co-stars and celebrity friends adored her, and millions of fans continue to celebrate her every year as Mary Bailey in the holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. Fans might not know that Reed won an Oscar for playing a vulnerable sex worker, and her later successes included a hit TV show bearing her name. Here are 50 wonderful facts about Donna Reed.
While filming It’s a Wonderful Life, Reed made a bet with a fellow cast member—an esteemed member of old Hollywood acting royalty—which she later called “the easiest $50 I ever made.” Lionel Barrymore, who played the villainous Mr. Potter, was convinced that Reed couldn’t milk a cow. Reed worked her Iowa farm girl roots and milked it good. Squeeze that, Barrymore.
Donna Reed was the longshot to play Mary Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. Director Frank Capra had no interest in her at first, offering the pivotal role to actress Jean Arthur, who was too busy on Broadway to take the role. Olivia de Havilland of Gone with the Wind fame and famous actress-dancer Ginger Rogers were also considered before Reed.
For her part, Rogers didn’t want the Mary Bailey role, calling it “too bland.”
As an up-and-coming starlet, Reed caught the eye of the movie studio’s acclaimed head of makeup, William Tuttle, so much that he married her—however, their union was doomed to a heartbreaking end. They divorced after just two years of marriage.
Little is known of why Reed’s first marriage failed, but it’s interesting to note that she quickly married her agent, Tony Owen, right after her divorce. Together, Reed and Owen raised four children, and he was the executive producer of The Donna Reed Show.
In 2009, someone at Reed’s former home discovered a shoebox in the garage. It contained at least 341 letters from young American serviceman, dating from World War II. Reed had done her part at home, becoming a pen pal to hundreds of young men on the front line. The letters are extremely touching, with one boy gushing “You are a typical American girl, someone who we would like to come home to!”
Reed was born Donna Belle Mullenger on January 21, 1921, in small-town Denison, Iowa.
After graduating high school, Reed moved to the coast and attended Los Angeles City College. Her fresh-faced, farm girl beauty was captivating, and she was crowned Campus Queen.
After being crowned Campus Queen of Los Angeles City College, Reed’s picture hit newspapers around Hollywood. Numerous movie talent scouts started sniffing her out on campus.
Donna Reed landed her first Hollywood film role quite quickly, a large part in a 1941 B-movie called The Get-Away.
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Before working together in the far more memorable It’s a Wonderful Life, Reed acted with Lionel Barrymore in Calling Dr. Gillespie. I’m assuming no cows were present during the making of that film.
After more than a decade in film, playing sweet and steady movie roles all too similar to Mary Bailey, Donna Reed finally got to sink her acting chops into a part unlike anything she’d done before—a tough-talking sex worker in the sweeping Pearl Harbor-era epic From Here to Eternity.
Censorship in the 1950s entertainment industry was inescapable. In From Here to Eternity, Reed’s character Lorene could never be referred to as a sex worker (even though they used different language back then). Every mention of Lorene had to describe her as a “nightclub hostess.”
Director Fred Zinnemann didn’t want Reed for From Here to Eternity, believing she would not be convincing. But Zinnemann had already battled hard with movie studio boss Harry Cohn to cast his unpopular favorites, Frank Sinatra, Deborah Kerr, and Montgomery Clift, and Zinnemann knew that Cohn would explode if they butted heads again.
Zinnemann reluctantly cast Reed, and to his surprise, her emotionally charged performance blew the director away.
The director of From Here to Eternity wasn’t the only person blown away by Reed’s stunning turn in the movie. She won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Lorene.
Deborah Kerr received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in From Here to Eternity, while Reed won Best Supporting Actress for her role in the film. Usually, the supporting actor/actress category means a smaller role, but Kerr and Reed were onscreen for practically the same amount of time.
Reed’s Oscar-winning turn as a sex worker was a revelation, but unfortunately, it didn't pave the way for more dramatic film roles for the actress. She appeared in a line of forgettable movies in the 1950s, although her notable co-stars included Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, and Rock Hudson.
In 1958, Reed turned to television, starring in the aptly named The Donna Reed Show as a "wise and loving wife and mother." While it was a return to stereotype for Reed, the sitcom eventually became hugely successful and ran until 1966.
Donna Reed received Emmy nominations four years in a row (1959-62) for The Donna Reed Show, but she never clocked a win.
In 1963, after four Emmy nominations for The Donna Reed Show, Reed scored a Golden Globe Award for her television sitcom role.
After The Donna Reed Show ended in 1966, Reed took a seemingly lengthy break from acting. She appeared in the odd made for TV movie, and she took a guest-starring cruise on an episode of The Love Boat.
Frank Sinatra was not only a legendary singer, and the most famous member of the Rat Pack, he was an accomplished actor who starred with Reed in From Here to Eternity. After Reed’s death, Sinatra sweetly called her “a lovely lady, gentle and kind.” Sinatra—who had an infamous rep with the ladies too—added, “I can remember in the beginning when every guy, particularly myself, who saw her on the screen had a crush on Donna.”
Mary Owen is a dedicated expert on It’s a Wonderful Life. She’s regularly called upon to introduce the holiday classic at special screenings, including in New York City where the film plays annually at the IFC Center. Owen has been able to pass on many intimate details about the film and its stars to generations of eager fans for one reason—because she’s Reed’s daughter.
Mary Owen has been asked far too many times whether Reed named her after the Mary Bailey character. For the record, the answer is no! Owen was named after her great-grandmother, Mary Mullenger.
Director Frank Capra, Jimmy Stewart, and Reed have all said that It’s a Wonderful Life was their favorite film—an impressive agreement since the three of them racked up a couple of hundred movie credits combined. Capra, for one, wasn’t humble about lavishing praise on his creation. As Capra wrote in his autobiography, “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.” What a wonderful ego.
The scene in It’s a Wonderful Life where Mary pelts a rock through a window of the decrepit Granville House was a cinch for Reed. Director Frank Capra had a stuntman—yup, a hired dude—at the ready to pitch the rock, but Capra wasted the budget that day. Reed threw the rock, hitting the window dead-on in one take.
Reed’s daughter Mary Owen can appreciate that millions of people count on seeing It’s a Wonderful Life on TV during the holidays each year. Her late mother’s home, however, may have been the lone exception. Owen has admitted that she wasn’t one of the millions watching the movie at home on TV. She first saw it in a theater, three decades after it was first released, and she loved it.
Growing up in the small town of Denison, Iowa (population 3,000 at the time) was a comfortable if predictable existence for farm girl Reed. Her stunning looks set her apart, and when she won a beauty contest in town, it started an unknowing Reed on a fateful path towards the bright, exciting lights of Hollywood.
Reed’s third husband, Grover Asmus, started the Donna Reed Foundation, with a festival honoring her every year in her hometown of Denison, Iowa.
What connection does the legendary progressive rock band Rush have with Reed? A pretty significant one. When Rush released their Permanent Waves album in 1980, it was their most successful release to date—and Reed inspired the album’s cover art. Hugh Syme, the cover artist who pictured a 1950s-era woman casually sidestepping a tidal wave, recalled a conversation he had with Rush drummer, the late Neil Peart.
Syme said, “I suggested a woman who looked like actress Donna Reed, with a Toni home permanent hairstyle from that era.”
Reed made quite a mark when she attended Los Angeles City College. Other notable alumni include Mark Hamill, Cindy Williams, Morgan Freeman, and Dirty Harry himself—Clint Eastwood.
Not only was Donna Reed the inspiration for the cover of an album by rock band Rush, but she's also prominently mentioned in Rob Zombie’s “Living Dead Girl,” at 2:31 in the song. It's a wonderful tune if the soundtrack to a zombie apocalypse does it for you!
Donna Reed joked that, throughout the 40-odd movies she made, the question she heard most often in wardrobe was, “What kind of bra will you be wearing today, honey?”
Donna Reed was at the forefront of bringing awareness to what she called the “critical need” for blood donation. She got involved with blood donation in the 1980s, and she also hoped to encourage more people to become organ donors.
Reed's advice on dealing with yourself and others gives insight into the quality of her character. Reed said, "when you handle yourself, use your head; when you handle others, use your heart.”
Actress Shelley Fabares played Reed’s daughter Mary on The Donna Reed Show. In 2011, Fabares wrote that her TV mom “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.”
Iowa’s nickname is the Hawkeye State, and Shelley Fabares, Reed’s TV daughter on The Donna Reed Show, said Iowan-born Reed never lost that “Midwest girl” quality as a Hollywood star. “There is a bedrock decency to people in the Midwest. They are thoughtful and ready to help you if something needs to be done,” Fabares noted.
Following Reed’s death in 1986, the LA Times published obits honoring the late actress. The columns mentioned that the Hollywood studio star system had trained Reed to keep her mouth shut and that Reed’s success ultimately depended on it. But following The Donna Reed Show—a successful sitcom that had afforded her financial independence—Reed apparently surprised many in Hollywood when she started speaking up.
As Reed explained to an interviewer in 1967, “I’d been overwhelmed by hopeless despair…having two sons who might have to go to Vietnam to fight…then one night at a rally for Eugene McCarthy, a mic was put in front of me unexpectedly, and I heard myself speaking what I thought.”
Donna Reed may have been a decent Midwestern girl, but she had a gutsy streak too. After graduating high school in Dennison, Iowa, and following her beauty contest win, Reed decided to pack up her stuff in a rickety old car and head west on a solo road trip to California. She wasn't yet seeking fame or fortune, just a humble clerical job in a way more exciting locale.
One of Reed’s early movie appearances was in The Courtship of Andy Hardy in 1942. For some reason, Reed found the role dissatisfying, and she complained to studio boss Louis B. Mayer about it. A pretty gutsy—some might say foolish—move, because Mayer was a powerful and temperamental man who made or broke acting careers on a whim. He didn’t fire Reed, or cancel her contract, but she was “exiled” to another studio for movie parts.
Although it gained a tremendous following, The Donna Reed Show was hardly a ratings juggernaut in the beginning. Campbell’s Soup was a major commercial sponsor, and thankfully the company was keen on the sitcom’s wholesomeness. Campbell’s continued ladling out the advertising dollars, and eventually, the show took off.
In the beginning, Reed and studio executives were unclear about the premise for her TV show, and Reed was scared silly about doing comedy. That was until an executive spotted a heartwarming photo of Reed and her real kids. Suddenly, a kinder, gentler, “non-slapstick” sitcom idea took shape.
When ratings started plummeting on The Donna Reed Show, Reed felt too exhausted to worry much about its inevitable cancellation. The show had earned her millions, giving her enough freedom to concentrate on being there for her teenaged children—but a dark turn laid around the next corner. Her marriage to Owen began unraveling, and by 1972 they were divorced.
During the heyday of The Donna Reed Show, a genius publicity stunt included a recipe, published in newspapers across North America, for “Bundt cake à la Donna Reed.”
Reed and her second husband Tony Owen were admittedly “complete opposites.” He was 14 years older and could be arrogant. Reed told her family that she’d “no doubt be unhappy if (I) married Tony—but miserable if (I) didn’t.”
Reed’s youngest daughter, Mary Owen, was born just before Reed started filming The Donna Reed Show. Being a real-life wife, mom to four (including an infant), and star of her own TV show put a ton on Reed's plate. From the beginning, Reed championed the working mother, telling reporters "I knew what was right for me—work and marriage and no guilt pangs about mixing the two.”
In December 1985, Reed had exploratory surgery after suffering from bleeding ulcers. Surgeons discovered advanced pancreatic cancer and determined there was nothing more they could do. On December 24 of that year, Reed was released from the hospital to spend her final Christmas with family and her devoted third husband, retired Army Colonel Grover Asmus. Reed died on January 14, 1986, at age 64.
Donna Reed met third husband Grover Asmus at a dinner party held by mutual friends. They were married in 1974 and enjoyed a peaceful and solid marriage until her death from pancreatic cancer in 1986.
Donna Reed took up residence at Southfork Ranch in 1984, replacing actress Barbara Bel Geddes as matriarch Ellie Ewing on the then hugely popular TV show, Dallas. Although Dallas was basically a nighttime soap opera, Reed had a different perspective on the show. “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 live under one roof […] I think deep down, everyone misses that,” Reed said in an interview.
Barbara Bel Geddes agreed to return to her Ellie Ewing role on Dallas in 1985, and producers unceremoniously fired Donna Reed. Backstage drama ensued, as Reed attempted to halt production and get her job back. Reed later sued the television studio, settling out of court for over $1 million.
Donna Reed took an acting break in the late sixties to late seventies for personal—and political—reasons. As the Vietnam War escalated, Reed was concerned for the wellbeing of Tony, her eldest son, fearing he'd be drafted into service against his beliefs and will. Reed became a peace activist in 1967, co-chairing the group Another Mother for Peace to advocate against the Vietnam situation.
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