Donna Reed is a pop culture classic, the quintessential TV mom. On the anniversary of her death Jan. 14, 1986, we remember the actress behind the icon.
As the world has changed since the 1950s, so have portrayals of television families. From the unattainable ideal of programs such as Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver, we've moved on to show the vast variety of real-life families – divorced moms raising kids on their own, blended families, unmarried couples living together with or without children, kids with two dads or two moms, gay couples, interracial couples… the list goes on and on. It's a world that would be unfamiliar to the TV viewers of 60 years ago… but it's our world, and even when it's a little messy and imperfect, we like it.
Still, sometimes it just feels good to look back at those idyllic days of long ago, when every family was just right… at least, according to the television. And one of the most perfect TV families? The Stones, immortalized on The Donna Reed Show.
As improbably perfect as Donna Reed's character was, she was the mother that so many viewers dreamed of having… or being. She always had time for her children as well as numerous other activities, all while keeping an immaculate home and a smile on her face. From today's perspective, Reed's Donna Stone is the archetypal mother, the ideal that none of us quite manage to live up to. The role has become such a crucial part of her identity that we don't always remember that she was an actress playing a part.
Donna Stone and Donna Reed were not one and the same. Reed's reality differed from that of her on-screen persona. Though Reed was a mother of four, she was no homemaker – she was a busy actress, a working mom who took a prominent role in developing and shaping her eponymous TV show.
She was a movie star, too, with dozens of films on her resume, including classics such as Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life in which she co-starred with James Stewart.
And she was an Oscar winner, taking home the award for best supporting actress for her fine work in 1953's From Here to Eternity. The film, set in Hawaii in months before Pearl Harbor, follows the stories of soldiers – played by Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra and Ernest Borgnine. The women in their lives are portrayed by Deborah Kerr and Reed. Anyone who thinks of Reed solely as a mom should take a look at her decidedly unmotherly performance.
Reed continued working after The Donna Reed Show, too. One notable role was a season-long stint as Miss Ellie on Dallas. Reed took on the role after its originator, Barbara Bel Geddes, left the show – and then she was unceremoniously booted when Bel Geddes decided to come back.
It was the last role Reed would play, a somewhat sad end to an illustrious career. She died less than a year later, 27 years ago today. We remember her as a mom… and as much more.
Written by Linnea Crowther