IT’S NOT ALWAYS FATHER
who “knows best’ for backstage problems
“Those kids,” says Russell, “gave all of us trouble at first. Billy learned somehow that Elinor Donahue couldn’t stand to have someone make signs behind her back. So he’d get out of the camera range and signal to Lauren. Elinor would burst into tears and run off the set. Lauren had never acted before. There were days, driving home, when I wondered how we’d ever keep that show on the air.”
Today it would be hard to find a friendlier set than the sound stage at Columbia Pictures assigned to Father Knows Best, stacked and littered with the show’s paraphernalia much like the residence of any family. It would be even harder to find three more professional troupers than the two 19-year-olds and the 11-year-old who, respectively, play Betty (18 in the script), Bud (16) and Kathy (8).
On the set, as on NBC from week to week, the kids are growing up. Elinor Donahue says she learned emotional control during the first year the show was on the air. A child actress largely ignored during the awkward period of her growth, Elinor landed the part of Betty with some private problems altogether alien to the sunny disposition given her in the script.
Criticized for her interpretation of a line, she’d spend entire two-day rehearsals in tears. “Finally,” she says, “it dawned on me that Mr. Young and Miss Wyatt were taking the same criticism without a whimper. I made up my mind I was going to learn to take it, too.”
One day recently Elinor confided to Miss Wyatt what her real trouble had been: “I used to be the baby on the set in pictures, getting all the attention, and now Lauren Chapin was the baby. I was jealous.”
On the air, Betty, Bud and Kathy learn the art of living from Father. On the set, however, the oracle of all wisdom and the headwaters of common sense is just as apt to be the producer or the prop man. Lauren Chapin says her best grown-up friend is “Kit” Carson, the head cameraman on Father Knows Best. And through his association with producer Eugene Rodney, Billy Gray, also a child actor grafted successfully from motion pictures to TV, says he’s changed his mind about remaining an actor and wants to become a producer.
“I wouldn’t have thought of production three years ago,” says Gray, who handles his own finances, “but bargaining with Mr. Rodney over salary has forced me to take stock of where I’m going. It also showed me what he’s up against. I’ve decided it’s better to be a producer than an actor. I think I could handle the executive problems of a producer better than the artistic problems of an actor or a director.”
For its wholesome reflection of American Family life, Father Knows Best as received at least eight national awards in its three years on TV. Obviously, its supporters are getting something deeper than entertainment out of its tidy morals and low-pressure plots. Producer Rodney says nearly every mail brings a letter from some viewer advising that his entire attitude toward his own children has been changed from watching the show.
Curiously enough, none of the three children can recall any script situation they’ve acted out that has helped them in their personal lives; but it sometimes works the other way around. There has been more than one occasion in the past when the children knew best.
A season or so ago, for example, Lauren Chapin adopted a crippled, rain-soaked sparrow and kept her mother and brother up half the night doctoring it in a shoebox. By coincidence, the scriptwriters were developing the same situation for Father Knows Best. When she played it before the camera, the role, to Lauren, was a fresh, autobiographical experience in which she needed very little prompting. “That time,” she says, ” I knew just how Kathy felt.”
There is also more truth than poetry to Bud Anderson’s preoccupation with things mechanical. Gray is a hot-rod expert (his contract forbids him to ride his $2000 motorcycle in drag races) and on one occasion repaired Young’s MG when it broke down on the way to the studio.
And on another occasion, Rodney was preparing to hire a double for Elinor in a script calling for her to do ballet dancing. Miss Donahue advised him that she had been taking ballet lessons since she was five, and she executed the entrechats without calling on a double.
Miss Wyatt, however, recalls one script that “saved the day at home.” A year ago last summer she was astonished to learn that her son Christopher intended to enroll at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It had never occurred to her that Christopher would want to go anywhere other than Harvard, his father’s school.
“I made them both perfectly miserable insisting that Christopher go to Harvard,” she says, “and then one day I happened to bring home a new script called ‘Betty Goes to College.’ It was exactly the same situation. Betty wanted to go to State and both Jim and Margaret wanted her to go where they went-well, almost this same situation. In the end they decided Betty was the one who was going to college, not they, so they let her go to State. Well, I read that script-and promptly dropped the whole thing at home.” Christopher is now in his second year at M.I.T. “It makes you wish”, says his mother, “you had a cleaver script writer or two around the house to work these things out for you.”