SHE’S STILL THE GIRL NEXT DOOR
After five years on ‘Father Knows Best,’
Elinor Donahue fears nobody will believe she has grown up
The broken ankle came just in time to prevent a 16-year-old girl being sent to Las Vegas as a pony-chorus dancer. A few months later Elinor made her escape complete by signing to play Betty Anderson in CBS’s Father Knows Best, a job she has had ever since.
Now 22, Elinor is in her sixth season with the series and hasn’t the faintest idea what she will do if it ever comes to a halt. (There have been rumbles that Robert Young is weary of the whole thing and would like to call it quits at the end of the current season. Says producer Eugene Rodney: “This is the sixth anniversary of that rumor. At this time of year, every year, everybody is tired of the whole thing and would like to call it quits. Ask me next summer and I’ll have a definite answer.”)
“I would like,” she says wistfully, “to play a really good but small role in a really good prestige picture. I don’t know if I’m capable of playing a lead as a grownup woman. Anyway, I’ve been Betty Anderson so long now that whenever producers do think of me they think of a 15- or 16-year-old girl.”
Last spring, Elinor made a feature picture, “Girls’ Town” at MGM, the first outside acting job she’d had in two years, and she rather hoped it would prove to be a good change of pace for her.
“I would just as soon forget the whole thing,” she now says. “In the first five minutes of the picture it was established that I was a good girl, being pushed into being a bad girl. The rest of the picture I spent doing practically nothing but crying and saying, ‘Help me, help me!” It was fun making it, but it was an awful picture.”
Before 1956, Elinor appeared in a number of TV dramatic shows when Father wasn’t shooting. But then followed a short-lived marriage to Richard Smith, a sound-technician. They had a son, Brian, who will be three in March, and were divorced in December 1958. She lives now with her mother and Brian in Woodland Hills, some 20 miles north of Hollywood-and credits the long daily drive to and from the studio with clearing the cobwebs from her mind. “Its really the only time when I can be completely by myself and do nothing but think,” she explains earnestly.
A slender (105 pounds), quiet, wide-eyed girl who could easily pass for the mid-teens (she’s a college junior on the show), Elinor is utterly devoid of the sophistication that might be expected of a veteran Hollywood actress. Born in Tacoma, Wash., she made her singing debut on radio at the age of two. At five she was working in vaudeville, and became a child movie actress when her family moved to Los Angeles. Two years later her parents were divorced and the next seven years were not particularly good ones for Elinor and her mother. “There were times,” says a close friend, “when they literally weren’t eating. Her mother, a theatrical costumer, took a job as a saleswoman in a department store. Elinor, of course, was just another child actress, wasn’t always working and wasn’t exactly overpaid when she did work.”
When she was 14, and neither working nor overeating, she was offered a chorus-line job by the aforementioned agent, who specialized in booking club shows, county fairs and the like. Elinor had taken dancing lessons sporadically for some years (one of her older classmates at Long’s Private School was Barrie Chase), had always yearned to dance professionally and wasn’t about to turn down a job. With her mother’s nervous approval, she gave her age as 16 and worked fairly steadily as a dancer for the next two years until the fortuitous accident of the broken ankle.
“I might have gone to Las Vegas,” she says now, “and I never would have heard of Father Knows Best and heaven only knows where I’d be now.” Actually, Elinor was perhaps the best-protected young dancer in all of Los Angeles. She not only didn’t look 16, which she wasn’t-she didn’t even look 14. With her wide eyes and wholly innocent demeanor, she was the “baby” of every troupe she worked with and the older girls constantly surrounded her like so many clucking mother hens.
Elinor’s life is even less exciting today than it was then. Her only free time, on weekends, is spent quietly at home, reading H.G. Wells’ “The Outline of History” is her current preoccupation. As this was written, she was only as far along as the beginnings of the Roman Empire and finding it quite fascinating. She also does the marketing for Brian and her mother. She rarely has dates and is just beginning to be the victim of well-meaning friends who are intent on “finding a man for Elinor.”
At TV Guide’s request, she recently did her best to look glamorous and sophisticated for a new portrait sitting [see page 17]. “But I’m afraid,” she apologized when it was over, “that I still look like the girl next door in her first party dress”.