Widely known for her role as Robert Young’s eldest TV daughter on the series “Father Knows Best,” Elinor Donahue was a regular on other series such as “The Andy Griffith Show” and “The Odd Couple.” She also guest starred in dozens of TV shows from the 1960s into the early 1980s including “Star Trek.”
But even before little Eleanor, as she was then known, began working as a 5-year-old on radio in her home town of Tacoma, Wash., the arts were influencing her.
“When I was 18 months old, my mother let me join in a dance class to work off energy,” she recalled from her home in California’s Coachella Valley. “And while she prepared dinner, my brother would keep me busy by playing the piano and teaching me songs.”
Young Ellie was just six when her mother packed up the children, moved to California, and was hired for her first movie “Mister Big” (1943) with Donald O’Connor.
“I’d seen in him movies and had such a crush on him even at that early age,” she laughed. “When he came on the set for his first scene, he looked at me with a big smile and said ‘Hi there!’ I was so excited that I burst into tears.”
As her teenage years approached, Donahue had already appeared in a dozen movies, although the roles were small and often uncredited. Then one day, around 12-years-old, she reached for a book that would impact her career in an unexpected way.
“When I opened it, out fell a newspaper clipping about Elinor Glyn,” she recalled, referring to the British novelist and screenwriter. “I loved the way the name was spelled and how it looked. So I changed my name and son of a gun, if things didn’t suddenly turn around for my career!”
Donahue was cast – now as Elinor – in “Father Knows Best” from 1954 to 1960.
“My parents had been divorced for some time, so Robert Young became a father figure,” she noted. “I had three screen tests, and six weeks after the last one heard that I got the role. Like me, the other two actors who played his children in the show were without dads at home, so I think (Young) picked up on that during all our screen tests and it reinforced our connection on screen throughout the series.”
In 1967, Donahue guest starred on the “Star Trek” episode Metamorphosis where she plays an irritable, ailing Federation diplomat who lands on a planet inhabited by a famous Earth inventor, Zefram Cochrane, and an alien energy cloud known as the Companion.
“After we finished filming and the set was torn down, something happened to the film and we had to do some re-shooting 2 weeks later,” recalled Donahue. “Meanwhile, I had been really sick and lost an enormous amount of weight, so the original dress I had worn was just hanging on me. They wrapped a scarf around my head and chest to cover up that I was all boney.”
While she essentially retired from film work in the late 1950s, Donahue was occasionally coerced back to the big screen. In 1990, she appeared briefly in a scene with Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.”
“We shot the scene at Gucci’s on Rodeo Drive,” said Donahue. “We only worked together for one day and Julia was delightful. When the film opened, I sat in the back of the theater and when my scene came on, the audience roared and I heard the chatter ‘that’s Elinor Donahue.’ It was such a thrill that they recognized me.”
Donahue, who turns 79 in April, was again induced out of retirement for several episodes of “The Young and the Restless” in 2010.
“I don’t think actors can truly retire because when a plum role comes along, it’s hard to resist,” she says. “So you never know!”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 600 magazines and newspapers.