When Donna Reed died last week of pancreatic cancer at age 64, the model mother of every Baby Boomer also passed away. One telling measure of her maternal appeal: Although The Donna Reed Show went off the air in 1966 after an eight-year run, her TV kids, Paul Petersen and Shelley Fabares, visited her at least once a month in the ensuing years. “I called her Mom and my kids called her Grandma Donna,” says Petersen, 40, who stopped by her house almost daily after she became ill. “She was always interested and always there. She gave advice—and plenty of discipline.”
It’s no surprise. Like the best of mothers, Reed had a tough streak. Hollywood found that out when it signed Donna Belle Mullenger, a 19-year-old secretarial student from Denison, Iowa, to a film contract in 1941. Despite such roles as Jimmy Stewart’s wife in It’s a Wonderful Life, Reed openly decried the shortage of good female parts. After winning 1953’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing a hooker in From Here to Eternity, she battled with Columbia Studio head Harry Cohn about the type of roles she was willing to do. Soon after, she quit movies to become TV’s prototypical homemaker.
Married three times (to William Tuttle, 1943-45; Tony Owen, 1945-71; and her widower, Grover Asmus, in 1974), Reed never lost her feistiness. When she was fired after a brief stint as Miss Ellie on Dallas last year, she sued for breach of contract and accepted a $1 million-plus out-of-court settlement. And although a December diagnosis at L.A.’s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center “left her no illusions about her illness,” says Petersen, “she handled it with great dignity—always laughing and smiling. She was a very classy lady.”
And a kind one. Hearing that her Dallas husband, Howard Keel, was in Northridge Hospital Medical Center for double-bypass surgery, she sent him a plant and, two days before she died, called him from her Beverly Hills home. “They talked for 10 minutes,” says Keel’s manager, “and she never once mentioned her own illness. Howard had absolutely no indication of how sick she was. In fact she was the one who ended the conversation. She didn’t want to tax him too much.”