November 19, 1984 12:00 PM

With her placid smile, perfect coif and ubiquitous pearls, Donna Reed presided for eight years over a television household where burned roasts and misplaced mittens were the stuff of high drama. Sibling rivalry on The Donna Reed Show, which premiered in 1958, took the form of tweaked ponytails and breakfast-table gibes. These days the gentle Donna—who sank into the luxury of semiretirement in 1966—is in the thick of the snakepit at Southfork, where avarice, adultery and internecine intrigue reign. No more station wagons and scout troops: As Dallas’ new Miss Ellie, she must minister to a pack of schemers who would sell their Mama for a quart of oil. Not the most obvious comeback for a conservative sort whose well-ordered life has mirrored that of her ’50s-series counterpart, but a move with unexpected allure. “I wasn’t looking for a permanent part in a series,” she says, “but Miss Ellie was too good to turn down.”

At 63, Reed was eager to return to the professional fray. Her four children with second husband Tony Owen—the late producer of her series—were grown, she was 10 years into a serene third marriage to Grover Asmus, a retired Army colonel, and she was discovering that “emotionally, I needed to work.” As this symbol of domestic tranquillity once admitted, “Doing nothing eventually makes you feel bad.”

The cast she joined on location in Dallas last summer has weathered upheavals like those in the turgid storyline itself. Barbara Bel Geddes, 62, the Ewing matriarch since the show started in 1978, bowed out after last season because of health problems that arose from her 1982 heart surgery. The Lori-mar producers, who had bumped off papa Jock Ewing after actor Jim Davis’ 1981 death, considered doing the same to Miss Ellie but realized that J.R. needed a maternal foil. After weathering rumors that Larry Hagman’s mom, Mary Martin, 70, was being considered for the part, they combed the ranks of over-50 actresses. “When Donna Reed’s name came up, everybody looked at each other and their eyes widened,” Executive Producer Phil Capice remembers. “Someone said, ‘I wonder what she’s doing.’ She came over with her agent and she was charming.” At the time Reed was only a sometime watcher of Dallas.

A measure of hazing attended Donna’s arrival. Howard Keel, 67, who plays the wealthy oilman who wed the widowed Miss Ellie last season, says that resident prankster Hagman had a few chortles at her expense. Although admitting that the cast can be “like a bunch of small boys” with their high jinks, the relentlessly tolerant Reed maintains that J.R. and his cohorts were “very welcoming and supportive.” While Hagman says soberly, “I’ve always been an admirer of hers—she’s an absolute delight,” Keel observes that the crew sometimes deems Reed a bit of a prima Donna. She has expressed, for instance, very definite ideas about lighting and camera angles and being photographed to her specifications.

Donna finds her born-again career more enjoyable than when she was simultaneously raising a real-life family and bringing up a screen brood—an existence that she once termed “about as glamorous as working on a chain gang.” Now, she says, “For the first time in my life, I’m doing it for myself. I had never worked without also having this enormous responsibility—running a house and making sure the children were doing their homework.”

The Donna Reed Show came relatively late in a career that began in 1941, when the farm girl from Denison, Iowa appeared in an indifferent movie melodrama called The Get-Away. A campus queen at Los Angeles City College, Donna Mullenger had posed for publicity photos that were spotted by MGM, which signed her and changed her name to Adams, Drake and finally Reed. Five years of playing good girls in bad movies led to the key role of Jimmy Stewart’s wife in the 1946 Frank Capra comedy classic, It’s a Wonderful Life (“The most difficult film I ever did; no director ever demanded as much of me”). Despite the popularity of that film and her success as a wanton woman in 1953’s From Here to Eternity (for which she won an Oscar), Reed’s movie career gave way to the infant medium of the tube. “I was very old—33—when I won the Academy Award,” she says. “So TV extended my career miraculously.”

Divorced in 1945 after a two-year marriage to makeup man William Tuttle, Reed, then 24, wed 38-year-old Owen the same year. Together, they conceived a television series where “I could play me.” The Donna Reed Show had tough competition (The Milton Berle Show and The Millionaire) and reviewers were often unkind. But she was a popular favorite. The press paired photos of her real family with publicity shots of the Stone clan (headed by Carl Betz, who died in 1978 at 56, it included Shelley Fabares, now 40, and Paul Petersen, now 38). Newspapers ran recipes for “Bundt cake à la Donna Reed.”

When the series succumbed to a ratings slump in 1966, Donna was a millionaire. She was also exhausted. Tossing aside scripts that called for “helpless, passive ladies,” she concentrated on the Bundt-cake front, devoting herself to her own teenagers and weathering a 1972 divorce from Owen (who died last May). She has acted just three times in five years—in two TV movies and in a Love Boat special aired last February.

America’s favorite homemaker, who had been “very worried” about doing a series again, realizes the risks of stepping into a soap role created by another actress. “Fans will be sad to see that Barbara is no longer on the show,” says the ever-politic Donna. “But if they have a choice between having a Miss Ellie and not having a Miss Ellie, I hope they’ll be happy to see me.”

She needn’t fret. Shelley Fabares (who harbors fond memories of her TV mom) reports that on a recent jaunt to New Zealand, the natives were abuzz with the news from Southfork. Strangers who recognized her as the erstwhile Mary Stone, she says, plied her with the happy news. “Donna Reed,” they reported excitedly, “is going to be the new Miss Ellie.” Given the family feuds at Southfork, Reed’s TV happy home may be a thing of the past.