December 12, 1977 12:00 PM

Four healthy sons, 16 years with the same prospering husband, “just a house on just a street in a regular neighborhood.” A fridge stash of her own homemade spaghetti sauce plus fruitcakes already mellowing for Christmas. Elinor Donahue, better known as “Betty Anderson,” the fluttery teenager of the 1950s TV classic Father Knows Best, has in life enjoyed the sort of ending that happens only in the family viewing hour.

Yet there were some traumatic times along the way, and Elinor has not totally given up her career for suburbia. After five years of “not doing anything but keeping house,” she now steps into a Paramount car at dawn every weekday en route to the set of NBC’s new Mulligan’s Stew. In it Elinor has grown into the Jane Wyatt role of mother of seven (three of her own, four by a relative’s plane crash).

Pre-Mulligan, Donahue notes, “I had turned down series right and left. I enjoy acting but I just wanted to continue doing commercials and small parts where I die before the final titles.” Besides, she adds, “There are so many good actresses out there who want to work, and I don’t need it emotionally or financially.” Between her residuals and those of producer husband Harry (The Flying Nun, Bewitched) Ackerman, they have to be millionaires.

At the same time Elinor, 40, was approaching a midlife passage. “I didn’t want to have more children,” she had decided. “I don’t like to go to lunch or play tennis all day, and my youngest son was 9 and didn’t need me to tell him anymore to pick up his shoes and be in at 7.” The clincher occurred when Joanna Lee, an Emmy-winning writer-turned-producer on the proposed Mulligan pilot, spotted Elinor at a Mothers’ Club meeting of the private school their sons attend. “I said to myself,” Lee recalls, ” ‘There’s Jane Mulligan.’ Every producer should have an actress as lovely inside and out as Elinor Donahue.” Elinor was less convinced but signed on because she admired the script and “a pilot’s just a pilot—it may never sell.”

When it did, she felt guilty at first for forsaking her kids. Part of that concern surely is a result of her own disjointed childhood in Tacoma. Sent off to dancing school at age 1½, Donahue recalls, “From age 2 to 5 I competed in kiddie shows, singing and dancing.” At 5 her newspaper pressman father sent Elinor and her mother to L.A.—and disappeared from their lives. While she was visiting a friend on the Universal lot, a producer spotted her, and Donald O’Connor’s Mister Big was the first of a succession of roles. That meant education by tutors and the famous MGM school, where Liz Taylor also matriculated. Elinor feels the abnormality of her life “caused me some problems in dealing with people later on,” and at 16, though she already had a degree, she tried to make it up by doing post-grad work at Beverly Hills High School. “I was like a little old lady,” she remembers. So in six weeks between jobs, “I became a teenager and learned about boys, parties and cheering for the team. I regressed in the proper way.”

At 19 she eloped to Las Vegas with a Father Knows Best soundman. “I didn’t know anything,” she reflects, “and you can take that in the fullest sense.” Within two years the marriage was over, leaving her with a son, Brian. She met Ackerman, who’s 25 years older, on the Father set when he was Screen Gems’ exec vice-president. After their marriage he adopted Brian.

Their life-style is, by choice, well below their means. No TV headliner has ever spread more tuna sandwiches (though admittedly it’s albacore personally hauled in by Harry off San Diego). The two nights a week she’s on the set, a neighbor cooks dinner for the three boys still at home, and she employs a full-time housekeeper and a “big sister” to supervise homework three afternoons weekly. Elinor insists, though, on cooking for herself and Harry, “but it’s something I can do in 20 minutes, like veal piccata or linguini.”

Saturday she declares as “crash day, forget-Elinor day, handle-your-own-mess-or-get-Dad-to-help-you day. We tried to go to a party one Saturday night and I was so zombie-like I couldn’t get out of the house.” Not that it would have made a difference—their socializing is more over-the-fence than Hollywood A-list. Yet for all that self-inflicted normalcy, Betty Anderson is a part of the American consciousness. “I don’t get mobbed,” she says, “but a lot of people call me Betty. Particularly people nearer my age.” Her sons don’t pay much attention, but one day Chris, the youngest, brought home a new friend and waved airily at the woman who as usual was at the kitchen counter slathering out the tuna. “That,” Chris explained, “is my mother the star.”

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