No sitcom defined mid-century motherhood quite like The Donna Reed Show. Over the course of eight seasons, from 1958 to 1966, the show and its cast won over audiences with its picture-perfect depiction of an all-American family. It was groundbreaking for being the first to focus on a mother, rather than a father, and as the protagonist Donna Stone, Donna Reed embodied the maternal character with grace and humor.
The Donna Reed Show centered on the trials and tribulations of homemaker Donna Stone, her pediatrician husband, and their two children. The depiction of a suburban middle-class nuclear family is very much a product of its time, and some feminists criticized the show, saying it promoted submissiveness among housewives. But in a 1979 interview, Reed, a hardworking mother of four offscreen, said, “I played a strong woman who could manage her family. That was offensive to a lot of people.”
For those of us who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, the easygoing family humor of The Donna Reed Show is powerfully nostalgic and comforting. It’s been nearly 60 years since the show went off the air and TV has changed so much over the decades, but the show holds up as a reminder of a simpler time. Here’s a look back at the Stone family.
Donna Reed as Donna Stone
Donna Reed initially planned to become a teacher. After graduating from high school and being unable to pay for college, she moved from her native Iowa to Los Angeles and attended Los Angeles City College. While there, she fell into acting, performing in various stage productions. Her wholesome good looks garnered the attention of many agents who offered to screen test her for the studios. After receiving her associate degree, Reed signed with MGM in 1941.
In her film debut, The Get-Away, she was billed as Donna Adams but MGM soon changed her name to Donna Reed. Her most iconic film role came in 1946, when she played Jimmy Stewart‘s wife, Mary, in the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. In 1953, she co-starred in the romantic drama From Here to Eternity, and won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the role.
Reed was already an established actress when she got her own show, and behind the scenes, she was known for her assertive nature. When the network demanded that she change the format of the show for higher ratings, she fired back, “We’re not changing our format. Maybe you’d better change your network.” It was this mix of authority, humor and charm that helped make Reed an ideal TV star.
When The Donna Reed Show ended, Reed stepped away from the spotlight to raise her children but came back to acting in the ’70s, making her first appearance in over a decade in the 1979 TV movie The Best Place to Be. In the ’80s, Reed replaced actress Barbara Bel Geddes in the role of Miss Ellie Ewing on Dallas (read more about the cast of Dallas here!). It would be her final role. Sadly, Reed died at just 64 in 1986.
Carl Betz as Alex Stone
Carl Betz began his amateur acting career at just 10 years old when he formed his own theatrical company with six friends and performed plays in the Pittsburgh suburbs. In 1939 he won a scholarship to Duquesne University and beginning in 1942, he served with the United States Army in World War II.
After the war, Betz earned a degree in drama from Carnegie Tech and following graduation, he put his melodious voice to work as a radio announcer and DJ. Betz began making TV appearances in the ’50s, and had his big break when he was cast as Dr. Alex Stone, Donna Reed’s handsome and capable husband, on The Donna Reed Show. After the show’s cancellation, he made appearances in shows like Mission: Impossible, The Mod Squad and Starsky & Hutch.
Like his TV wife, Betz died young. In 1978, he passed away at age 56.
Shelley Fabares as Mary Stone
Shelly Fabares started out as a child actress, and her role as Mary Stone, the daughter in The Donna Reed Show cast, made her a teen idol. Her popularity led her to a singing career, and her 1962 song “Johnny Angel” topped the charts.
Fabares continued to act throughout the ’60s, and even starred alongside none other than Elvis Presley in three of his movies, Girl Happy, Spinout and Clambake. She’d go on to appear in dozens of TV shows in the ’70s, including Police Story, Ironside and The Incredible Hulk. She also joined the cast of the popular show One Day at a Time in its third season. From 1989 to 1997, she co-starred as TV news anchor Christine Armstrong on the sporty sitcom Coach.
Now 79, Fabares has retired from acting. Her last credit was in 2006, when she provided the voice of Superman’s mother in Superman: Brainiac Attacks.
Paul Petersen as Jeff Stone
Paul Petersen got his start as an original Mickey Mouse Club Mousketeer. In 1958, he acted alongside screen icons Sophia Loren and Cary Grant in Houseboat, but it was his role as part of the The Donna Reed Show cast that made him a star.
Like Shelley Fabares, Petersen became a teen idol and had a singing career. Songs like “She Can’t Find Her Keys,” “Lollipops and Roses” and “My Dad,” a song he sang to his TV dad, were minor hits in the early ’60s. After The Donna Reed Show, he expanded his horizons, writing 16 action-packed novels. He also appeared in TV shows like The Flying Nun, Lassie and Fantasy Island.
The career struggles Petersen faced as a former child actor inspired him to start the non-profit foundation A Minor Consideration in 1991. The organization is dedicated to “provid[ing] guidance and support for young performers, past, present and future.” Now 78, Petersen remains a dedicated activist.
Read on for more about your favorite ’60s sitcoms!