Donna Reed was born Donna Belle Mullenger on January 27, 1921, in Denison, Iowa. Her show business career was launched when her college photo appeared in the Los Angeles Times, attracting the notice of agents and studio executives. She went on to star in such films as It's a Wonderful Life, and her TV sitcom The Donna Reed Show ran for eight seasons on ABC. She died of pancreatic cancer in 1986.
Actress. Born Donna Belle Mullenger (she would later change it to Donna Reed), on January 27, 1921, in Denison, Iowa. The oldest of five children, the 16-year-old Reed left America's heartland to attend secretarial school at Los Angeles City College. When she was named Campus Queen of the local college, her photograph appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times. The striking beauty was inundated with offers from agents and studio executives. Reed signed with the prestigious Feldman-Blum agency, after which she gave an impressive screen test for MGM, who signed her to a studio contract.
Reed first gained a foothold in show business, in 1941, with supporting roles in the thriller Shadow of the Thin Man, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy; and the musical Babes on Broadway, featuring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. The two projects proved to be auspicious debuts, winning Reed attention and positive notice. Shortly after, she landed a succession of more substantial parts in popular features, such as Calling Dr. Gillespie (1942) and See Here, Private Hargrove (1944). In 1945, she was featured in her first mainstream role as Gladys Hallward in the film adaptation of Oscar Wilde's haunting novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was a box office success despite mixed reviews from critics.
After several years of grooming by MGM in bland studio fare, Reed was lent out to Frank Capra's Liberty Films for the independent picture, It's a Wonderful Life (1946). The film, which featured Reed as Jimmy Stewart's wife (Mary Hatch Bailey), barely got off the ground at the box office, but went on to become a perennial holiday favorite.
From Here to Eternity
Limited to squeaky-clean parts, Reed endured several more years of unrewarding projects. However in 1956, she staged a remarkable comeback when she was cast in the prized role of Alma, the dancehall prostitute in From Here to Eternity (1953). Featuring the stellar cast of Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr and Frank Sinatra, the film swept the 1954 Oscars securing a total of eight wins, including a Best Supporting Actress Award for Reed.
The Donna Reed Show
In spite of Hollywood's prestigious acknowledgment, Reed's career remained stagnant. As a result, Donna and her husband Tony Owens decided to launch their own production company, Todon Productions. The ambitious couple sought to translate Reed's film talent into success in the increasingly influential medium of television. With the demise of her motion picture career, Todon Productions launched The Donna Reed Show (1958-66), which provided the perfect vehicle to display the actress as the picture of sophisticated charm. In 1958, the family sitcom premiered and Reed came to personify the quintessential mother of suburban America. The series enjoyed an eight-year run, during which she received four Emmy nominations.
After ABC retired the series in 1966, Reed's career predominantly consisted of minor parts in forgettable TV projects. However in 1984, she signed a three-year contract to play the juicy role of Miss Ellie on the popular TV series Dallas. After only one season, she was unceremoniously fired from the hit show. Infuriated by her abrupt dismissal, she successfully sued the production company for breach of contract.
On a personal level, Reed led a far more complex life than the characters she played. During the 1970s, she was a fervent anti-nuclear weapon and anti-war activist, co-chairing the protest organization "Another Mother for Peace."
In 1986, the resilient actress lost her two-year bout with pancreatic cancer; she died in Beverly Hills, California, at the age of 64. Later that year, friends and family created The Donna Reed Foundation for the Performing Arts, which awards scholarships to young people studying the Arts.
Reed's first two marriages, to makeup artist William Tuttle and producer Tony Owen, ended in divorce. Upon her death, she was survived by her third husband Grover Asmus, whom she married in 1975.
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