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Reed, Donna (1921–1986)

Reed, Donna (1921–1986)

American actress who was best known for her television series, "The Donna Reed Show," and her performance in It's a Wonderful Life. Name variations: Donna Adams; Donna Asmus. Born Donna Belle Mullenger on January 27, 1921, in Denison, Iowa; died on January 14, 1986, in Beverly Hills, California; daughter of William R. Mullenger and Hazel Mullenger; attended Los Angeles City College, 1938–40; married William Tuttle (a make-up artist), on January 30, 1943 (divorced 1944); married producer Anthony I. Owen, known as Tony Owen, on June 15, 1945 (divorced 1971); married Grover Asmus (a retired army officer), in 1974; children: Penny Jane, Anthony R., Timothy G., and Mary Anne.

Selected filmography:

The Get-Away (1941); The Shadow of the Thin Man (1941); Babes on Broadway (1942); The Bugle Sounds (1942); The Courtship of Andy Hardy (1942); Mokey (1942); Calling Dr. Gillespie (1942); Apache Trail (1942); Eyes in the Night (1942); The Human Comedy (1943); Dr. Gillespie's Criminal Case (1943); Thousands Cheer (1943); The Man From Down Under (1943); See Here, Private Hargrove (1944); Mrs. Parkington (1944); The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945); Gentle Annie (1945); They Were Expendable (1945); Faithful in My Fashion (1946); It's a Wonderful Life (1946); Green Dolphin Street (1947); Beyond Glory (1948); Chicago Deadline (1949); Saturday's Hero (1951); Scandal Sheet (1952); Hangman's Knot (1952); Trouble Along the Way (1953); Raiders of the Seven Seas (1953); From Here to Eternity (1953); The Caddy (1953); Gun Fury (1953); Three Hours to Kill (1954); The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954); They Rode West (1954); The Far Horizons (1955); Ransom! (1956); The Benny Goodman Story (1956); Backlash (1956); Beyond Mombasa (UK, 1956); The Whole Truth (1958); Pepe (1960); Yellow-Headed Summer (unreleased, 1974).

An Iowa farm girl and high school beauty queen, Donna Reed began acting at Los Angeles City College, where she was also voted Campus Queen. She signed a contract with MGM in 1941, and made a series of films under the name of Donna Adams before graduating to starring roles in the mid-1940s. In 1946, Reed portrayed Mary Hatch to Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey in the perennial Christmas favorite It's a Wonderful Life, a role that personified the sweet, good-hearted screen image she could never shake. In 1953, after a move to Columbia Pictures, where her second husband Tony Owen was an assistant to Harry Cohn, Reed was cast as a prostitute in From Here to Eternity. Although she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance, it did little to change her image, and she soon was back to her good-girl roles.

When her film career slowed during the 1950s, Reed and her producer-husband developed "The Donna Reed Show," in which she portrayed yet another idealized wife and mother. Although the show had a successful run of eight years (1958–66) and made her a millionaire, Reed later spoke with contempt about the twodimensional, stereotypical character she played and of the male mentality that dominated television programming.

With United States involvement in the Vietnam War, Reed, a staunch Republican and the mother of two sons of draftable age, became deeply involved in the antiwar effort. She did not resume her career until 1984, when she replaced Barbara Bel Geddes in the role of Ellie on the popular evening soap opera "Dallas." When Bel Geddes returned in 1985, Reed sued the show's producers for breach of contract. Shortly after receiving a $1 million settlement, she died from pancreatic cancer. She left her Oscar statuette to her hometown of Denison, Iowa, where the Donna Reed Foundation for the Performing Arts was established in her memory.


Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Lamparski, Richard. Whatever Became of …? 5th series. NY: Crown, 1974.

suggested reading:

Fultz, Jay. In Search of Donna Reed. University of Iowa, 1998.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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