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June 06, 2014

Life with Father

With its idyllic image of family life, Father Knows Best remains a favorite, sixty years after its debut. Elinor Donahue looks back on the 1950s classic.

Jane Wollman Rusoff

When it premiered on October 3, 1954, Father Knows Best did not look to be a show that would become iconic.

It simply was a post-war homage to the harmonious ideal of the American family.

Though sentimental in approach, the show — which was awarded 6 Emmys, including 2 for star Robert Young and 3 for his costar, Jane Wyatt — was nonetheless a breath of fresh air. Free of slapstick and zany gags, each episode was filled with gentle humor and served up a moral.

And, unlike a parade of other sitcom dads, this father wasn’t a bumbling bungler. Jim Anderson (Young) was a smart, successful insurance-company manager. He was married to Margaret (Wyatt), the quintessential homemaker.

The couple had 3 equally affable kids. Two were teenagers: Betty, the eldest (nicknamed Princess), portrayed by Elinor Donahue, and James, Jr. (better known as Bud), played by Billy Gray. Lauren Chapin, who was 9 when the series launched, was little sister Kathy (Father called her Kitten).

As the series progressed, Betty and her siblings coped with the trials and traumas of school reports, basketball practice and going steady. But whatever small disasters they encountered, their unflappable father could be counted on for sage guidance.

The series began as an NBC radio series starring Young that ran from 1949 to ‘54. The actor and his business partner, Eugene Rodney, thought it would be a good fit for television and brought it to CBS. Filmed at Columbia Pictures studios in Hollywood, the series was owned by Young and Rodney (Rodney also served as executive producer).

Despite its popularity, the show didn’t get off to a strong start. CBS canceled Father after the first season due to poor ratings — some thought its 10 p.m. time slot was too late for a family show. The following year, with a new sponsor and an 8:30 p.m. airing on NBC, it found a growing audience. In its last year, 1960, the show returned to CBS.

When Father Knows Best ended, the cast went their separate ways (though they did reunite for two TV movies in the 1970s). Young, most notably, went on to star in another series, Marcus Welby, M.D. He died in 1998. Wyatt worked in both films and television, and died in 2006.

Today Chapin performs in dinner theater in Florida, where she lives. Gray left acting a number of years ago in favor of competitive motorcycle racing and inventing new products in Los Angeles.

Donahue, who was 16 when she was cast as the perky, wholesome Betty, segued from Father into playing Andy’s girlfriend Ellie on The Andy Griffith Show, then was seen in recurring roles on The Odd Couple and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, as well as numerous other series and TV movies through the years.

For 30 years, she was married to Screen Gems executive producer Harry Ackerman, with whom she had 3 sons. Ackerman developed and produced a number of hits including Gidget and Bewitched. He died in 1991.

Now mostly retired, Donahue lives with husband Lou Genevrino, an ex-Broadway dancer, near Palm Springs, California. With the series nearing the sixtieth anniversary of its premiere, emmy contributor Jane Wollman Rusoff caught up with the grandmother of 7.

How did you get cast as Betty?

I went to meet Gene Rodney. He said, “She’s not my Betty — too much of a little girl.” My agent pestered him for another audition, and I wore a padded bra. Mr. Rodney said: “She’s not my Betty — too sophisticated.”

Finally, he let me test with Mr. Young. I was nervous, started to cry and we had to stop. But Mr. Young got me a Coke and told me to calm down. When we tried again, it was just fine.

A month later my agent called: “You got the part!” I said, “What part?” It was such a terrible experience that I’d wiped it out of my mind.

How was Robert Young to work with?

He was very private but a lovely, loving, warm and wonderful person. In scenes where we sat next to each other, I’d pat his hand or lean up against him and he never minded. He was very fatherly to me.

But then, I didn’t really know what a father was supposed to be like, because [with divorced parents] I was raised without one. He was the only father figure that I had for so long a time.

Were you and Betty alike?

I’m shyer and less sure about myself. She had a lot of strength. Betty was nice but could be a real pain in the neck. She always thought she was right and lorded that over her brother and sister. She was a real Type-A personality. She grew up to be an executive, I know.

How well did the 3 of you Anderson kids get along off camera?

Sometimes we’d have little spats because we’d get antsy and bored standing around on the set. We’d pester one another and snicker or make faces. Usually it was 2 against 1, and that changed daily.

Mr. Young and Miss Wyatt noticed it more when we were doing a dining-table scene. She’d say, “Now, stop it, you 2! Oh, Elinor, really!” Once in a rehearsal, Mr. Young took off his glasses, stood up, pushed back his chair and walked right out.

Did the cast have the freedom to ad-lib?

We weren’t allowed to change a word of the script — not even Mr. Young. He’d have to go to a phone and call Mr. Rodney to get approval to change the slightest thing. From his on-set attitude, you would have never known he had any muscle in the partnership. He was just 1 of the guys.

How did Gene Rodney run other aspects of the show?

He was a wonderful man. However, I think he never did like me. The only reason I was hired, I think, was because Robert Young fought for me. [Later on] Mr. Rodney was angry with me for getting pregnant [during an early marriage to Richard Smith], so my agent was notified that I wouldn’t be brought back for the next season.

I cut off my long hair that I’d worn in a ponytail because it would be easier to manage while taking care of a baby. But a few weeks after Brian was born, my agent told me, “They want you back!” I did half the season with short hair. It looked a little too mature, so we went back to the ponytail — a false one.

What was Gene Rodney’s approach to wardrobe?

He wanted the show to look like life, so we had to keep wearing the same clothes. Even when I was pregnant, they let out this one particular red dress — and, by cracky, when I came back, they took it in! I was so sick of that dress!

William D. Russell was the show’s first director, then Peter Tewksbury came on board. How was that experience?

Billy and I thought we were going to eat this guy for lunch. Wrong! He was tough on us kids. He really shaped that show, put his stamp on it and made it the classic it is. He wanted a richness, so he told me to write down what Betty thought about, what her favorite foods were, what she did 5 years ago, what she’d be doing in a few years. He wanted me to make a person out of her, not just say my lines.

Did he do anything else to get a good performance?

Sometimes he used tricks. Lauren told me that in 1 scene, he — or a grip — went underneath the sofa and put something wet and icky on her ankle to get her to scream on cue.

Another time, when she was supposed to be eating a food she didn’t like — and Peter wanted a wide-eyed reaction — he had them put Tabasco sauce in her pudding. When she took a big mouthful, boy, did he get a stunned expression! She just hated him for that.

Did he use tricks with you?
He knew what buttons to push. Betty cried over the slightest thing, and Peter knew that [in life] I’d cry if someone was angry with me. So he’d sit underneath the camera, roll his eyes and look disgusted with my performance. Well, the tears would come.

After the first couple of times, I knew what he was doing, so I’d just ask him: “Peter, could you help me?” We did this little dance.

It’s been reported that Robert Young struggled with depression and alcoholism. Were you aware of that during the show?

I never saw it. It wasn’t until afterward, when I read about it, that I put 2 and 2 together, because we shut down a couple of times — boom — in the middle of the week. They’d say, “Mr. Young is tired and needs to rest.”

How did you feel when Father Knows Best ended?

Like a bird being kicked out of a nest. We quit all of a sudden, cold turkey. We never even saw each other for a good-bye party.

Why was that?

In February 1959 there was a big writers’ strike and everything stopped. We were going to be off till the strike was over. But Mr. Young and Miss Wyatt had already decided that they didn’t want to do the show anymore. I didn’t know this until Jane told me shortly before she died.

Why did they want to end the series?

The 3 of us had grown up, so we no longer looked like children. We were scrambling for stories. Mr. Young and Miss Wyatt wanted to quit while they were ahead — not beat it to death and have it fail and be canceled. So when the strike came up, they said, “Oh, please, let’s just end it now!” We had enough episodes in the can to start up in the fall and do a whole year with new shows.

After Father Knows Best, you went right into The Andy Griffith Show. How was that experience?

I felt uncomfortable from the get-go. My character was a mature woman with a pharmacy degree who ran a drugstore. But I was 23, I was very immature and had no experience at being an adult. I had never even played an adult before. I was sure they were going to fire me because I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do. So at the end of the first year of my 3 year contract, I asked to be let out.

What did Father Knows Best do best?

The show was meant to be a lighthearted, warm comedy. It was entertainment, a pastiche. It wasn’t meant to be a reality show. Over the years, Billy heard from viewers that it was unrealistic in its portrayal of family life, that it messed up some people’s lives because they had unrealistic expectations.

I’ve had the opposite comments. People told me they thought that was the way they wanted to raise their family. Or, if they didn’t have a happy family life, ours was the family they looked forward to every week as a substitute.

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