Andy Griffith took it personally when Elinor Donahue left his show
"Ellie didn't fraternize much with Andy or Don."
Many sitcoms take a while to lock into what makes them special. First seasons are treacherous territory, as the cast and crew adjust to the new production. While some shows arrive fully formed, others might see shifts in characters and tone in these first episodes. Sometimes a great show is carved out of a lesser one, and a series sheds its excess.
Elinor Donahue is most closely associated with her role on Father Knows Best. For 198 episodes, Donahue was Betty Anderson, eldest daughter and the focus of many of the show's stories and conflicts. For seven years, Donahue was a television adolescent, and audiences came to connect her face with teenage antics. That was one of many reasons Donahue was ultimately rejected as Andy's romantic interest on The Andy Griffith Show.
For that first season on Griffith, Donahue played Ellie Walker, the pharmacist, or "lady druggist," as Sherrif Taylor called her. Over 12 episodes, Ellie became Andy's girlfriend, despite an obvious lack of chemistry between the two actors. In one episode, she runs for town council. In another, she gives Frankie the Farm Girl a makeover. In The Andy Griffith Show's only Christmas episode, Ellie and Andy sing "Away in a Manger."
A crucial passage in Daniel de Visé's Andy & Don cites Donahue's discomforts onset. "Andy is paired with poor Ellie, still gamely playing out the sad charade of an on-screen romance; when Andy reaches over for Ellie's hand, she leaps like a frightened cat. Ironically, the script calls for precisely this sort of tension between the other couple in the room."
Daniel de Visé purposefully contrasts Donahue's unease with Betty Lynn's acquiescence. As Barney's love interest Thelma Lou, Betty Lynn would remain a semi-regular throughout Don Knott's tenure on the show. "It didn't hurt that Betty, a natural freckle-faced redhead, was the only available young woman among the regular cast outside of Elinor Donahue, and Ellie didn't fraternize much with Andy or Don."
The romance between Andy Taylor and Ellie Walker ended promptly with Elinor Donahue's real-life departure from the show. Although she'd signed a three-year agreement, Donahue requested to terminate her contract. She mentioned that she was acting out of fear that the producers fire her due to negative audience reception. However, there is clear evidence to the contrary; an imminent musical LP featuring music from the show included a track titled "Ellie's Theme." The record was positioned for release in conjunction with the show's second season, revealing the producers' intentions of keeping the character on the show.
The personal details, though, are more interesting than the business dealings.
de Visé writes of a Christmas party years after Donahue's departure from The Andy Griffith Show. It was the first time she'd seen Griffith since their professional uncoupling.
"Andy had indeed taken Ellie's departure personally," he writes.
"I walked up to [Andy] and I tapped him lightly on the arm, and I didn't know what to expect," Elinor recalled. "I said, 'Mr. Griffith? I want to tell you how sorry I am if I upset you for having left the show.' He said, 'No, no, don't give it another thought. We didn't know how to write for you. That's all it was.' And he gave me a look that told me I was dismissed."