Elinor Donahue's time in Mayberry deserves more respect
This story will (hopefully) change the way you see Ellie Walker.
By the end of Father Knows Best, we’d seen Elinor Donahue play sitcom daughter Betty Anderson for six seasons. In that time, her character graduated high school, went off to college, and then graduated college.
However, the final episode of Father Knows Best found the younger Anderson daughter Kathy lamenting her junior high school graduation and fearing the start of high school. Sitcom dad Jim Anderson thinks back in this final episode, having a flashback to Betty’s high school graduation, and this is likely one of the final images that fans of Father Knows Best had of Elinor Donahue before her next sitcom stint came along.
Of course, the next show that featured Donahue was famously The Andy Griffith Show, where she played Sheriff Andy’s first girlfriend, Ellie Walker. The story goes that Griffith wasn’t very into this casting decision, believing audiences wouldn’t like the pairing, having just seen Donahue play a teenager and considering Andy much older. (In reality, they’re more than a decade apart.)
According to recent reviews we’ve seen posted on IMDb, fans are still struggling to accept Donahue in this role. One post called Donahue “rather bland.” Another said her chemistry with Andy was “odd.”
It seems a common sentiment among fans that Donahue was not right for the role, but considering how Donahue, by the end of her career in 2011, spent decades growing from role to role with great ease and tremendous skill, we want to call foul on the idea that she did anything wrong when she tried to evolve as an actor and took on the role of Ellie Walker. If anything, she was the only one trying to make it work. “To what do you attribute the longevity of your career?” an Emmy TV Legends interviewer once asked Donahue.
“Never having been a star,” Donahue answered.
She went on to say, “I think it’s helpful, although stars can certainly have very long careers.”
She suggests that despite this rough transition from Father Knows Best to The Andy Griffith Show, she actually proved to herself over and over again in her career. She had what it took to convincingly play any part she wanted and “roll with the punches and not forever want to be a starlet.”
She did admit, however, that the first order of business to move beyond Father Knows Best was to ditch some of the affectations she’d relied on as a child actor.
“As a child actress, being able to get rid of child actor habits. I know I had them,” she said, describing one of the first tics she fixed: “You know, that thing where you do something with your voice,” then changing the pitch of her delivery completed her sentence in a brighter tone, “that just keeps it just a little bit young?”
Perhaps on The Andy Griffith Show, she was just starting to get a feel for what she could accomplish beyond being a child star. She said what led to her being more versatile was weaving in the experiences she had as she matured in her real life. She instilled emotions from her real life into characters that she took on, saying about acting, “It’s just kind of an extension of my life, in a way.”
“You’ve got to keep maturing, and you grow as a person,” Donahue said. “You bring a little bit of what’s going on in your life to your characters. And I was lucky enough to be able to bridge the gaps.”
She added that while some actors have superficial ideas of remaining starlets, she easily avoided that trap and she continued to play characters outside a leading lady. “I wasn’t afraid of playing mothers,” she said. “I was a mother! I was playing mothers of little kids when I already had teenagers!”
However, even though she said she had more fondness for her time on Father Knows Best and connected more with that cast than she did with The Andy Griffith Show, don’t go thinking she had any regrets.
“The blessing has been to act with so many wonderful, wonderful actors,” Donahue said. “It’s all been a highlight. I think even the low points, in their own way, because I’ve learned something from them, or they give me certain kinds of memories.”
By the end of the interview, it becomes clear that Donahue’s ambitions after The Andy Griffith Show took a much humbler turn, and as she said, she attributes her ultimate success as an actress with a long and happy career to that one part that audiences just never seemed to fully accept. When asked how she would like to be remembered as an actor, Donahue said: “I guess just remembered a little. Not in any special way. Just kind of remember that I was able to span a lot of different decades and a lot of different kinds of entertainment, from vaudeville to television.”
She may not have been the girl for Andy, but she certainly has proved she is quite a gal. So next time “Ellie Comes to Town,” maybe consider giving her a warmer welcome as a viewer and see if it changes how you see the first girl to turn Andy’s head in Mayberry.