The fatherly way Robert Young saved Elinor Donahue from failing her Father Knows Best audition
All she needed was a sip of Coke for courage!
The story goes like this: Young Elinor Donahue didn't even really want to audition for Father Knows Best in the first place. In the early '50s, she was well into her career as a dancer, and it was her plan to keep on dancing, because she loved it. Her agent, however, had other ideas.
According to an interview with Fox News, Donahue said her agent Lily Messenger really pushed her to audition for the show, perhaps hoping to help the beautiful young actress continue on her trajectory to become a major Hollywood starlet. Donahue had been in movies since she was 6 or 7, and surely nabbing a spot on a beloved TV cast could do wonders to boost her visibility. So the actress listened to her agent and she went to the audition.
Believe it or not, first she was told she was too plain for the part of the pretty young Anderson daughter. Not accepting that, she returned to screen test with a different look, and unsurprisingly, this time they said she was maybe a little too pretty. It's no wonder this conflicting feedback drove young Elinor to tears. In her Fox interview, she said, “I forgot my lines. I got nervous and started to cry."
Luckily, that day she was doing a reading with the actor who would eventually become her onscreen father, Robert Young. Already clearly taking his role as Jim Anderson very seriously, Young did his best to look out for Donahue, stopping the producers from sending her away again by cutting in from offstage to say, "You know, she’s very nervous. Elinor, why don’t you come and sit over here? Would you like a Coca-Cola?"
Thankfully, Elinor took his offering, nailed her next audition, and in the end, she also took the part of Betty Anderson, the daughter America watched grow up, graduate high school, head off to college, find young love, and of course the whole series ends with her college graduation, sending her off into the real world. Perhaps the best Donahue episode, though, showed us twice Betty Anderson was really extra nice. Watch the actress juggle two roles in "Betty's Double" below:
After Father Knows Best ended, Donahue joined The Andy Griffith Show as the pharmacist Ellie Walker, a role where she said she never quite connected with the cast the way she did with Young and the rest of her Anderson TV family. It's funny to think of anyone not really fitting into Mayberry's welcoming world, but she left the show before her contract ended, telling Fox she felt like "a bird out of a nest."
Judging by the heartwarming experience it is to rewatch Father Knows Best, we could see how the series ending felt so much like an actual empty nest. Watch more episodes of Father Knows Best here.