This character actress took her unusual stage name from her favorite comic strip
She eventually adopted the character reference as her legal name, too.
There’s an episode of The Addams Family called "Morticia, the Decorator," where disapproving neighbors come around the Addams mansion.
This happens many times through the series run, and it was always fun to see the character actors cast to guffaw at the more morose taste of the Addams family.
In this episode, the wife-next-door who was so spooked by her neighbors was played by an actor who arguably took one of Hollywood’s weirdest stage names: Jeff Donnell. And the very same year this Addams Family episode aired, Donnell decided that she liked her stage name so much, she changed her legal name to Jeff, too.
The story behind her unique choice of name begins when Donnell was born Jean Marie Donnell in 1921.
Growing up, she loved to read a popular comic strip called "Mutt and Jeff," which has the distinction of becoming so widely read that its creator Bud Fisher became the first celebrity to make his name in comics.
Debuting in 1907, "Mutt and Jeff," by the time Donnell came to love the comic strip, had placed Fisher in such high demand that he hired assistants like children’s book writer Maurice Sendak - who would later go on to become legend with Where the Wild Things Are - to help get the comic out. (At that point, Sendak was just in high school!)
Later, Donnell decided to take up acting, going to Yale drama school and kicking her career off in the early Forties.
It was at this time that she took the stage name Jeff, in part to give herself a unique name to help her stand out from the crowd and in part as a tribute to her favorite comic strip.
It’s said on the day she was asked what her stage name would be, she was reading a "Mutt and Jeff" comic when she glanced up and said "Jeff."
By 1943, Jeff was heralded as "Columbia studio’s best." But every time the credits rolled after one of her movies, movie makers worried audiences would get confused and made sure to give her a special billing so there would be no mistaking the fact that she was "Miss Jeff Donnell."
In the Fifties and Sixties, Jeff began appearing on TV shows like Mister Ed and Perry Mason, perhaps becoming most well-known to television audiences for playing Gidget’s mom.
Then in 1966, after more than two decades as Jeff Donnell on the big and small screen, the actor decided to make the name change permanent, convincing a judge to make it her legal name.
In her career, Donnell was featured in a wide range of movie and TV roles until her death in 1988.
Despite her unusual name and early rave reviews from critics about her potential star power, she told The Arizona Republic in 1959 that she never experienced fame because "nobody recognizes" that gal named Jeff.
There was a male group called the Crystals and the more famous female group. There was a black doo-wop group called the Eagles (the original singers of "Trying to Get to You" and (of course) the 70s, white folk-rock band.
I could fill up this blog with more examples, but as the famous saying goes "What's in a name?"...
The article mentions that she played Gidget's mom in two of the movies of that series, but after being passed over for the subsequent TV show (the series decided to have Gidget's father be a widower), she did get to play Sally Field's mother-in-law in one episode of Field's later series "The Girl With Something Extra".
Other great TV appearances for her: she was George Gobel's wife "Alice" (later called "spooky old Alice" whenever Gobel mentioned her on "Hollywood Squares") and George once asked that week's guest star Jeff Chandler "how'd a big guy like you end up with a girl's name?" She was Aunt May in the '70s "The Amazing Spider-Man", and the coach for a group of women who wanted to be L.A. Rams cheerleaders on "Fantasy Island".
Her last credited role was as housekeeper "Stella Fields" on "General Hospital". When she passed away, GH explained her disappearance by saying that Stella had won the lottery and retired.