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.

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justjeff 20 months ago
ANYTHING "Jeff" is a good thing!
JeffBaker 25 months ago
Love it! I was actually named for "Mutt and Jeff" too!
CaptainDunsel 26 months ago
I guess it's a good thing she wasn't reading "The Katzenjammer Kids" that day.
lanricray 26 months ago
Jeff ALSO holds the distinction of playing a major character (the mother) in TWO Gidget movies. Out of three movies, Gidget was played by three actresses. Only James Darren (Moon Doggie) appeared in all three films. Don Porter, who played Gidget's father in the third film, went on to play the father in the entire run (one whole season) of the Gidget (Sally Field) series.
lanricray 26 months ago
Jeff also played Diahann Carroll's neighbor, Mrs. Bennet, in four episodes of "Julia." Unfortunately, her character made her debut as a bigot, leading Julia to teach her son Corey about prejudice. Thankfully, Mrs. Bennett eventually comes around and becomes more accepting. This was pretty common in the '60s and '70s, as white people born long before the Civil Rights movement did some soul searching, and were helped along by white celebrities of their day who embraced African American celebrities as equals. (Bob Hope, Don Ameche and Jimmy Stewart all appeared on "Julia.")
lanricray 26 months ago
Let's not forget Michael Learned...or, Dana Andrews. And, my mother June once met a man named June. Florenz Ziegfeld? And, years before Diana, Mary and Flo became famous, there was a MALE Doo-Wop group named The Supremes! I'm sure this is just the tip of the iceberg!
justjeff lanricray 20 months ago
Well, the doo-wop group the Supremes is not really a male-female thing... it's just who used the name first. There was The Hearts and Lee Andrews and the Hearts - two different groups - one predominantly female, the other male...

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?"...
RichLorn 26 months ago
She originally intended to take the name Mutt Donnell, but McDonalds claimed copyright infringement.
justjeff RichLorn 20 months ago
That makes the worst of my puns award winning!
top_cat_james_1 26 months ago
M&J were in American comic books for decades with hundreds of issues, and they use the cover of a BRITISH comic as their reference?
Toddmick 26 months ago
Sort of A Boy Named Sue in reverse.
MadMadMadWorld Todd 26 months ago
"A Girl Named Jeff."
justjeff 26 months ago
Male or female... ya gotta love ***anyone*** named JEFF!!!!!
harlow1313 justjeff 26 months ago
Yeah, ol' Dahmer was a hoot!
justjeff harlow1313 26 months ago
You ***would** find one the rare exceptions... I was (of course) mostly referring to ME (and *not* TV!
harlow1313 justjeff 26 months ago
I am a low and vulgar geezerboy.
justjeff harlow1313 26 months ago
My late mother (bless her soul) would say "Self-praise stinks!"...
Jeffrey justjeff 26 months ago
That's true, for my name is JEFF also! And I bet I'm older than justjeff.
justjeff Jeffrey 26 months ago
just "slightly"...
daDoctah 26 months ago
I've got her in my cable box's permanent "search" function. First really noticed her in one of the Richard Dix "Whistler" films, then saw her turn up in one of the "Boston Blackie" mysteries. One of her earliest was as the chirpy new tenant in the horror spoof "The Boogie Man Will Get You" (opposite Karloff and Peter Lorre), and later as the title character in the Tim Holt western "The Stagecoach Kid" (she's in drag through most of that, perhaps a nod to her screen name). A more serious western role for her was in the Audie Murphy picture "The Guns of Fort Petticoat". In other westerns ("Singing on the Trail") she was serenaded romantically by a pre-Festus Ken Curtis.

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.
rstuv daDoctah 26 months ago
The first time I saw her was in "A Night to Remember" starring Loretta Young.
daDoctah rstuv 26 months ago
Some pretty big pictures with big stars in her filmography: "In a Lonely Place" with Bogart, "The Fuller Brush Girl" with Lucy, "The Blue Gardenia", even "Tora! Tora! Tora!" although she's pretty far down in the cast list of that one.
MrsPhilHarris daDoctah 26 months ago
Yes she was in the Boston Blackie movie The Phantom Thief. She was on Perry Mason a couple of times too.
gockionni rstuv 26 months ago
I met Loretta Young at our church when I was a kid in the 1960’s. She was a friend of one of the priests, a monk named Father Tampa. My Grama was on Cloud 9 that day - Miss Young was one of her favs.
teire 26 months ago
Just saw her on a Perry Mason. Fun story.
rstuv 26 months ago
It's hard to believe "Mutt and Jeff" we're once very popular.
Catman rstuv 26 months ago
They were one of my favorite strips in the funnies.
rstuv Catman 26 months ago
I was actually going to delete my comment, thinking it was too negative. I'm glad you enjoyed their strip.
Jeffrey rstuv 26 months ago
Were, NOT we're, contraction for we are.
rstuv Jeffrey 26 months ago
Yes, I noticed it right after I posted it. I didn't think it was worth correcting because I figured people would still understand what I meant. But thanks just the same.
Moody 26 months ago
"nobody recognizes" that gal named Jeff. I can't imagine why. 🤔😄
Runeshaper 26 months ago
"Gal named Jeff" reminds of a boy named Sue LOL Very cool story.
MadMadMadWorld Runeshaper 26 months ago
Some guy named Johnny should compose and sing a very popular song about A Girl Named Jeff!" He would make a lot of Cash with it, I'm sure!
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