Elinor Donahue's time in Mayberry deserves more respect

This story will (hopefully) change the way you see Ellie Walker.

Read to Me

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.

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pattystr 5 days ago
She had the most personality and strongest characters of any of Andy’s girlfriends. I think Andy should have married Ellie, not Helen Crump, who was dry as milk toast on the show
WordsmithWorks 1 month ago
They weren't ready for a strong female character. The "Ellie for City Council" is a great parallel.
southernbelle 1 month ago
I didn’t care much for Ellie’s character on TAGS. I like her spunk but I, too, think she was too young for Andy. She was too young for Andy and too old for Opie (when they both took Ellie to the picnic)!! 😊. Helen just got on my nerves sometimes because she was always jealous and pouty for a woman her age. I sort of liked Peggy and would’ve loved to see more of her. After all, she was Andy’s and Opie’s blood brother!!
PaulStevens 1 month ago
I liked her on the show. The problem is she was introduced so early. Andy had not grown into his role as the voice of wisdom. He was still a tad raw. She was educated and worked in a field then mostly foreign to women. Helen was more traditional....a female school teacher is not new. I never took to Helen Crump the character though I liked the actress. I liked Donahue and her character better.
rab810 1 month ago
I always thought Ellie was a great character. Its too bad she didn't stick around for more seasons.
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gracie200 1 month ago
I was born in 1960 (the year Father Knows Best ended) so I remember seeing Elinor in reruns of that show all my life. I don't remember her in TAGS but maybe the fans didn't take to her because Andy Griffith didn't. If he wasn't into Elinor it may have shown in his acting. People aren't fooled when two people don't make a connection...sometimes all the acting in the world can't hide a bad matchup or make sparks fly when the sparks just aren't there. So any anti-Ellie feelings out there may not be from anything she did wrong. I thought she did a good job in the episode of Star Trek: TOS "Metamorphosis" first she had me annoyed at her character, then made me feel a little more compassion towards her... like good acting should.
HonestyandReality 1 month ago
I liked her. Outspoken and wonderful woman character.
MaryRoache 1 month ago
We want Ellie. I thought she was the best choice for Andy. She opened the eyes of the people of Mayberry for women's rights. She kept them honest. I thought she did great.
Chrissy 1 month ago
Having been born in 1967 I obviously did not see The Andy Griffith Show back in the day. Watching it now on METV, I immediately loved the character Ellie and when she disappeared without a word after season one I had to google and google to find out what happened. I am pleased with this article. I was sad to see so many unpleasant comments about the Ellie character and even the actress herself on the last METV story. And finally, since I wasn’t privy to the age difference of Andy and Ellie before I started watching, I truly thought they had great chemistry and I loved their scenes together. I guess I can attribute that to exceptional acting of both parties🙂.
SharonStevens 1 month ago
I always thought Elinor Donahue as Betty Anderson! I just didn't think she fitted with Andy for she was too young and no chemistry! She would have done better as Andy's younger cousin or niece. To me Helen was the best while I know some thought she was too bitchy, at times Andy deserved it! Case in point, Opie Flunks Arithmetic! Andy pushed Opie too hard and Helen told him off for it which was exactly what he deserved!
GordARebelato 1 month ago
I liked Elinor Donahue character on TAGS but like others on here posted, we are looking at this from a early 21st century view. 60 years ago when TAGS was produced, ED character was a head of its time, especially in a small town 1960's setting. I guess the writers felt her character would not fit in. I thought she was refreshing and different.
Her character did change the landscape somewhat. TAGS was, and is still, one of those shows where every fan is very protective of their characters. Ellie somewhat changed Andy and the fans do not like that. I'm sure Ellie received some scathing fan mails, maybe her decision to bail?
Big3Fan 1 month ago
I've always felt that Thelma Lou was the sweetest girl in Mayberry. As far as Andy's love interests I like Ellie the best. Here was a young lady in the early sixties with a degree in pharmacy, wasn't afraid to run for city council and speak her mind on other issues. Ellie lasted for twelve episodes. The three county nurses were in a total of six, Julie Adams one, Sue Ane Langdon one and Joanna Moore four. I've never heard any discussions on their short tenures. Whiny Crump was my least favorite. I'd even rank Skippy above her.
GordARebelato Big3Fan 1 month ago
I agree. Helen Frump was my least favorite of Andy's love interests. Her character was too serious, too bitchy.
teire Big3Fan 1 month ago
I’m sure Skippy would say:
“Thanks doll.”
Big3Fan GordARebelato 1 month ago
I agree. Near the end of the black and white episodes and into the color seasons, Andy's whole attitude and personality became similar to hers. Instead of the happy, smiley and good natured Andy he became whiny, short tempered and cantankerous Andy. I blame Crump! Of course Warren might be partially to blame.
ETristanBooth 1 month ago
I've always liked Elinor Donahue (Father Knows Best, TAGS, The Odd Couple, Get A Life), and I've always enjoyed the Ellie episodes of TAGS. She ultimately wasn't the best match for Andy, not because there was anything wrong with her, but because Andy was more traditional in his expectations.
Pilaf ETristanBooth 1 month ago
I'm wondering if Andy Griffith's objection to luminous, engaging, classy Elinor Donahue was that she didn't immediately jump into bed with him, as did the decidedly cold, always angry, jealous, petty "Helen Crump."
Pacificsun 1 month ago
Quality article and spotlight on this actress. Thank you MeTV!

I think Ms. Donahue was ahead of the times with her role in TAGS. If you look at the personality difference between Helen Crump and Ellie, HC was much more deferential and submissive (as in the polite little girlfriend). Oh AG and HC had their spats and arguments. But in the end HC was pretty devoted to AG. I don't think ED played it that way. She was a strong minded independent business woman (and I believe) HC was a traditional school teacher. Stereotypes of the day. Part of it was in the writing of course. But very much how ED delivered the personality sketched out.
daDoctah 1 month ago
She's the TV equivalent of Natalie Wood. The child star who grew up into a full-fledged adult right before our eyes without going off the rails along the way (a la Lindsay Lohan), so that you could look at the grown-up as a grown-up and still see them as the child you loved years before.

Can anyone lay claim to such a career trajectory more recently? Christina Ricci, maybe, or Kirsten Dunst?
teire 1 month ago
I liked Ellie very much, in many ways she was the most independent of Andy's regular girlfriends and the least traditional. She was a pharmacist rather than a teacher or nurse and she ran for and served on the town council. I also found her to be thoroughly different from her Betty Anderson character, thought Elinor Donahue did a good job of making that transition. I liked Peggy best as a long term match for Andy, but Ellie’s one season in Mayberry was ok by me.
Nonflexus 1 month ago
Donahue just wasn't the right person for that role, and neither was Aneta Corsaut, IMO.
justjeff 1 month ago
TV viewers can be a fickle lot. We each have our own favorite characters, episodes, shows or series. The funny thing is, the overall ratings drive the success or failure of a TV show - so whether we like a particular character or not, "the show must go on"...

Even with the Three Stooges there's the perennial argument of "Curly or Shemp"? There's no doubt that Curly was the most beloved, but if Shemp hadn't left the Stooges (when they were still with Ted Healy) to strike out on his own, chances are Curly might have just kept doing his own novelty act in vaudeville. Shemp only returned because Curly suffered a stoke in 1946, and Moe wanted to keep the act going.

Shemp [like Curly] has his own style, and you can't please everyone. When Alice Pearce, the original Gladys Kravits died from cancer, she was replaced with Sandra Gould. Likewise, William Demarest replaced William Frawley on My Three Sons after Frawley's passing... and so on, and so forth...

Then, as now, devoted fans would 'argue' the merits of the former and present actors, characters, plot lines, etc. in a series.

I think Rick Nelson summed it up perfectly in his song "Garden Party"... "You can't please everyone, so you gotta please yourself..."
Pacificsun justjeff 1 month ago
Apparently the Three Stooges have been pleasing their fans (now as planned) well into November 2020. When it was proposed as being only a Summer special.
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