Elinor Donahue's one shot at the spotlight came on this forgotten Seventies show
She hoped starring in Mulligan's Stew would divorce her from her Father Knows Best character forever. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out for Betty.
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When Elinor Donahue arrives in Mayberry in The Andy Griffith Show episode "Ellie Comes to Town," it was the second time in her career that she played opposite one of TV’s most popular leading men.
Prior to that, she’d played Robert Young’s daughter on the hit sitcom Father Knows Best.
On these shows, Donahue was happy playing a supporting role.
"I never wanted to be a big star," she told The Morning News Tribune in 1987.
Instead, after she left The Andy Griffith Show, she took on guest spots in shows like Star Trek, The Odd Couple and The Flying Nun.
She also got cast on a couple failed series, including a Sixties family sitcom where she played the wife called Many Happy Returns and a Seventies M*A*S*H-like drama called Aeromeds.
Her casting in Aeromeds actually came by chance, though. She said she was cast as a guest spot and they wound up loving her so much, they decided they would work her into the show the second it got picked up.
"I was just doing a guest spot on the pilot, but they’re rearranging some things and talking about making my role a permanent one on the show if everything goes right," Donahue told The Arizona Daily Star in 1976.
Everything didn’t go right, though, and the series wasn’t picked up. Donahue considered it a missed opportunity to be part of something that was striving to be the next M*A*S*H.
"One of the things I like about Aeromeds is the realism," she said. "We don’t do anything without somebody from the Air Force showing us the proper procedure."
It ended up being a good thing Aeromeds didn’t work out, though, because in 1977, Donahue got her first-ever chance at the spotlight: starring in her own TV show.
The show was called Mulligan’s Stew, and it was about a couple with three kids who adopt four more kids after a tragic accident brings the family together. In this role, instead of the next Hot Lips, she could’ve been the next Carol Brady.
Donahue had her fingers crossed it would succeed because she saw the show as filling a gap, getting into issues that popular shows like The Waltons avoided.
But Mulligan’s Stew aired on Tuesdays, competing with very popular shows like M*A*S*H and Soap, and it quickly got cancelled after just six weeks because not enough people tuned in.
"If that series had become a hit, I might have been more of a spotlight person," Donahue told The Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1987.
Donahue didn’t dwell on the show’s cancellation, though. It’s just not the type of person she is.
"I’ve been in the business long enough to have a good perspective and take things as they come," she told The York Dispatch in 1977. "There’s little that bothers me, which is reflected in my interviews, I know, and makes me come off Pollyanna-ish. But to tell you the truth, that’s actually how I feel about life."
She never even wanted to be a TV star in the first place. She thought it sounded like a lot of pressure she didn’t need.
"I’ve always been content playing a supporting role," Donahue said. "Important, visible parts, yes — but never the major star. I was Robert Young’s daughter, Andy Griffith’s girlfriend and now I’m Jonathan Ward’s mother [on the The New Adventures of Beans Baxter]. When Fox officially approached me about the part, they said it was a good role, that I was a major cast member, but not the center stage attraction. The success or failure of the series is not resting on my shoulders. That suits me fine."
However, she did feel one disappointment with Mulligan’s Stew not getting renewed: She really thought the show had the potential to change how audiences, who always thought of her as Betty from Father Knows Best, saw her.
Her whole career, she had hoped to move past that role, and Mulligan’s Stew, which she expected to attract the sophisticated Mary Tyler Moore Show crowd, had seemed like her one shot. Like Mary Tyler Moore graduating in audience hearts from Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show to Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, she wanted to transform and leave Betty Anderson from Father Knows Best behind.
“I thought it was the show that would divorce me from Betty Anderson forever,” Donahue told The Detroit Free Press in 1978.