THE JEFF DONNELL STORY by Wade Ballard
Character actress and light comedienne Jeff Donnell was christened Jean Marie Donnell on July 10, 1921, at South Windham Boys' Reformatory in Maine. It couldn't be helped, as her father Harold was the superintendent of the institution. Harold and his wife Mildred, a school teacher, moved Jeff and her older sister Doris to Towson, Maryland when she was two years old.
When "Jean" grew old enough to enjoy the funnies, which her favorite uncle, Phineas O. Baker, read to her, she was so entranced with the smaller character in the "Mutt and Jeff" strip that he took to calling her "Little Jeff." The nickname stuck and she liked it so well that when she grew up, she kept it. Her mother hoped that she would want to be a nurse or enroll at Fanny Farmer's and pursue a course in domestic art, but Jeff yearned for dramatic art. Her mother didn't oppose her ambition and provided her daughter with piano, tap, ballet and toe dancing lessons. Jeff's interest in acting really started in Baltimore, Maryland where she saw every play that she could that was performed at the Ford Theatre. Once, after seeing Katharine Hepburn as "Jane Eyre", Jeff ran after her as she left the building to get into a limousine. Jeff handed Hepburn her new Parker Pen to autograph her program. After Miss Hepburn signed her name, she rode off with the pen. Jeff was afraid to tell her mother, so she borrowed some money and bought another one just like it. Years later, Jeff sat next to Kate on a plane from New York to Los Angeles, and both laughed when Jeff told her that she still had her pen! Jeff graduated from high school in Towson in 1938 and received three scholarships. Being homesick for New England, she decided to enroll at the Leland Powers School of the Theatre with her award money. During the two-year course she took classes in Expressions, Diction, Make-up, Fencing, and the History of the Theatre. One of the professors was a young man named William R. Anderson, and the first thing he asked Jeff to do in his class was to stand on her feet and "laugh." She emitted a high, nervous giggle. Glaring at her, he opined caustically that it had been one of the most unconvincing and artificial laughs he had ever had the misfortune to hear. Churning inside with rage that was not the least artificial, Jeff sat down muttering, "The man's a goon!" Her feelings for Professor Anderson remained bitter during her entire first term at the school, although she did get "A's" in his classes. At the beginning of her second term, he suddenly invited her to go to dinner and the symphony with him. She was taken aback, but she went and her grades promptly dropped to "B's." Professor Bill swore that she simply wasn't as good that second term. At age nineteen, Jeff enrolled at the Yale School of Drama and did some teaching herself. In the interim, she and Bill were married on December 21, 1940. Bill wanted to start a summer stock company at the Farragut Playhouse right outside of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. After hiring Leland Powers' students for cast and crew, the first show they chose to produce was "Lady of Letters" because Jeff had performed in that play at school and Bill knew Jeff could do this comedy to showcase her talents. It was the 8th of July, 1941, and Max Gordon from New York and Max Arnow from Columbia Pictures were touring, looking for talent. Word got out that a pair of talent scouts would be in the audience, and the cast took bets on who the scouts would ask to interview. A dumb, blue-eyed blonde with a 36-inch bust got the most votes. It was raining that night, and both Maxes were thinking about not showing up for the show, but they did catch the third act, and they surprised the cast and crew when they asked Jeff to come see them at thier hotel the next day. She did, and they offered her a trip to New York to do a screen test. At 20, Jeff was skinny, flat-chested, had enormous brown eyes, brown hair and what is commonly referred to as a button nose. The screen test they chose for Jeff was a scene from "Claudia", and it was directed by none other than the president of Columbia Pictures, Inc., Harry Cohn, only because the scheduled director, Charles Vidor, didn't arrive in time. For the test, Jeff chose a typically Boston navy blue tailored suit to wear, which was fine for "Claudia", but Mr. Cohn didn't think she looked jazzy enough, so he borrowed a long string of pearls from Josephine Johnson and draped them around her neck. He also asked her to remove her shoes since at 5' 6" she stood taller than the leading man they had chosen for her. Jeff thought it was just ridiculous and was so embarrassed, but she did "Claudia" bare-footed with pearls floundering on her chest. The next day Jeff and her husband sat in a small viewing room in the back to watch her test on the screen, and all she could hear was Cohn and his assistant tear her apart. "She's got to have her nose fixed", "She's got to have something done with her hair, There's so much of it", There's got some be some padding on her behind", "She'd definatly got to have bust pads." They also weren't quite sure of her name-Jeff Donnell. With each deflating remark, she sat lower in her seat. She was convinced they wouldn't pick her up on contract and thought of the basket of fruit and flowers they had sent to her room and of the money they had wasted on her. Jeff returned to the New Hampshire stock company to rehearse another play and get the experience in New York off her mind, but within a month she received a telegram from Columbia. Her contract was on it's way. She signed for a salary of $100 a week and wrote a letter back that said "Dear Mr. Cohn, I am pregnant. What shall I do?" A reply got back to her from Max Arnow that stated simply, "Have it." Jeff has always said that the reason Harry Cohn hired her was because he didn't want anyone to know that he directed a bad test. Jeff had her first born, a boy, Michael Phineas Anderson, on January 21, 1942. It was a difficult pregnancy, and she had a new Caesarean procedure (Walter's Caesarean) at Massachusetts General in Boston. It was a new enough operation that medical students at Harvard attended the procedure. Years later, Jeff told her son that landing wrong on the saddle horn prevented her from having more children. Soon after the baby arrived, Jeff and young Michael boarded the train for Hollywood. She expected Cohn or at least a "yes-man" to greet her at the train station, but there was no one. She didn't realize her importance to the studio until she learned that Rita Hayworth was making two to three thousand a week. She found an apartment close to the studio, owned by Errol Flynn, with furniture padlocked to the walls. "Strange place," she thought, but was told it was necessary. Hungry actors have been known to eat furniture, sell or hock it. After finishing his last semester at Leland Powers, husband Bill soon joined his family in California to be a dialogue director at Columbia, which Jeff had put in her contract. He was more excited to be working on the West Coast than his wife because he had aspirations of becoming a film director. Jeff reported to the studio and was soon cast in "My Sister Eileen" as Helen, the wife of "The Wreck." The part was rewritten for the screen because in the Broadway production, from which this film hails, the character lived with the football player, but not as his wife. In the play, the mother comes to visit and goes into an uproar when she finds out they are living in sin. With the Hays Office Legion of Decency still going strong in 1942, the characters had to be married in the film, and the portrayal of Helen was less interesting. Rosalind Russell, Janet Blair, Brian Ahern, and Gordon Jones were called for the first day of shooting, along with Jeff. Most of the day was was spent doing a master shot, which Jeff didn't understand. Toward the end of the day only Russell and Blair were involved in the shots. Jeff was given script pages for the next day and was told to go home. She was certain she was fired and called her husband to tell him what happened. No one had explained to her about master shots, two shots, three shots and she was very confused by it all. The next day, however, the cameras were focused on her and Gordon Jones, and she realized after all that she was very much in the movie. Jeff became friends with Rosalind Russell on this picture, and Jeff's son and Russell's (Lance) went to camp together one year. Jeff's second film was "The Boogie Man Will Get You", a spoof inspired by the Broadway play "Arsenic and Old Lace" (A contractual commitment delayed the film version of "Arsenic" until the play completed it's run, so "Boogie Man" was released ahead of the "Arsenic" film.) Columbia also got the star of the play, Boris Karloff, to take a hiatus to star in this motion picture with Peter Lorre. The film was a comedy, but with this duo, the studio publicized it as a chiller which confused the movie-going public. Jeff had a great story about the making of this film that she always loved to tell: she was going up the basement staircase with Boris and Peter directly behind her, and when she got in front of the camera at the top of the stairs, they goosed her. Thanks to her stage training, she didn't change her expression and delivered her lines, but a second take was made and then a third because the boys were laughing so hard. The next day, Jeff went out and bought a live goose, had it crated and delivered to Boris and Peter. Jeff celebrated her 21st birthday on the set, and as a gift she received the goose cooked and ready to eat with a card, "To the goose girl" from Boris-a card she very much cherished. In 1943 Jeff was cast in "City Without Men", a picture that starred Linda Darnell, but Jeff's role as a prison inmate was cut out of the film because the studio thought that with her innocent, young looks, the public wouldn't accept her in such a part. Also in 1943, Jeff got her first leading role, albeit for a "B" picture, opposite Kenny Baker in "Doughboys In Ireland". Actor Robert Mitchum has a small part in this picture, and Max Arnow offered him a contract at $350 a week. Jeff told him to take it because it was more money than she was making, and she knew he had a wife and two kids to support. He decided to wait. Six weeks later he got "The Story of G.I. Joe" and didn't have to be tied down to Columbia. Jeff couldn't believe his luck. In 1944, Jeff appeared in her favorite film and the one for which she received the most mail, "Nine Girls". It was a comedy-mystery set in a sorority house. Jeff played Butch, a tomboy, who wore a shirt, jeans and tennis shoes while the other actresses had to go through the glamour treatment, which she never much cared for. Jeff always laughs when she recalls the "swimming scene". While the other acresses were adjusting their bust pads in the water, Jeff just dived into the pool without a care. It was also 1944 when Jeff was first "loaned out", this time to producer Sol Lesser for United Artists' production of "Three Is A Family". She used the extra money to buy her first good car. From 1945-1947 Jeff appeared in 15 features, all "B" productions. In three of these films she played Ann Miller's girlfriend, and five of them were musical westerns that starred Ken Curtis (Festus of "Gunsmoke" fame) and usually featured The Hoosier Hot Shots, Carolina Cotton, Guy Kibbee, Andy Clyde and Guinn "Big Boy" Williams. She always hoped to improve her status, so she would disguise herself and slip into sneak previews and unobrusively listen to audience critiques. Because she was advised not to have anymore children naturally, Jeff and Bill adopted their daughter, Sally (Sarah Jane). She was born on Valentine's Day, 1948, and Jeff took the rest of the year off from the studio to be with her family. Jeff was a bit upset with Columbia because she really had her heart set on doing "The Return of October". Terry Moore, who Jeff felt was too young for the role, was cast in the part and she didn't have the expirience that Jeff had. Jeff felt that the director of "October", Norman Panama, sensed her unhappiness. His next picture was for RKO and all of a sudden, Jeff's agent got an offer from Dore Schary for her to go to RKO. Although Columbia never really dropped her, Jeff went over to RKO and was cast as Cary Grant's secretary in "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House". She worked one day and was replaced by an actress ten years older. Producers thought Jeff looked to young and sexy, and they feared that the audience might think Mr. Blandings was fooling around with her. Director George Cukor had always used Jeff as a test girl, and in 1950 she tested with Aldo Da Re who was up for a part in "Saturday's Hero". She invited him to dinner that night to meet her family and told the struggling young actor that he was more than welcome to stay with them and share a room with her eight-year-old son, an offer he didn't turn down. Jeff and Bill's marriage was on the rocks. After completing a role in "The Fuller Brush Girl" opposite Lucille Ball, they separated. They wanted to hold out for the children's sake, but divorce was inevitable. Actor Aldo Da Re (who changed his last name to Ray because theatres put his name up in lights as DARE) quickly became a rising new star with such films as "The Marrying Kind" and "Pat and Mike". Jeff and Aldo began an on-again, off-again courtship that would develop over the next three years. When Jeff wasn't getting film work at Columbia or RKO, she turned to the new medium known as television. Her first guest appearance was on "The Alan Young Show" in a sketch as his wife. When Jeff heard that Aldo took Rita Hayworth to lunch one day while they were working on "Miss Sadie Thompson", she sent Aldo a big hamper. Inside were six box lunches labeled for each day of the week except Sunday. "On Sunday", she wrote him, "you buy my lunch." When Aldo was getting ready to leave for a whole month to do a location shoot for "Thompson", Jeff had to let him know exactly how she felt about him. After the four-week separation, Jeff was there on the landing strip waiting for his plane to arrive. Aldo ran to her immediatly and swept her into his arms for a long embrace. They were in love, and they didn't care if the whole world knew it. Aldo's divorce from his first wife was already finalized, and Jeff's divorce date was soon approaching. She would be free to marry Aldo, but they kept Hollywood guessing as to when they would set the wedding date. Aldo wanted Jeff to give up her acting career when she became Mrs. Da Re, and he was determined to have all the fixings that a star is entitled to, and Columbia Pictures was going to pay for it. In 1954, Jeff was offered the part of "Alice" on George Gobel's new variety series, but she turned it down because she was to be married on September 30th in Crockett, California (Aldo's hometown). After a two-day honeymoon, Aldo was informed by Harry Cohn that he was on suspension for the next 26 weeks for refusing to play "The Wreck" in Columbia's new version of "My Sister Eileen". With no promise of an income for the next six months, Jeff contacted her agent to see if George still wanted her. She was signed on at $250 a week (much less than the original offer when she was first approached) Now she was in New York doing a live television series. When Aldo's suspension was over, Cohn just loaned him out to other studios where he made "Battle Cry" and "We're No Angels". While those films helped Aldo become a film star, it was Cohn who profited. After her first season on the Gobel show, Jeff came home for the summer to resume her married life but found a very unhappy husband who drank too much and resented Hollywood. Aldo even showed up at the studio intoxicated and had several heated arguments with Harry Cohn. During their months of marriage, an unexpected complication came with the revelation that Jeff was pregnant. Aldo felt it was not a good time for more children. Besides Jeff's two, he had a four-year-old son from his first marriage to support. Tension and worry took its toll on Jeff. Aldo's attitude disturbed her. He frequently commented, "It had better be a boy or don't bother to come home from the hospital." In the end, she miscarried. Aldo turned down the "heavy" role in "Jubal Troop" and drew another suspension at a time when their bank account was almost nil. Jeff was getting excited about returning to New York for her second season as Mrs. George Gobel when, in the last week of August, she picked up the paper on the front lawn, and it said "Jeff Donnell replaced..." She was devestated, but she had made a lot of friends in the newspaper columns who took up a crusade for her. George's manager thought she hired a press agent to get her job back, but she didn't. It was her fans and she was soon back on the show. While Jeff's employment was up in the air, Aldo left her and went back to Crockett for a long vacation alone. Jeff consulted her attorney for a divorce. The couple stayed separated for the summer/fall of 1955, but they reconciled in December. Unable to work out their differences, they went to divorce court on July 13, 1956, where she asked for the token dollar a month alimony to be awarded to her. When she wasn't appearing on the Gobel show, Jeff went back to motion pictures. A non-smoker, Jeff played a chain-smoking housekeeper to David Niven's butler in "My Man Godfrey", and she played Tony Curtis' secretary in "The Sweet Smell Of Success". Jeff was disappointed when her bedroom scene with her boss (Curtis) was cut after the first preview. The director didn't want the the audience to have any sympathy for Tony's devious character and so kept him free of any positive emotional involvement. Burt Lancaster who also starred in "Sweet Smell" wanted Jeff to play a part in his new film "Birdman of Alcatraz", but the producers really wanted somebody older, although they did try thier best to make her up with sunken eyes and double chins. She still didn't look old enough for them. While working on the Gobel show, Jeff met advertising executive John Bricker, and on September 1, 1958, they married. At her wedding, Jeff told the press, "I'm John's wife now. I'm not going to be George's anymore." So the part of Alice Gobel went to Phyllis Avery. The newlyweds lived in New York, and any work Jeff did was mainly guest appearances on television series. In 1961, Jeff appeared in the motion picture that many people remember her for, "Gidget Goes Hawaiian" starring Deborah Walley. In this sequel to "Gidget" (1959) which starred Sandra Dee in the title role, Jeff became the trivia answer of who played Gidget's mother. Although she wasn't in the earlier film, whenever Sandra Dee ran into her, she always said, "Hi, Mom!" This movie was shot in Honolulu, and actor Carl Reiner played her husband, Gidget's father. When shooting was done for the day, Carl would retire to his room and write what would eventually become "The Dick Van Dyke Show." After filming for the day, Jeff hooked up with fellow cast member Eddie Foy, Jr., to enjoy her working vacation. Foy took her to dinner one night to the worst place imaginable, a burlesque house, the type of place where Foy's long career had begun. Foy couldn't resist getting back up on the boards, leaving Jeff sitting alone in the audience full of men. Jeff went back with him many times because he wanted someone to go with and she got a big kick out of it. When the filming was over, a public relations girl gave Jeff a beautiful lei to take home. While on the plane, Eddie kept razzing her about it, calling her a tourist. When they landed, Jeff and her husband took Eddie home. Upon arrival, Eddie took the lei from around Jeff's neck and presented it to his girlfriend. She never saw it again. Jeff played Gidget's mother again in 1963 for "Gidget Goes To Rome". Her part in this film was very small, and she had a new movie husband, Don Porter. When "Gidget" was made into a television series in 1965 starring Sally Field, Porter was cast as as Gidget's father, but he was now a widower. Jeff did make a guest appearance on the series as Paul Lynde's wife. Although she didn't get to go to Rome, she visted England for a part in "The Iron Maiden". It was released in the U.S. as "The Swingin' Maiden" in 1964. In March of 1963, Jeff filed suit for divorce, charging her husband, now a dairy executive, with extreme cruelty, citing him for "belittled her in public." The same year Jeff was suffering from Addison's disease, and her adrenal glands were removed a couple of years later. Army Archerd wrote in his column that she was in intensive care and wasn't expected to live. She did live, but her career was forever changed. Instead of of playing lead or supporting parts, she was now reduced to day parts or walk-ons. She also had to take cortisone regularly to reduce puffiness, but one morning she awoke, combed her hair on the right side and it all came out. Within three days she was bald. Jeff appeared in the film "Tora! Tora! Tora!" (1970) as a favor to director Richard Fleischer who had been at Yale with her. The part was a lady pilot, and when Jeff showed up on the set, she was wearing a wig. Richard didn't think she could get the helmet on over all that "hair", but she assured him that she could by going to her dressing room and taking off the wig. She filmed her segment completely bald under the helmet. Richard was introducing a new technical method of shooting with the camera for the flying scenes, and for Jeff's two minutes of screen time, she got a weeks worth of work. Before "Tora!", Jeff had a small scene in "The Comic" (1969) which starred Dick Van Dyke and was directed by her former movie husband, Carl Reiner. Jeff's last theatrical release was "Stand Up and Be Counted" (1972), directed by former child actor, Jackie Cooper. Jeff continued to work as a guest star on the current television shows, sometimes getting a screen credit and sometimes not, as in the pilot episode of "Nanny and the Professor". During non-productive acting periods, she sold interview articles on her friends in television (Barbara Hale, Donna Reed etc.) to tv/movie fan magazines, and she tried to sell "My Formula", a dietary-vitamin supplement packaged and distributed by actor Bob Cummings. In 1975, Jeff was back at the Columbia lot in the television series "Matt Helm", where she played the hero's telephone answering service girl, Ethel, in seven out of thirteen produced episodes. She also worked at Zog's and then at the Dillon Welles in the L.A. merchandise mart to give her something to do and provide an income. In 1980, Jeff became a semi-regular on the daytime television drama "General Hospital" as Stella Fields, the housekeeper to the very wealthy Quartermaine family. Her boss, Edward Quartermaine (David Lewis) always complained about her coffee and threatened to fire her many times, but his wife, the lovely Lila (Anna Lee, the British actress, whose career in films surpassed Jeff's, and became her very dear friend) always felt she was overworked, being the only employee in an oversized mansion. The soap opera became the number one rated show for daytime viewing in the early 80's. Jeff was getting more offers to guest star on television programs such as "Barney Miller" and "St. Elsewhere", but her working schedule prevented her from appearing in these prized parts, although she did find time to do an episode of "Hardcastle and McCormick". She was offered a part in the Faye Dunaway film, "Barfly", but she turned the role down after reading the script, which called for a sordid act in a bathroom scene. On Monday, April 11, 1988, Jeff died in her sleep, the victim of a heart attack. "General Hospital" explained Stella's departure by having her win the lottery and leave Port Charles, the shows fictional setting. Her memorial service was held at the Pierce Brothers Mortuary in West Los Angeles. After her service, a wheelchair bound George Gobel stood up in memory of his former co-star.… Expand
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