Catching Up with Elinor Donahue
Elinor Donahue’s credits as an actress date back to 1942 and span all the way to 2011. Though she’s appeared in everything from The Andy Griffith Show, The Flying Nun, The Odd Couple, Mork & Mindy, Fantasy Island and Pretty Woman to Freddy’s Dead: The New Nightmare, Get a Life, Friends, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, The Princess Diaries 2, Cold Case and The Young and the Restless, she’s best known for two roles: Betty, a/k/a Princess, on the beloved sitcom Father Knows Best, and Federation Commissioner Nancy Hedford in the second-season Star Trek: The Original Series episode “Metamorphosis.” Donahue is set to appear on stage, pose for photos and sign autographs at Creation Entertainment’s official Star Trek Las Vegas convention, which will be held August 3-7 at the Rio Suites Hotel. In advance of that appearance, StarTrek.com chatted with Donahue about her life today, her long career and, of course, her Trek experience. Here’s what she had to say…
How much of how you landed your role in “Metamorphosis” do you recall?
Everything. I was in one of my retired periods. After The Andy Griffith Show, for all intents and purposes, I retired. I’d stepped back from the business, I guess I’d say, rather than completely retired. I wanted to have a private life, which I’d not had for a long, long time. I had my marriage to Harry Ackerman, the adoptive father of my oldest boy and the father of the three sons that we had together, and that allowed me to step away from the business and have a real life as a wife and mother. Having said that, I still worked about once a year on something. Someone would call, an agent I had or used to have, and say, “Do you think Elinor would like to do such and such.” I don’t remember what they were, but they were episodes of series. We were living in a very lovely house in Sherman Oaks and I had three of the boys, because the youngest boy wasn’t born yet. Harry got a call from Gene Roddenberry at the office asking if it was OK for him, Gene, to call me at home, to talk to me about a show he was doing. Harry said yes. It was sort of like asking a father for his daughter’s hand in marriage. It was very sweet. So, that evening, Gene Roddenberry called me and told me that he had a new show called Star Trek and he asked me if I’d heard of it. I told him, “No.” He told me a little bit about it and he said, “I’d love for you to play a role on it. Would you be interested?” I said, “Of course.” So that was how it came about. They sent the script, I went in and here we are, almost 50 years later.
What interested you most about Hedford as a character?
It was fun. I’d never read anything quite like that and had never played that kind of role before. That wasn’t what I was known for. I was known for kind of Happy Sam parts or the sweet lady next door, or whatever. But this was different. It was interesting in that respect. And… I hope this will make sense, but I was never an actress-actress, do you know what I mean? I never wanted the career arc. I wasn’t seeking a particular role, like “Oh, this is a nice, juicy role.” It was more, “Oh, they want me? That’s terrific. I feel happy about myself. I’ll do it.” If they wanted me to play the lady who cleans the floor, I’d do it. If they wanted me to play a hairdresser, I’d be happy to do that. I just like the activity of going to a set and working. It was sort of my hobby, in those days, besides running the house and having the children and all. The acting was a vacation. It was like a housewife’s vacation. I’d go put on costumes and learn my lines and be in front of the lights. So, in point of fact, I didn’t really care what the part was. I was just happy to go and do whatever. To answer your question, then, there wasn’t anything about the character that made me say, “Oh, this is nice and juicy, and I need to do it. I just wanted to do it, period.” That she was a different kind of character, and that people liked and remember the performance, that was just a bonus.
The story goes that William Shatner, during your major breakdown scene, told you that you didn’t need to dig quite so deep, that you could just act the moment. How valuable was that advice?
It was valuable in the instant, but at that point in time, given the fact that I was not an “actor,” even, I had to do what I had to do. And the only way I knew how to do it, from my upbringing in movies and television as a child, was to go all the way into it and get all into a dither. And, of course he was right. He was 100 percent right, but I didn’t know any other way to do it.
Whatever it took to get there, you got there. It’s a powerful scene.
It’s a bit overwrought (laughs), but thank you.
There’s also the story about the scene in which Kirk talks to The Companion. You stood on a ladder and delivered your dialogue from there in order to give Shatner a point of reference. We’ve heard the details, but not the payoff. How appreciative was Shatner?
Oh, very appreciative. Oh, yeah. I was there and I don’t quite know why I was there. Maybe I’d shot something in the morning and was released for the rest of the day. It was near lunch time and I’d decided to go have lunch. They started to set up for that scene and I believe it was the director (Ralph Senensky), who said, “Would you mind, if you’re going to be here, but you don’t have to be, climbing up on the ladder and reading the lines?” I said, “Oh, I’d love to.” They said, “Now, we want you to know, you are NOT the voice. It’s going to be dubbed in.” I thought it was wonderful fun, because there was no pressure on me to perform anything, so to speak. It was just an opportunity to be helpful to a fellow actor, and, yes, he was very appreciative. He seemed to smile and be very happy about my being up there.
Another famous story is that you were actually invited to one of the Kirk, Spock and Doc barbecues. What was that like?
It was good. The food was good. They were always on a diet, I think. I was never a big eater, myself. They had someone, I don’t know who, do the cooking, and he’d cook liver or little bits of meat on a little hibachi. There’d be some vegetable, too, but it was all tiny little bites of food. And it was perfectly satisfying. Everybody would take their plate and sit down and eat, and nobody talked much. And that was the end of that.
All this talk about you being invited into the infamous boys’ club and you didn’t hear any good stuff?
What a disappointment.
I can tell you that DeForest Kelly was a sweetheart. He was just the sweetest. I quite loved him. Glenn Corbett was also a sweetheart, very professional. I never really sat around between shots and chitchatted. I just never did that much on any set. It’s supposed to be a good thing to do, but I’d tend to go to my dressing room. So I never made a lot of on-set friends, especially when I guest starred. But my sense was that Glenn was the same way, kind of a quiet, private person. He was very loving. You can tell in a person’s eyes when they’re nice and loving. And he was a professional, knew his lines, did his work.
Your TV mom, Jane Wyatt, guest starred in the next episode. Any chance that you ran into her if she was on the lot for a costume fitting?
No. She likely was on the lot when I was there, but we didn’t see each other. Our episode, as I recall, went on for quite a while longer than it ought to have, and so she may have had her fittings while they were waiting to rebuild a set. Since a lot of people know all the stories, you probably know that I came down with the flu…
And lost so much weight they had to give you a scarf…
Right. And the scarf was fortuitous decoration, as it turns out, but it was not a decoration for its own sake. It was a decoration to cover up my boniness, though it turned out to be very useful and very lovely in that scene with Glenn Corbett. And also the story about Jerry Finnerman (the cinematographer) is true. He told me, very clearly, not to move, not to bob my head or make little moves with my head, which I did a lot, because he’d lit me a very specific way, and less was more. He said everything would be much clearer and better. I took that to heart, the advice not to move much when talking in a scene. It paid off in the last scene with Glenn Corbett, and I remembered it later, too, whenever I had to talk or give a speech in a scene. I feel that, for the most part, as I aged and acted, a lot of the things I did were way better than what I did when I was young, performance-wise.
When was the last time you watched the episode?
It’s been a long, long time. I couldn’t even tell you how long. Many years. I don’t really watch my old work. If I watch anything, I prefer to watch the movies I did when I was a little girl working for MGM. They’re very… cute, and it brings up happy memories. I don’t care about the aging thing. If someone said, “Here, sit down and watch this…,” I’d sit and watch it. It’s not like I’d run screaming from the room. But what’s done is done. It doesn’t interest me wholly to watch old stuff. It sort of smacks of Sunset Boulevard, doesn’t it? (Laughs)
Let’s move on to the present. What’s life like for you now?
Well, I’m enjoying life immensely. I’m totally retired. We live in the California desert, in one of the little cities near Palm Springs. I just do what it is that keeps a house running, and I enjoy it. That sounds very boring, but I really do like it. And, for exercise, I walk and I swim and I knit and do needlepoint and watch sports on television and read books. I love to cook and play in the kitchen. And I’m one of the few ladies who finds it relaxing to do laundry and iron. And I have seven grandchildren, which keeps me busy when I see them. They’re scattered all over, so I don’t see them very often.
Fair enough, but if someone approached you and said, “Ms. Donahue, we have a great role and we think you’d be perfect for it,” would you truly not consider it?
I really don’t know. That would have to present itself and I’d have to know a lot more about it. I have turned down things. Also, my memory isn’t as good as it was and I get terribly nervous. I went up and just did some bumpers for the MeTV channel, and I was nervous the night before and didn’t sleep. I always did have stage fright and it’s gotten somewhat worse. If I have to get up and make some kind of a speech, I agonize about it as long as I have to agonize over it, which can sometimes be as long as three months. It’s easier for me to not put myself in that position anymore.
You had such a long and varied career as an actor. What are the roles you, personally, are proudest of?
Proudest of… that’s interesting. That’s harder to say because it’s different from what I’m usually asked, which is “What are your favorite credits?” I’m pretty proud of a lot of the things I’ve been involved with. The show I think I had the most fun with was Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. I loved doing that show. I don’t know quite why, but I had a wonderful time. I was only in the two-hour specials they did and I shot three in California and one in Canada, and I didn’t have as much on the one in California, though the people were still great. But the ones in California, I loved wearing the corset and costumes and riding a horse. And, I will tell you that I never took acting lessons. I learned as I went and picked up what I needed down through the years, from what I experienced, from advice people gave me, like on Star Trek. My last major job was an episode of Cold Case, and I think I was the proudest of that of anything I’d done for a long, long time. It was an episode called “Colors,” and if people are interested in my work, I recommend that performance.
Prepping for this interview, we re-watched your episode of Star Trek. Around the same time, one of your very early episodes of The Andy Griffith Show came on. And episodes of Father Knows Best remain a staple. How amazing is it to you that work you did more than 50 years will outlive all of us?
Isn’t that marvelous? It’s quite amazing. I have faith in God, and I believe that this was all pre-planned, that this was all preordained. It’s just been a remarkable life. I feel a little like Zelig in that I’ve sort of popped up in these things that, at the time, I didn’t know were going to become classics, but they are definitely classics now. You just never know what you’re doing when you’re doing it and, all of a sudden, bingo!
And, last question, you’ll be in Vegas for the big 50th anniversary convention. How excited are you to meet the fans, answer their questions, pose for photos and sign autographs?
I am so excited to be attending the convention in Las Vegas. My role in "Metamorphosis" remains one of my favorite acting performances in my career. Working alongside Leonard (Nimoy) and the whole Star Trek team was such an honor for me. I look forward to celebrating that milestone with all of Star Trek's wonderful and dedicated fans.
Go to www.creationent.com for additional details about Star Trek Las Vegas.