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Inside Donna Reed’s Final Years & Death

Donna Reed is an actress during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Starring in such classic films as It’s a Wonderful Life and From Her to Eternity. Donna rises to prominence as a leading lady on television via her comedic performance on The Donna Reed Show. The actress led a long and illustrious life, but it sadly came to an end with her death in 1986. Join Facts Verse as we take a look inside Donna Reed’s final years and death.


Donna Reed was born on January 27, 1921. She was born on a farm near Denison, Iowa, and was the first of five children. In high school, Donna’s chemistry teacher gave her a gift that went on to change her life forever. That gift was a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People. The then-recently released self-help book by Dale Carnegie is still a popular seller today. The book makes a dramatic impact on Donna. Leading an incredibly successful career of winning the right kind of friends and influencing large audiences of people.

Due to the influence of Dale Carnegie’s words, Donna comes out near the top of her graduating class. The teacher gives her a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People to go to work on the Manhattan Project, developing the atom bomb.

Donna acts in a play during her high school, resulting in compassion that transcends into her adulthood. She performs on stage while attending Los Angeles City College, and to California from Iowa hoping of becoming an actress. Later in her college career, the young star began avidly screen testing with studios, eventually landing a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Before starting work in Hollywood, though, Donna said she needed to finish her college education. After receiving her associate degree, she was officially an actress.

Donna’s film debut was the 1941 feature The Get-Away, in which she appeared alongside Robert Sterling. That same year, she plays a minor role in the feature Shadow of the Thin Man. The fourth of the six films in the Thin Man series. The next year, she featured in The Bugle Sounds, starring alongside actor Wallace Beery.

Donna works in films for MGM, one of her bigger roles alongside Mickey Rooney in 1943’s The Human Comedy. Donna had already worked alongside Mickey in 1942’s The Courtship of Andy Hardy, featuring Mickey’s popular Andy Hardy character.

As the 1940s went on, MGM became more and more confident about Donna’s innate star power. They begin giving her larger roles, in John Ford’s 1945 Western They Were Expendable, she appears alongside John Wayne. In 1947, Donna appears in the film The Beginning of the End, which chronicles the history of the atom bomb. The story for the film provides by the chemistry teacher that gives Donna How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Donna’s biggest role is when MGM lent her to fellow studio RKO Pictures for a part in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Donna casts as Mary Bailey, one of the film’s leads. That 1946 film is down in history as one of the dearest classics of its era. Becoming a Christmas staple for families around the world and celebrating a Golden Age classic that transcends its holiday origins. Although Donna’s role in the film celebrates, she claims the gig tough due to the strenuous demands of director Frank Capra.

Donna had another big hit back with MGM, appearing alongside Lana Turner in the 1947 feature Green Dolphin Street. Subsequently, Donna was once again lent out to another studio. This time, it was Paramount. Donna appeared in Paramount’s 1948 feature Beyond Glory alongside Alan Ladd, as well as the 1949 film noir Chicago Deadline. Donna recalls expressing the need to her agent for more noteworthy roles later that same year.

By 1950, Donna’s contract with MGM had run its course. She tasks with finding a new studio to partner with, eventually deciding on Columbia. Her first job with Columbia was to appear alongside star John Derek in a pair of films, those being 1951’s Saturday’s Hero and 1952’s Scandal Sheet. Later in 1952, she played a love interest to Randolph Scott in the film Hangman’s Knot.

In 1953, Donna had one of her biggest critical successes yet when she appeared in the World War II film From Her to Eternity. Donna received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress at that year’s ceremony. Despite this victory, Donna was still unhappy with the overall quality of the roles she was receiving, and wouldn’t be until years later. If you’re enjoying this video so far, be sure to hit the like button to show your support! As well, subscribe to the channel if you’d like to be among the first to know when more Facts Verse videos are on their way!

Not entirely satisfied with her time working in cinema, Donna Reed began experimenting with roles on televisions during the 1950s. Eventually, she given her own show, 1958’s The Donna Reed Show. The show produced by Donna’s then-husband, a man by the name of Tony Owen. The show ran for eight seasons, ending it’s run in 1966. Over the course of it’s run, it became a massive success. Although Donna had certainly been a star before, The Donna Reed Show solidified her as a household name.

The Donna Reed Show revolved around the character of Donna Stone, played by Donna herself. Donna Stone was the wife of a pediatrician by the name of Alex. The couple had two children, a son named Jeff and a daughter named Mary. Donna loved experimenting with comedic performance on the program, something that few of her cinematic roles had allowed her to do. For this and other reasons, The Donna Reed Show gratified Donna in a way that nothing in her career had previously.

After The Donna Reed Show came to an end in 1966, Donna took some time off to focus on her real family. She still married to Tony Owen at the time, and the couple had four children. Donna and Tony later divorced in 1971, and Donna headed back into the acting game.

After some minor acting gigs, Donna given a fairly prominent role when she invited onto the already-established CBS soap opera Dallas. Dallas had already been on the air for several years when Donna hired on to replace lead actress Barbara Bel Gedes as the character of Miss Ellie Ewing.

Donna was hired onto Dallas with a three-year contract, but was fired only a year into her tenure so that Barbara could step back into the role. Given that this was technically a breach of contract, Donna took the producers of Dallas to court. Although Donna sued for an exuberant sum of $7.5 million, she settled for $1 million. However, Donna had more serious problems coming up around the corner.

On December 10, 1965, Donna underwent surgery for some bleeding ulcers. While the doctors were performing the surgery, they noticed something else that required their attention. What the doctors found was that Donna was suffering from pancreatic cancer. Donna was released from the hospital a few weeks later, on Christmas Eve. Less than a month later, she was pronounced dead.

A few days before her death, Donna was told that her friend Howard Keel had been hospitalized in order to undergo an emergency double-bypass surgery. Donna had met Howard on the set of Dallas, where Howard had played her on-screen husband. Donna was concerned about her friend, so she sent him a potted plant and gave him a call on the phone. Legend has it that Donna was so worried about Howard during their lengthy conversation that she neglected to mention that she was on her deathbed herself.

Tony Owen was Donna’s second husband. She had been married previously to a man by the name of William J. Tuttle for two years. After Tony, Donna got married a third time to a many by the name of Grover Asmus. Grover was a retired Army Colonel, and he was the one sitting by Donna’s side when she passed away. Donna’s date of death was January 14, 1986, and she was 64 years old.

A year after Donna’s death, Grover and several of Donna’s closest friends and associates founded the Donna Reed Foundation for the Performing Arts. This non-profit organization works to grant scholarships to performing arts students who might not otherwise get the opportunity to make it in the industry. The foundation operates out of Reed’s hometown of Denison, Iowa, which also hosts an annual festival in tribute to the Hollywood legend it birthed.

Nowadays, Donna’s star shines almost as brightly as it did during the peak of her fame. Families around the world still tune in to watch It’s a Wonderful Life each Christmas, and new audiences are still finding out about her memorable comedic turn in The Donna Reed Show. Although the actress suffered through a tumultuous lawsuit and cancer during her final years, she led an incredible life, and left an impressive legacy behind.


Donna Reed had many more film and television roles then we were able to mention in this video. Comment down below if you’re a big fan of a role of Donna’s that went unmentioned, or if you were a fan of Donna’s comedic work on The Donna Reed Show. As always, like this video to show your support, and subscribe and hit the notification bell if you’d like to be among the first to know when more Facts Verse videos are on their way!

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