Elinor Donahue's mother, a theatrical costumer, moonlighted as a department store saleswoman in order to pay for her daughter's dancing lessons. Appearing in dancing-chorus film roles from the age of five, Donahue was at one point a ballet-school classmate of future Fred Astaire partner Barrie Chase. Striking out on her own at 12, Donahue attained work as a Las Vegas showgirl at 14; the fact that she was underage was discreetly covered by her agent and her co-workers, who took a paternal interest in the impressionable young dancer's career. Breaking her ankle at 16, Donahue decided to forego dancing in favor of acting; she was almost immediately cast in the role of sensitive teenager Betty Anderson in the long-running (1954-60) sitcom Father Knows Best. It was the first of many TV stints for Donahue; over the next three decades she would appear as a regular on such series as The Andy Griffith Show, Many Happy Returns, The Odd Couple, Mulligan's Stew, Please Stand By and Doctor's Private Lives. She became a special favorite of writer/director Savage Steve Holland, who cast Donahue as the ditsy mother of a teen-aged secret agent on the 1987 Fox network series The New Adventures of Beans Baxter, and as the voice of a suburban mom who spends her waking hours trying to learn an indecipherable foreign language on Holland's cartoon series Eek! The Cat. This fey, eccentric quality was carried over into Donahue's performance as the eternally bathrobe-clad wife of Bob Elliot and mother of 30-year-old paperboy Chris Elliot on the 1990 Fox sitcom Get a Life. Donahue's film appearances have been less frequent; when she showed up in a cameo as a department store clerk in Gary Marshall's Pretty Women (1987), there was an audible appreciative sigh of recognition from movie audiences everywhere. Elinor Donahue was the wife of Columbia TV executive Harry Ackerman from 1961 to Ackerman's death in 1991.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- Performed on radio at age 2 and was signed as a singer and dancer by Universal Studios at age 5.
- Attended ballet school (Long's Private School) at the same time as future Fred Astaire partner Barrie Chase.
- Lied to a booking agent about her age (said 16 when she was 14) to ensure work as a chorus-line dancer.
- Confessed to her actual age when submitting an injury report for a broken ankle, which ironically freed her from vaudeville dancing to land her iconic role on Father Knows Best.
- Read for her role as mother to comedian Chris Elliott on Get a Life thinking that his character was a 12-year-old paperboy, not 30.
- Published In the Kitchen With Elinor Donahue in 1998, a collection of stories from a life in Hollywood, plus 150 of her recipes.