Reed is probably most widely known for her work in television, notably as Donna Stone, a middle-class American mother and housewife in the sitcom The Donna Reed Show (1958–66), in which her character was more assertive than most other television mothers of the era. She received numerous Emmy Award nominations for this role and the Golden Globe Award for Best TV Star in 1963. Later in her career, Reed replaced Barbara Bel Geddes as Miss Ellie Ewing in the 1984–85 season of the television melodrama, Dallas; she sued the production company for breach of contract when she was abruptly fired upon Bel Geddes' decision to return to the show.
Reed was born Donna Belle Mullenger on a farm near Denison, Iowa, the daughter of Hazel Jane (née Shives; July 16, 1899 – July 17, 1975) and William Richard Mullenger (July 4, 1893 – July 15, 1981). The eldest of five children, she was raised as a Methodist. In 1936, while she was a sophomore at Denison (Iowa) High School, her chemistry teacher Edward Tompkins gave her the book How to Win Friends and Influence People. The book is said to have greatly influenced her life. Upon reading it she won the lead in the school play, was voted Campus Queen and was in the top 10 of the 1938 graduating class. Tompkins went on to work on the Manhattan Project. After graduating from Denison High School, Reed planned to become a teacher, but was unable to pay for college. She decided to move to California to attend Los Angeles City College on the advice of her aunt. While attending college, she performed in various stage productions but had no plans to become an actress. After receiving several offers to screen test for studios, Reed eventually signed with MGM, but insisted on finishing her education first.
In 1941 after signing with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Reed made her film debut in The Get-Away opposite Robert Sterling; she was billed as Donna Adams. MGM soon changed her name to Donna Reed, as there was anti-German feeling during World War II. She starred in The Courtship of Andy Hardy and had a supporting role with Edward Arnold in Eyes in the Night (1942). In 1943, she appeared in The Human Comedy with Mickey Rooney, and in They Were Expendable in 1945.
Her "girl-next-door" good looks and warm onstage personality made her a popular pin-up for many GIs during World War II. She personally answered letters from many GIs serving overseas.
In 1945, Reed struggled with an English accent and with a passive, underwritten role as Gladys Hallward in the first cinema adaptation of the Oscar Wilde novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
In 1946, Reed collaborated with her Denison High school chemistry teacher Edward R. Tompkins (who as noted above went on to work on the Manhattan Project) on the 1947 MGM film The Beginning or the End, which dealt with the history and concerns of the atom bomb.
In 1946, she was lent to RKO Pictures for the role of Mary Bailey in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. The film has since been named as one of the 100 best American films ever made by the American Film Institute and is regularly aired on television during the Christmas season.
Following the release of It's a Wonderful Life, Reed appeared in Green Dolphin Street (1947) with Lana Turner and Van Heflin. In 1949 she expressed a desire for better roles. Several years later, she performed in Scandal Sheet (1952).
In 1953, Reed played the role of Alma "Lorene" Burke, girlfriend of Montgomery Clift's character, in the World War II drama From Here to Eternity. The role earned Reed an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for 1953.
From 1958 to 1966, Reed starred in The Donna Reed Show, a television series produced by her then-husband, Tony Owen. The show featured her as Donna Stone, the wife of pediatrician Alex Stone (Carl Betz) and mother of Jeff (Paul Petersen) and Mary Stone (Shelley Fabares). The show ran for eight seasons on ABC. Reed won a Golden Globe Award and earned four Emmy Award nominations for her work on the series.
Reed described her show as "[...] a realistic picture of small town life with an often humorous twist. Our plots revolve around the most important thing in America—a loving family." In the show, Reed's character, Donna Stone, is a loving mother and wife, but also a strong, smart woman with feelings and a sense of humor. But some feminists criticized the show, asserting that it promoted submissiveness among housewives. In a 1979 interview, Reed, who had raised four children, responded, "I played a strong woman who could manage her family. That was offensive to a lot of people." In a 1984 television interview, Reed said of her show, "I felt that I was making, for women, a statement. This mother was not stupid. She wasn't domineering, but she was bright and I thought rather forward-thinking, happily married."
In a 2008 interview, Paul Petersen (who played her son Jeff Stone in the series) said,
"That's what the show was really about, the importance of family. That's where life's lessons are transmitted, generation to generation. There's a certain way in which these are transmitted, with love and affection." Petersen also stated that "[The Donna Reed Show] depicts a better time and place. It has a sort of level of intelligence and professionalism that is sadly lacking in current entertainment products. The messages it sent out were positive and uplifting. The folks you saw were likable, the family was fun, the situations were familiar to people. It provided 22-and-a-half-minutes of moral instruction and advice on how to deal with the little dilemmas of life."
When The Donna Reed Show ended its run in 1966, Reed took time off from acting to concentrate on raising her children and engaging in political activism. She returned to acting in the 1970s, appearing in various guest spots in television series and television movies.
In the 1984–85 season of the television series Dallas, Reed replaced Barbara Bel Geddes as Miss Ellie Ewing. Of the show, Reed explained in a 1984 interview,
One of the main reasons Dallas is successful is the family. They all stick together. They may squabble, but they pull for one another and live under one roof, which is really tribal, and it's not true anymore! And I think deep down, everyone misses that.
When Bel Geddes agreed to return to the role for the 1985–86 season, Reed was abruptly fired. Reed failed in attempts to stop the 1985–86 season from going into production while she tried to get reinstated in the role of Miss Ellie. She sued for breach of contract, later settling out of court for over $1 million.
From 1943 to 1945, Reed was married to make-up artist William Tuttle. After they divorced, in 1945 she married producer Tony Owen (b. 1907–d.1984). They raised four children together: Penny Jane, Anthony, Timothy, and Mary Anne (the two older children were adopted). After 26 years of marriage, Reed and Owen divorced in 1971.
Three years later, Reed married Grover W. Asmus, a retired United States Army colonel. They remained married until her death in 1986.
Reed, who was a registered Republican, was interested in politics. Her interest was piqued during the Vietnam War when she became concerned that her oldest son, Tony, might be drafted. In 1967, Reed became a peace activist and co-chaired the anti-war advocacy group, Another Mother for Peace. The group's slogan was, "War is not healthy for children and other living things." In a 1971 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Reed said, "In the beginning, we felt [Tony] should serve his country in a noncombatant role. But he wouldn't even accept that, feeling the whole thing was immoral. He didn't trust the government or the military. I've learned a lot from Tony."
In addition to opposing the Vietnam War, Reed also opposed nuclear power plants. She supported Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy from Minnesota in the 1968 presidential election. He was a strong anti-war advocate.
Donna Reed died of pancreatic cancer in Beverly Hills, California, on January 14, 1986, 13 days shy of her 65th birthday. She had been diagnosed with the illness three months earlier and told it was at a terminal stage. Her remains are interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.In 1987, Grover Asmus (Reed's widower), actresses Shelley Fabares and Norma Connolly, and numerous friends, associates, and family members created the Donna Reed Foundation for the Performing Arts. Based in Reed's hometown of Denison, the non-profit organization grants scholarships for performing arts students, runs an annual festival of performing arts workshops, and operates the Donna Reed Center for the Performing Arts.
Denison hosts an annual Donna Reed Festival. Reed's childhood home was located on Donna Reed Drive in Denison but was destroyed by a fire in 1983. Reed's Academy Award is on display at the W. A. McHenry Museum in Denison.
Donna Reed has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1610 Vine Street.
In May 2010, Turner Classic Movies honored Reed as their star of the month which saw Mary Owen pay a special tribute to her mother.
In a 2011 article, actress Shelley Fabares (who played Mary Stone on The Donna Reed Show) wrote,
[Donna Reed] definitely became my second mother. She was a role model and remains so to this day. I still periodically hear her voice in my head when I am making a decision about doing something, I hear her urging me on to make the stronger decision of the two. I just adored her.
Fabares also described Reed as "a real Iowa girl. There is a bedrock decency to people in the Midwest. They are thoughtful and ready to help you if something needs to be done. She never lost that Midwest girl."