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A Few Words About Shelley Fabares, by Bill Wolfe

Shelley_Fabares_at_the_1991_Emmy_Awards_cropped

Shelley Fabares at the 1991 Emmy Awards; photo by Alan Light

In the world of TV, the numbers 10 and 200 interest me. When an actor manages to accumulate 10 seasons and 200 episodes as a lead in one or more TV shows, I think there’s almost always something interesting, something worth figuring out, about that performer.

For example, James Garner’s conman with a conscience resonated with weekly audiences from the start of Ike’s second term in 1957 through most of JFK’s New Frontier in 60 episodes of Maverick, returned briefly in slightly seedier garb for 24 episodes of Nichols in 1971-72, and reached its fullest expression in 122 episodes of The Rockford Files, beginning a few months before Nixon’s resignation in 1974 and concluding a few months before Reagan’s election in 1980.

Bob Newhart’s bemused Everyman, by turns patient and exasperated, tried to bring reason to a stubbornly illogical world through 142 episodes and seven seasons of The Bob Newhart Show across the heart of the Me Decade, from 1972 to 1978, and again for 184 episodes and eight seasons of Newhart, running the length of the Reagan Era, from 1982 to 1990.

Today, David Boreanaz is starting his eleventh season on Bones (215 episodes and counting) as ex-sniper turned FBI agent Seeley Booth, a wounded, haunted romantic driven by a need to do what’s right. This follows his eight seasons and 167 episodes of playing a vampire with a soul—in other words, a wounded, haunted romantic driven by a need to do what’s right—on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, from 1997 through 2004.This persona, I would suggest, is a representative citizen of an era which has witnessed the incipient Decline of the American Empire.

So how does Shelley Fabares figure in this discussion? Let’s start with a look at her two biggest credits: Donna Reed’s daughter on The Donna Reed Show for 191 episodes from 1958 through 1963, and Craig T. Nelson’s love interest for nine seasons and 198 episodes on Coach, from 1989 through 1997. Before, during, and after the 26-year gap between her two most famous roles, she managed to accrue an interesting album of pop culture snap shots which, taken as a whole, tell a kind of story—as these albums sometimes do.

She was born, if not in a trunk, then trunk-adjacent, as Nanette Fabray’s niece in Santa Monica, California in 1944. One of her first movie credits was Rock, Pretty Baby (1957), with a cast that included Sal Mineo, Fay Wray, Edward Platt, and Rod McKuen, a mélange that managed to connect James Dean, King Kong, and Maxwell Smart (all of whom presumably were reading Listen to the Warm).

In 1962, during The Donna Reed Show‘s fourth season, Shelley had a #1 hit single with “Johnny Angel,” which remains an appealing and illuminating expression of its era’s concept of romance. In movies, she played the love interest opposite a string of pop idols of varying caliber, including Fabian in Ride the Wild Surf (1964), Peter Noone, a.k.a. Herman of Herman’s Hermits, in Hold On! (1965), and Elvis Presley in Girl Happy (1965), Spinout (1966), and Clambake (1967).

She also racked up the usual list of credits acquired by anyone who’s trying to earn a living in show biz: three episodes apiece on Love American Style, Mork and Mindy, The Love Boat, and Hello, Larry; four episodes on Fantasy Island; guest spots on shows starring Raymond Burr, James Franciscus, Buddy Ebsen, Tony Franciosa, and Robert Urich. Two seasons as the daughter on The Brian Keith Show (1972-74, 47 episodes). One season on a failed Danny Thomas comeback vehicle (The Practice, 1976-77, 27 episodes). A quick six episodes of a show called Highcliffe Manor from 1979; it appears to have been an odd mix of Young Frankenstein and Rocky Horror, sans songs (how did this get on the air during the play-it-safe era of only three networks?) A recurring role over six seasons and 26 episodes on One Day at a Time (1978-84).

In real life, her best friend was Annette Funicello (she was there when Annette died of MS in 2013). She was married twice: from 1964 to 1980 to Lou Adler, arguably the biggest producer in the 1960s Los Angeles music scene (Jan & Dean, Mamas & Papas, Grass Roots, Carole King’s Tapestry album, as well as the first two Cheech & Chong movies—now he’s probably best known as the guy who sits next to Jack Nicholson at Lakers games), and from 1984 onward to Mike Farrell of MASH fame.

So why did Fabares connect with an audience over such a long time and—on two occasions, at least—in such a big way? Her role on The Donna Reed Show began one year after Betty Friedan started her research that would result in The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, the year Fabares exited the show. Her last credit came almost a half-century later, as the voice of Martha Kent in an animated Superman movie from 2006, when Hillary Clinton was gearing up for her first Presidential run. As they say on cop shows, I don’t believe in coincidence.

Although most of her roles were as someone’s daughter or love interest or mother, she managed to play supporting roles without seeming subservient. Watching Fabares on screen, I see a bright, lively, self-composed, and determined person. In her career, she took what was available to her, kept her sense of self, and managed to lend more intelligence and backbone to her work than could be expected, given the material she was provided. These are options and achievements that must have seemed familiar to most, if not all, of Fabares’ female viewers.

If she reflected the changing role of women, it was probably because she was a woman whose role was changing. Getting that across on screen, and doing so with level-headed good humor, created the connection with viewers that allowed her to rack up almost 500 episodes as a TV series regular. That’s an achievement worth remembering.

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One comment on “A Few Words About Shelley Fabares, by Bill Wolfe

  1. Thanks for your essay on Shelley Fabares. I saw her on the Donna Reed Show, but I never saw her in any other shows. Did not realize she had such a full career.

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