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Interview with The Donna Reed Show’s Paul Petersen

July 2nd, 2009 by Rebecca Harper Editor

Earlier this week, we added Season 1 of the now-classic Donna Reed Show to celebrate the Hulu Days of Summer. The show, which started its eight-season run in 1958 revolved around Donna Stone (Donna Reed) and her family: pediatrician Alex Stone (Carl Betz), daughter Mary (Shelley Fabares) and son Jeff (Paul Petersen). The embodiment of the perfect 1950s housewife, Donna was always good-natured, thoughtful and unflappable, no matter what came her way — even when the kids throw a party when mom and dad aren’t home. Below, Pete Petersen, who played the pesky youngest son, Jeff, tells Hulu about his experiences on the show. — Rebecca Harper (), Editor

Hulu: You were 13 when you took the role of Jeff Stone on The Donna Reed Show.
Paul Petersen:
We started in 1958. I had my thirteenth birthday just as we got started.

How did you get the part?
I had worked quite a bit in some pretty high-profile projects before The Donna Reed Show, movies like Houseboat with Cary Grant and Sophia Lauren, and some pretty big TV shows like Playhouse 90. Donna Reed was aware of my work, and I had worked at Columbia Pictures before. So when I came in to read for the part, they knew my work and had confidence in me. As it happened, they had five boys and five girls that they wanted to cast, and Shelley Fabares and I were hooked up, and we had the brother-sister act down. So we won the parts and went on from there.

What’s it like having a renewed interest in the show — for instance, seeing it on Hulu?
I love it. First of all, I’m very proud of the show. All eight seasons deserve their reputation as classic television. And frankly, just because of the impact on the culture, I enjoy having people watch these shows to see how good television used to be.

Do you have any fun memories from the first season?
Of course. It was a great beginning. A lot of my memories are of in-between times. I loved doing the show because I had a delicious part. Playing the pesky little brother was me, was exactly me. The dialogue was crisp, I was working with smart and talented people, and it wasn’t hard work. It was fun. Establishing what amounted to a lifetime relationship with Donna Reed, Carl Betz and Shelley Fabares, was really one of the most enjoyable aspects of the work.

And was Donna Reed as perfect in real life as she was on television?
Well I won’t call her perfect, but she was a most interesting gal. I’ll tell you a quick story about my first day: My grandfather, Burr Jones Luce, was also born in Iowa, as was Donna Reed. But of course, he was quite a bit older than she. He insisted on taking me to work my first day, and he walked right up to Donna Reed — the star, the boss, the Academy Award winner — and he looked her right in the eye and said, “Donna Belle Mullenger, I knew your dad.” I was mortified, of course, but Donna, who was in fact born Donna Belle Mullenger in a small town in Iowa, just loved it. It was home; it was “Oh good, I’ve got an Iowa kid here.”

What are you up to these days?
I run a foundation of former kid stars called A Minor Consideration. That pretty much occupies my life, although the second part of this is my work with seniors across the country. I take this stuff very seriously and get a lot enjoyment and satisfaction out of the work.

What are you doing with seniors?
I actually have a television show here in Los Angeles, called Aging in L.A. for the Department of Aging. That work, it’s just an extension of the work I do for children because the stereotypes that attach to seniors are very much in evidence when I work with them. There are a lot of issues this society needs to address — there are 80 million baby boomers. They started turning 60 in January 2006, and there’s a boomer turning 60 every seven seconds.

And one last question, which episodes from Season 1 are your favorites?
The boxing lesson [“Pardon My Gloves“] is probably No. 1, but the Christmas show with Buster Keaton is probably No. 2.

Last comment: Mar 4th 2014 4 Comments
  • Gee,Paul..I always loved your character and You from the Donna Reed Show.I never really knew that we were exactly the same age until now. I was 13 in 1958,as well..Oct.31 is my birthday.I wish I lived in L.A. I would help you and your organization.I have worked with folks with special needs for the last 23 years!Shelly Fabares was my favorite star of her age group. I still have the 45RPM record,Johnny Angel.that I bought way back when I was 16.Feel free to E-mail me .any time. I help Seniors a lot at the store where I currently work.

  • Can you please give me contact info for Paul and his show related to seniors. I do programs for seniors and I show two segments of him singing My Dad – as a boy and as an adult. The residents love it and there isn’t a dry eye after we watch it.

  • nancy mccormack says:

    what season was it that you sang my dad

  • CatieB says:

    Thanks for the interview. I have read a bit on Paul, and admire his convictions and work with children and seniors.
    He was great as a young actor. I enjoy his exaggerated expressions and how he puts up with everyone. He played a very cagey, knew his mom’s number happy boy. I love it when he is “working his angle” trying to get something out of his parents.
    I wondered if he misses acting at all, or if he was glad to leave acting behind. did he say?