A reliable featured player and occasional co-star, actress Jeff Donnell was born Jean Marie Donnell in a boy’s reformatory in South Windham, Maine in 1921. The younger of two daughters, her father (Howard) was a penologist and mother (Mildred) a schoolteacher. Raised in Maryland, she took piano and dance lessons while growing up. It was during her upbringing that she fixated on the popular “Mutt and Jeff” cartoon strip and gave herself the nickname “Jeff”.
Studying at one time at the Yale School of Drama and performing briefly in summer stock, Jeff met her first husband, Bill Anderson, a drama teacher from her old Boston alma mater Leland Powers Drama School, and quickly married him at the young age of 19. Together they started the Farragut Playhouse in Rye, New Hampshire. Almost immediately she was noticed in a play there by a Columbia Studios talent scout and was signed.
Whisked to Los Angeles, Jeff made her first appearance in the war-era movie My Sister Eileen (1942) while husband Bill was hired on as a dialogue director. Hardly the chic, glamour girl type, Jeff possessed a perky, unpretentious, tomboyish quality that worked comfortably in unchallenging “B” escapism — usually the breezy girlfriend or spirited bobbysoxer. Typical of her movie load at the time were the fun but innocuous Doughboys in Ireland (1943), What’s Buzzin’, Cousin? (1943), Nine Girls (1944), A Thousand and One Nights (1945), Carolina Blues (1944) and Eadie Was a Lady (1945). She also enlivened a number of musical westerns that prominently featured Ken Curtis (Festus of “Gunsmoke”).
On a rare occasion, Jeff found herself in “A” pictures, most notably the Bogart film noir classic In a Lonely Place (1950), but more often than not she played the obliging or supportive friend of the leading lady. Unable to break away from her established “B” ranking, she later tried a move to RKO Studios (1949) but fared no better or worse. She did make a successful move to TV in the early 50s and was seen in a number of comedy and dramatic parts.
Long separated from and finally divorcing her first husband in 1953 (they had one son, Michael, and an adopted daughter, Sarah Jane), she married actor Aldo Ray, who was an up-and-rising film star at the time, in 1954 but the marriage crumbled within two years, beset by drinking problems. She also suffered a miscarriage during that marriage. Jeff went on to marry and divorce two more times. As the 1950s rolled on she earned steady work on TV bringing to life comedian George Gobel’s often-mentioned wife Alice on the sitcom The George Gobel Show (1954) for four seasons. She also had the opportunity to play Gidget’s mom in a couple of the popular lightweight movies of the early 1960s — Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961) and Gidget Goes to Rome (1963).
Most daytime fans will remember Jeff’s long-running stint on the soap drama General Hospital (1963) as Stella Fields, the Quartermain housekeeper, which started in 1979 and lasted until her death in 1988. Dogged by ill health in later years (including a serious bout with Addison’s disease), Jeff died peacefully of a heart attack in her sleep at age 66.
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