Shelley Fabares had a birthday last week – as a gentleman I won’t specify which one. But she is someone I have always delighted in seeing on my television, and this occasion provides a perfect chance to share that sentiment.
As I wrote years ago about Brooke Bundy, it’s not a response that I can easily explain, nor do I feel the need to dissect and analyze it. Her smile makes me smile. Her voice reaches my eardrums like music. And though I know her primarily through the characters she has portrayed on TV for more than 30 years, I am absolutely certain that the real Shelley must be a kind and wonderful person.
Why do I think she’s a national treasure? Let me count the ways.
She Almost Saved The World On The Twilight Zone (1954)
The episode “Black Leather Jackets” doesn’t rank alongside top-tier TZ episodes like “Living Doll” and “Time Enough At Last,” but it’s unintentionally goofy enough to merit at least one viewing. Three alien teenagers in masks and black leather jackets ride into an unnamed town planing to poison every being on earth by dumping deadly bacteria into the water supply. And they would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for that meddling Shelley Fabares as Ellen, who catches the eye of one of the aliens. They fall in love, and live happily….no, unfortunately the invaders complete their mission and everyone dies. But at least she tried.
I’ve celebrated my affection for this Mickey Mouse Club serial before in this blog. To me it is one of the most ideal examples of what Comfort TV should be, not just because it features Shelley alongside Annette Funicello, Tim Considine, Roberta Shore and several of the original Mousketeers, but also because it costars several other familiar and always welcome presences in Mary Wickes and Richard Deacon and Doris Packer. Fabares plays the unfortunately-named Moselle Corey (if anyone out there knows anyone actually named Moselle, please let me know), one of the in-crowd teens who come to embrace newcomer Annette. Every tine I watch it I also happily remember how Annette and Shelley first met here, and remained close friends until Annette’s passing.
The Donna Reed Show (1958)
As Mary Stone, Shelley Fabares was the Marcia Brady of the 1950s: smart, popular, pretty, well behaved, and just a little full of herself. She and Donna Reed created one of the most supportive and likeable mother-daughter relationships on TV, and they looked so much alike some viewers probably believed they were actually related. Fabares left the series after its fifth season, and the show was never the same.
“Johnny Angel” (1962)
Shelley Fabares never aspired to be a singer, especially as she knew she wasn’t very good at it. But every TV series wanted its own Ricky Nelson after he began performing hits on The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet. So Shelly and her sitcom brother Paul Petersen were both ordered to cut a record, and Shelley sang “Johnny Angel” on a season four episode of The Donna Reed Show called “Donna’s Prima Donna.” The song reached #1 on the Billboard chart in March of 1962. I don’t know how anyone could watch this two-minute clip and not fall a little in love.
“The New Look” (1963)
In this Donna Reed episode, one of Mary’s boyfriends makes the mistake of trying to compliment her with the word “wholesome.” That sends Mary into a tailspin of self-doubt and a desire to change her goody-goody image. What follows is a dream sequence set at the neighborhood malt shop; Mary enters in a dazzling, form-fitting white dress, twirling a parasol and sporting a more sophisticated hairstyle. And all the boys who fell in love with her demure smile and button nose suddenly saw, for the first time, the Shelley Fabares that would catch Elvis’s eye just two years later. No one ever put sweet and sexy together with more potency.
She could make an Elvis movie almost watchable (1965-1967)
With the exception of Viva Las Vegas and a few select moments in King Creole and Jailhouse Rock, the Elvis Presley filmography is hardly more distinguished than that of Pauly Shore. But Shelly Fabares pops up as the love interest in three of the King’s standard B musicals – Girl Happy, Spinout, and Clambake – and now when I stumble across them on TCM I usually stick around for a while.
Brian’s Song (1971)
One of the most celebrated and beloved made-for-TV movies followed the friendship of Chicago Bears players Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) and Brian Piccolo (James Caan). Shelly Fabares plays Piccolo’s wife, Joy. It’s a smaller role but watch the scenes in which Joy listens with rapt attention to Brian while he tells stories over dinner, or how you can read her emotions as Brian tries to defy his terminal diagnosis with plans to play next season. They are small moments, but memorable ones.
One Day At a Time (1978)
As Francine Webster, Fabares engaged in an office rivalry with Ann Romano that unfolded over more than 30 episodes across five seasons. Granted, most of these happened after the series no longer resembled its “single mom raising two daughters” foundation, so they are not as well remembered as they should be. But it was fun to watch Shelley play someone nasty for a change – who knew she had that in her?
Highcliffe Manor (1979)
You can always separate the true Shelley Fabares fans from the average admirers by whether they actually sat through this short-lived send up of horror clichés and soap operas. If you’re in the right mood it can be fun to watch a game and talented cast try to salvage something out of substandard material.
Future generations will debate how this series lasted nine seasons, and will conclude it has less to do with star Craig T. Nelson, engaging as he was as college football coach Hayden Fox, and more to do with the folks around him. Second banana Jerry Van Dyke deserved some good TV karma after turning down the lead role in Gilligan’s Island for My Mother the Car. As news anchor Christine Armstrong, Fabares’s relationship with Nelson’s coach personified all the clichés of a refined lady dating a lunkhead, but there was chemistry there that delivered the goods. More important, it put Shelley in a class largely by herself; how many TV stars can claim memorable roles in the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s? That’s how you become a national treasure.