‘The Andy Griffith Show’: How Elinor Donahue Was Going Through ‘Turmoil’ When Joining Show

by Suzanne Halliburton
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Long-time fans of The Andy Griffith Show fans probably enjoyed the relationship between Sheriff Taylor and Ellie Walker.

But there was a reason that Andy didn’t have Ellie in his life for long. Elinor Donahue, who portrayed Ellie, wanted off the show almost immediately. She needed to take a break for her emotional health.

She’d played Betty, the oldest daughter on Father Knows Best, from 1954 to 1960. Then came her three-year contract with The Andy Griffith Show. It’s difficult to go from one series to another, especially in the early days of network television.

“I did 11 episodes, just there for the first season,” Donahue said in a 2006 interview with the Archive of American Television. “I had a three-year contract. When we’d taken a break for the hiatus, I asked to be let out of the contract.”

“I was going through some personal problems at the time and I needed some time,” she added. “I’d gone directly from Father Knows Best to having a couple of months of turmoil in my personal life that was not settled at all. It was an ongoing whirlwind. And then went right into [The Andy Griffith Show]. I was exhausted.”

Cast of Father Knows Best (Photo by NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images)

As Andy Griffith Show Started Donahue’s Marriage Ended

As The Andy Griffith Show started, Donahue and her husband, Richard Smith, were divorcing. She married Harry Ackerman in 1962. As a producer, he dominated early television. Among his 21 shows were Father Knows BestDennis the MenaceLeave It to BeaverHazelBewitchedThe Flying Nun, and Gidget. The two were married for almost 30 years when he died in 1991.

Donahue played a strong female role on The Andy Griffith Show. She was a pharmacist who helped her uncle. Sheriff Andy liked to call her the “lady pharmacist.” Ellie even ran for City Council. Andy talked to some of his friends who were reluctant to vote for a woman (this was 1960, after all). And Ellie won the seat.

In The Andy Griffith Show’s only Christmas episode, Ellie and Andy sang a duet, Away in the Manger. Plus, the two helped bring Barney and Thelma Lou, together. Betty Lynn, who portrayed Thelma Lou, died earlier this month at age 95.

Still, Donahue said she didn’t feel right on the show. In other interviews, she said she didn’t share much on-screen chemistry with Andy Griffith.

“But the truth is,” Donahue told Fox News in 2018. “I felt like a bird out of a nest. I didn’t feel like I had all my feathers yet and I didn’t feel capable. It was the strangest feeling.”

Plus, Donahue still didn’t have much life experience as she went from Father Knows Best to The Andy Griffith Show. After all, she was only 23 when he agreed to the three-year contract as Ellie.

She’s listed as being in 12 episodes. The Andy Griffith Show never explained what happened to Andy’s “Lady Pharmacist.” Welcome to early network television.

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