My Dad

The Donna Reed Show premiered September 24, 1958 on ABC-TV and it just couldn't miss. The precedent for family comedies had been set with series like Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver, but this show eclipsed the others in one respect with Oscar-winning movie star Reed in the central role of housewife Donna Stone. Another previously-established sitcom, ABC's The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, had begun giving teenage fans a reason not to miss each week's installment in case Ricky Nelson opted to sing, which he often did; Ricky's recordings made him one of the most successful music stars of the era and the series received a welcome spike in ratings. So once Reed's show had settled in as must-see Thursday (originally Wednesday) night fare for millions, producer Tony Owen, who happened to be Donna's hubby, figured he could double the musical benefits of having potential teen idols right there in his cast.

Shelley Fabares played Mary Stone, older sister to Jeff, portrayed by William Paul Petersen (who omitted his first name in favor of an alliterative professional moniker). At the time the show premiered, the 13-year-old had already built up an impressive Hollywood resumé. Born in Glendale, California, Paul had spent the better part of a decade on a farm in Cherokee County, Iowa, before his family (including older sister Pamela and younger sister Patty) returned to the Los Angeles area. At this time he auditioned for, and won, a spot on Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse Club. Production on the influential afternoon children's program began in mid-1955 prior to its debut in October. Paul's Mouseketeer stint lasted only a few weeks; fans might have missed him if they'd blinked.

Being cut from a big show is sometimes a blessing. Petersen appeared in an episode of The Ford Television Theatre (Black Jim Hawk, October 1956) and made a brief appearance in another chapter of the anthology series a few months later. He even had a part in Along the Oregon Trail on Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color in November '56, suggesting Uncle Walt really did like the kid. Other small roles surfaced; he was in a George Sanders Mystery Theater teleplay in June '57 titled Man in the Elevator and had uncredited bit parts in the movies This Could Be the Night, The Monolith Monsters and Day of the Badman. His most prominent pre-Reed role came in a top-tier Paramount production, Houseboat, starring Cary Grant and Sophia Loren. Then he moved with the Stone family into living rooms and dens across America, where he remained for the next eight years and 275 episodes.

As the fourth season began in 1961, producer Owen, wishing to take full advantage of the show's association with Colpix Records (a subsidiary of parent company Screen Gems, a division of Columbia Pictures), decided Shelley and Paul would follow the path set by Nelson (turns out 15-year-old Johnny Crawford of The Rifleman, a western drama on ABC, had recently made a similar move). First, Owen booked label star James Darren for a guest shot on the season premiere singing "Goodbye Cruel World," an alternate version of a song that shortly afterwards became a major hit. Then Tony informed 17-year-old Fabares and 16-year-old Petersen that they would be making records and performing them on the show. Shelley, who felt she had a terrible voice, was panic-stricken, while Paul was a little more open to the idea. Several recordings were made under the direction of producer-arranger Stu Phillips and in early 1962 the soon-to-be singing sensations were introduced to the world of top 40 radio, in-person performances and teenage mayhem.

Paul Petersen

"She Can't Find Her Keys," a nonsense novelty penned by Roy Alfred ("The Hucklebuck" perhaps his best-known song) and Wally Gold (a frequent contributor to Elvis Presley's and other top stars' hit streaks), had been recorded in the first person as "I Can't Find My Keys" by singer-model-radio hostess Bet E. Martin for Epic Records in 1960. The song's lyrics suggested Paul's girlfriend carried a bevy of heavy items in her purse ('...lipstick, powder, bubble gum and bobby pins' for starters, '...frozen custard, piano bench, pretzels and a monkey wrench...watermelons, goal post, a rabbit's foot and French hydrant, ash can, TV set, electric fan')...yet she had no way to get inside the house! The scene was staged on the January 18, 1962 Donna Reed episode titled For Angie With Love and the single went top 20 in late April. The flip, a Paul-and-Shelley duet titled "Very Unlikely," appeared again as the B side of "What Did They Do Before Rock and Roll," a playful (and pretty bad) put-down of the previous generation's music, with a reversed Shelley-and-Paul label credit. Shelley's "Johnny Angel" had topped the charts by this time and the two henceforth recorded separately, though in the same teen genre...until the situation inevitably changed.

"Keep Your Love Locked (Deep in Your Heart)," a Carole King-Gerry Goffin romancer, was featured on the May 17 installment, The Swingin' Set, and made a respectable mid-chart showing that summer. Albums hit the market by both TV siblings in addition to a compilation LP, Teenage Triangle, which threw 25-year-old James Darren into the mix. Paul's youthful cover of songwriter Tony Velona's "Lollipops and Roses" came a few months after Jack Jones' more conventional pop version and actually went higher on the charts, though the song has always been strongly associated with Jones. Still on the horizon: Petersen's biggest hit, a Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil ballad that targeted the heartstrings.

Colpix released "My Dad" in the fall of 1962 to coincide with a tear-inducing same-titled October 25 episode. TV dad Dr. Alex Stone (played by Carl Betz) was visibly moved by Paul's performance (which differed from the recorded version); lyrics like ' me he is everything strong, no, he can't do wrong...' similarly affected viewers. The single reached the top ten in January 1963 and did even better on the Easy Listening chart (then called Middle-Road Singles), peaking at number two. Another Mann-Weil tune, "Amy," had a brief run in the spring, as did "The Cheer Leader" at the end of the year. Right after that, Paul did "She Rides With Me," a Brian Wilson-Roger Christian car tune produced by Wilson in an obvious Beach Boys style. The TV series, meanwhile, underwent some changes: Paul's little sis, Patty, had joined the cast in January '63 (at age eight) playing adopted daughter Trisha and remained until the sitcom's run ended. Shelley Fabares became a part-time player and departed in late 1964.

There were many opportunities for Paul to take on small parts in other series including General Hospital, The Virginian and F Troop, plus post-Reed Show guest shots on Iron Horse, Mannix, The Flying Nun, My Three Sons, Lassie and several others as well as film roles (A Time For Killing, Disney's The Happiest Millionaire, Journey to Shiloh and TV movies Gidget Grows Up and Something for a Lonely Man). In 1967, his Colpix contract more than a year behind him, Paul signed with Motown Records. Working with producer-composer Frank Wilson, he turned in a surprisingly strong performance on "Chained" (better known by Marvin Gaye, who scored a hit with it a year later). R. Dean Taylor's "A Little Bit for Sandy" was his second and final Motown release in the summer of 1968.

Paul didn't make any more records, but continued working in television and films and has been involved with several charities while enjoying other pursuits. A sports car enthusiast, he owned and occasionally raced a 1964 Shelby Cobra with a high-powered Ford 289 engine. Building on an interest in writing fiction (he'd written a December 1965 Donna Reed Show episode, Never Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth), Paul Petersen created the action/detective character Eric Saveman for his 1974 novel The Smugglers, followed by seven sequels (under the heading The Smuggler), all published by Pocket Books.

- Michael Jack Kirby


My Dad