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Staying Power

July 28, 1996|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shelley Fabares is a rarity in Hollywood: a popular child star who has continued working as an adult actress, currently as co-star of ABC's "Coach." Though most viewers know the young Fabares as the wholesome Mary on the classic sitcom "The Donna Reed Show," she actually began acting at the ripe old age of 3 in such TV series as "Captain Midnight" and "Annie Oakley."

But while Fabares describes her experience as a child actress as "exquisite," she doesn't recommend show business for other children.

"The chances of a child coming through as I did ... the world is too hard," says Fabares. "On the other hand, I would always encourage children of mine if they wanted to be in school plays and dance and sing. But I wouldn't put them to work. It's very hard for me now when I work with kids. It's not my position to say anything [to the parents]. If they ask me my opinion, I will tell them to get out."

A lot of former child stars have difficulty as adults because they "didn't get to continue to work or weren't able to get jobs," says Fabares. "It leaves them feeling bitter and angry and like a failure. It's a terrifying thing to be perhaps 16 or 17 and feel like you are a failure and a has-been."

Ask Fabares, 52, why she has defied the odds and successfully made the arduous transition from child star to adult actress and she'll tell you it was luck and determination.

"I was, and continue to be, determined to have a good life, a grounded life and as an alive and growing and learning a life as possible," she says. "I was just incredibly lucky, and I have worked hard."

Adds Fabares: "One can't change one's life experience, but even if I could, I wouldn't change it because of all the wonderful things that have happened to me."

Those "wonderful things" include a stint on the 1958 "Mickey Mouse Club" serial "Annette"; playing Mary from 1958-63 on "The Donna Reed Show"; starring in the acclaimed 1971 TV movie "Brian's Song"; and being the only actress to appear opposite Elvis Presley in three films: 1965's "Girl Happy," 1966's "Clambake" and 1967's "Spinout."

" 'Girl Happy' was the best, but we had the most fun on 'Clambake,' " says the warm, friendly actress over lunch at the Bel Air Hotel. "We had fun on all three."

The only time Fabares questioned whether she wanted to make acting her life choice was when she was about 16.

"It was sort of a passing thing," she explains. "I had never asked myself if I wanted to do this. I guess it was during the time when kids that I had gone to school with earlier were talking about what they were going to study in college. But very quickly I said, 'No. I love doing this.' "

Fabares, though, did go through a rough spell in the late '60s where she didn't work for four years.

"People asked me what happened and I said, 'I have no idea.' It was, like, I went to bed on Tuesday having worked since I was 3. I got up Wednesday morning and didn't work for four years, went to bed Wednesday night after four years, got up and interviewed for a 'Mannix' episode and started working again. I think this business is very cyclical. You go through busy times and you go through dead times."

One of the guiding forces in her life, the actress says, was Donna Reed. "Donna was the most incredible woman," she says with much affection in her voice. "She was a woman of just enormous intelligence and integrity and compassion and curiosity. She was definitely a role model in my life. We ultimately became girlfriends, which was also wonderful."

Fabares says it was extremely difficult to leave "Donna Reed" while it was still on the air. (The series continued on ABC until 1966).

"We were truly a family," she says. "Up until that point in my life, it was the most difficult decision because I was totally happy there. But I was getting married. I really felt like I needed to sort of leave. ... I took a year to make up my mind. That's the year they introduced the story line [that] Mary was maybe going away to college or maybe going to stay home in Hilldale."

Each June for the past 10 years, Fabares has participated in the Donna Reed Festival in the late actress' hometown in Denison, Iowa. "We have the Donna Reed Foundation of the Performing Arts," she says. "Grover, who was her husband, is the president, and I'm the vice president. What we do is present a $10,000 scholarship to a young student who wants to pursue a career in the performing arts like Donna did. There are workshops and we teach acting, writing and musical comedy. It's open to the public."

Fabares is due to return to work soon on her ninth season on ABC's "Coach," in which she plays the wife of pro football coach Hayden Fox (Craig T. Nelson). This fall the series moves to a new day and time, Saturdays at 9 p.m.

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