A Leisurely Look @ Shelley Fabares

Michele Anne Marie Fabares was born on January 19, 1944 in Santa Monica. “Shelley”‘s father, James, was born in Algiers, New Orleans and had a sister who would find fame in the 1950’s as Nanette Fabray; she is Shelley’s aunt. Shelley began acting at age 3 and by 10 she made her television debut on an episode of Letter to Loretta. She was 11 when she had the good fortune to appear alongside Frank Sinatra and Paul Newman in a television production of Our Town and early film roles included playing children in romance films like Never Say Goodbye (1956) and Marjorie Morningstar (1958).

Cute, pre-teen Twinkie is smart. She uses the closet as her private phone booth. © Universal-International

She also played pre-teen roles including that of “Twinkie” in the teen musicals Rock, Pretty Baby (1956) and it’s sequel Summer Love (1958). These two films and her role on TV in Annette (1958) were early indications of the direction her career would take. It was while working on the Disney program starring Annette Funicello that the two forged a friendship that lasted until the end of Annette’s life. Some kind soul has uploaded the whole Annette story to YouTube. See it here.

Shelley and Annette, 1963.

Also in 1958, Shell landed the role of Mary Stone on The Donna Reed Show, a sitcom that Oscar-winner Reed developed with her husband. Reed infused her character, Donna Stone, with many of her own strong and caring traits and the popular show was one of the first to feature a female main character. Like many young stars of the era, both Shelley and her TV brother, Paul Peterson, were expected to sing. Recently, Ricky Nelson had proved the break-out star of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet when he began his singing career on his dad’s show. While many young TV stars were shown to have negligible voices when put before the mic, Fabares proved to have a pleasing and gentle voice. On the episode titled “Donna’s Prima Donna” that aired February 1, 1962, Shelley debuted her song, “Johnny Angel”. The song, co-written in the same light vein by the man that gave the world “Catch a Falling Star” and “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”, had been recorded twice before Shelley essayed it.

Shelley debuts “Johnny Angel” on The Donna Reed Show. Co-starring James Stacy. Courtesy SuperCanopus and Sony Pictures Television.

The song had been recorded in the fall of the previous year and there was a stellar line-up of session musicians on hand. Darlene Love and her group The Blossoms sang back-up at the session and crack members of the Wrecking Crew added their professional touch. Drummer Hal Blaine and bassist Carol Kaye can add this to the scores of hit songs they played on and to them we can add a young guitarist name of Glen Campbell to the session notes. Interestingly, Shelley had no desire whatsoever to be a singer. Her slight voice was pleasant but delicate and fragile-sounding. She was not equipped to give a vigorous performance the likes of which her fellow singer on the track, Love, or a contemporary like Lesley Gore could provide. Despite her disinterest, the song was a big hit and ascended to the very top of Billboard’s singles chart in the spring of 1962. It stayed there two weeks; it was knocked out by “Good Luck Charm”, a tune by Shell’s future colleague, one Elvis Presley.

“Johnny Loves Me”, a tune written by Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, served as a sequel in which Shelley has landed her boy. In the summer of ’62, it peaked at #21 on the Pop charts and #7 on the nascent Adult Contemporary listings. “Johnny Angel” had been included on Shelley’s debut LP issued on the Colpix label entitled Shelley! The record was produced and arranged by maestro Stu Phillips who would later bless our ears with his Hollyridge Strings records. The songs Shelley was given to sing on her album ranged from light pop ditties like “Boy of My Own” and “Growing Up” to jauntily arranged standards like “Love Letters” (later recorded multiple times by Presley) and “True Love” (previously recorded by Presley!).

Shelley’s sophomore release was The Things We Did Last Summer, a quintessential teen pop album of the era. It features many delightfully rendered songs that the kids would eat up; “Vacation”, “Palisades Park”, “Sealed With a Kiss” and the like. But Shelley’s recording career was brief and consisted only of these two albums and a dozen singles. She would soon leave vocalizing and The Donna Reed Show in her rear view.

Shelley in Black Leather Jackets on The Twilight Zone. Courtesy syfy.com and CBS Television.

1964 was a break-out year of sorts for Fabares and her attempts to be accepted as a young woman were well received in Hollywood. In January of that year, she appeared in a typically striking episode of The Twilight Zone called Black Leather Jackets about three aliens who come to Earth disguised as a gang of youths. They run into trouble, though, when one of them falls for Shelley. Then near the end of February, she was in Hawaii to shoot her first film as a featured player and as a young woman.

Shelley had been cast in Ride the Wild Surf also starring Fabian, Tab Hunter, Peter Brown, Barbara Eden, Susan Hart and James Mitchum. For the film, Shelley dyed her hair a platinum blond in the hopes of promoting herself in a new light and signalling a break from her little-girl role on The Donna Reed Show.

Shelley, always pretty, looks particularly fetching in the film in which she plays Brie Matthews, a responsible young woman who helps Fabian to grow up and make a life for himself as opposed to lamenting his bad breaks and blaming others for his lack of prospects. The movie and promotional pictures show an attractive young blond in a bikini and helped to announce to the industry that Shelley was ready to take on new roles.

In October of 1962, when she was 18, Shelley started dating record producer Lou Adler. Having worked often with Jan & Dean, Adler was able to help broker a deal that connected the duo with Ride the Wild Surf – they were supposed to star but ended up just providing the stellar title track – and additionally Adler was instrumental in getting Shelley the lead role of Brie.

On June 7th, 1964, Shelley married Adler; she was 20, he was 30 and it was the first marriage for both. The wedding was an affair of some glamour. Among the bridesmaids was Shelley’s good friend Annette Funicello and one of the groomsmen was Jan Berry of Jan & Dean. The bride’s party was dressed in cool mint green and guests at the ceremony at the Bel Air Hotel included Herb Alpert, Lou Rawls and a band lead by Sam Cooke and featuring Johnny Rivers, Crickets’ drummer Jerry Allison and Phil Everly, who also stood up for Adler. (For a look at an interesting pictorial of Shelley’s wedding day, click here)

In May of ’65, Shelley made a return of sorts to recording with a single released on Dunhill, the label owned by her husband. Shelley released a cover of the classic “My Prayer” and a final single, “See Ya ‘Round on the Rebound” was issued in August of 1966; unfortunately, by this point the marriage had not long to run. The two would separate in January of 1967 but not officially divorce until 1980.

With her next screen appearance, Shelley became a significant player in Elvis World. Girl Happy (1965) is a better-than-average King Movie in which Shell plays Valerie Frank, a sheltered and down-to-earth girl who has had her life rigidly controlled by her over-protective father, played by Harold J. Stone. When Valerie and her friends head to Fort Lauderdale for Spring Break, her dad hires Rusty (Elvis) and his band to go down and keep an eye on her. Girl Happy is perhaps one of only two of Presley’s films that can be said to fall into the “beach party” movie category and Shelley is again decorative. She sings a few lines in a duet of sorts with Presley on “Spring Fever” and looks good as a featured performer in one of the combo’s numbers. As usual, Fabares is dressed well and looks classy and there are even a few scenes showing her in a sexier light, including one in which her character takes part in a strip show at a night club.

Shelley has said that at the time she went to work with Elvis while she liked his records she was much more taken with James Stewart. But when she first encountered Presley, the aura was not only palpable but she was personally struck; “I looked over and from that end of the soundstage it was Elvis and he was walking in…and the presence that this man had…you couldn’t talk. Nobody did anything. And I watched him and I remember thinking ‘oh, my God, it’s Elvis Presley. I’m never gonna be able to even open my mouth around him‘.”

Girl Happy © MGM

It seems there was not any romance between Elvis and Shelley owing mostly to the fact that – on the day Girl Happy started shooting – Shelley had been married to Adler for 15 days. Shelley wonders if maybe the fact that because there was no chance of a relationship, Elvis was not concerned with impressing her and could be himself. There is much confirming testimony that Presley and his boys were all much taken with Shelley. Members of the Memphis Mafia have reported that “the only other person Elvis ever costarred with who had the same kind of personality (as Ann-Margret) was Shelley Fabares”. Heady praise when you consider how highly regarded Annie was in Elvis World. And while filming Clambake in 1967, Elvis and Shelley spent hours alone talking in trailers and dressing rooms. During one of these conversations, Presley confided in Shelley regarding his upcoming marriage to Priscilla. When King emerged and he informed the boys that he “told her”, they were dumbfounded as only very few knew of this closely guarded secret. One of the boys lamented later that he was in “the circle” and he hadn’t been told. But Shelley Fabares had been.

Spinout ©MGM

Sandwiched in between these two films, Shelley also appeared with Elvis in Spinout (1965). In this film, Shelley’s father is portrayed by none other than her TV father from The Donna Reed Show, Carl Betz. Interesting to note than in this mini-era of King Movies when the films sometimes were poor, two of the three he made with Shelley Fabares were of a higher calibre and are regarded as such today. Girl Happy and Spinout are two of the best King Movies from the mid-Sixties; Clambake is good fun but suffers from Presley’s acute lack of interest.

Shelley’s other two roles from this time were in musical films produced by “King of the Quickies”, Sam Katzman. Hold On! (1966) was a teen musical that starred the British band Herman’s Hermits and featured Shelley taking a number for herself, singing “Make Me Happy”, a song co-written by Ben Weisman, a frequent songwriter for Presley. Hold On! co-starred Sue Ann Langdon who can be seen with Presley in Roustabout (1964) and Frankie and Johnnie (1966). Hank Williams, Jr. starred in a film that seems to be a real rarity. Time to Sing (1968) was presented as “the Hank Williams, Jr. story” and Shelley appeared as Hank’s love interest. This poor production was Hank’s only starring role and it is a true curiosity. After the failure of this film, Shelley entered a fallow period during which it seemed she was unemployable. Perhaps with Hollywood reflecting societal changes and leaning more to a sex-oriented, hippie-type thing, Shelley’s clean cute freshness seemed incongruous.

She would make a return of sorts in 1971 in the medium that would be her bread and butter for the rest of her days. The television movie Brian’s Song told the story of the tragic death from cancer of Chicago Bears football player Brain Piccolo, portrayed by James Caan. His best friend and teammate, legendary running back Gale Sayers, was played by Billy Dee Williams. Fabares played Joy Piccolo, Brian’s wife, and it was a sensitive portrayal of a pretty young bride dealing with the harsh realities of her husband’s demise. Perhaps not due to Shelley’s involvement but Brian’s Song was incredibly successful and is still revered as one of the greatest TV films and one of the greatest sports films ever made.

Judy Pace, Billy Dee Williams, Shelley and James Caan in ABC’s Brian’s Song (1971)

In the wake of her well-received and highly visible appearance in the popular Brian’s Song, Shelley found herself in demand on television. Contrast her dozen total movie appearances as an adult with the over 70 television series she has appeared on. In the fall of ’72, Shelley was cast as Dr. Anne Jamison on The Little People, starring Brian Keith as her father. Filmed in Hawaii, the show was renamed The Brian Keith Show for its second and last season. She would guest star regularly on the small screen before landing another short-lived series The Practice in which she played a wife and mother, the daughter-in-law of star Danny Thomas. Next she joined her good friend Bonnie Franklin in the cast of Franklin’s One Day at a Time, a show that also later featured as a regular Shelley’s aunt, Nanette.

Shelley would go on to appear in many television shows and TV movies. One that may not have made much of a splash with viewers came in 1983. Memorial Day was certainly notable for Shelley, though, as it was on this job that she co-starred with Mike Farrell of TV’s M*A*S*H* who played her husband. The following year, the two would marry and are still together today. Then in 1989 Shelley became known to a whole new generation. Coach was a sitcom that starred Craig T. Nelson as a university football coach married to Christine, played by Shelley. The successful show ran for 9 seasons, 200 episodes, between 1989 and 1997 and saw Fabares being nominated twice for Emmy Awards.

In 1994, Shelley and Mike were in the process of having a home built when Shelley fell through some floor joists. She broke all the ribs on the left side of her body. At her doctor’s for a follow-up appointment, a problem with her liver was discovered. While things stabilized, she would later end up in hospital with an esophageal bleed and she became “terribly ill”. She was told she was suffering from progressive liver failure and that she would need a transplant.

In April of ’99, she went on a waiting list for a liver donor. “I was very much aware I was living on borrowed time”, Fabares says. On October 23, 2000, the long wait was over and she received her liver in a successful operation. Shelley says the experience changed how she approached life and during the ordeal she cherished the devotion of her husband, Mike, and the two emerged from the crisis closer than ever.

It looks like Shelley Fabares is a rarity of sorts. She seems a sweet, down-to-earth lady who just happens to have a long Hollywood history filled with cool credits. Shelley checks a lot of boxes. Interesting to see her as a child in Rock Hudson melodramas and The Bad Seed and as a pre-teen in rock & roll musicals. She was on television in some of the most charming programming of the Fifties before she hit the charts with the delightful #1 song, “Johnny Angel”. She was gorgeous in one of Hollywood’s best surf movies and became a favourite co-star of Elvis Presley’s while appearing in three of his more enjoyable films. Add to all this her victory lap on Coach, her marriage to B.J. Hunnicutt and surviving a near-death experience and you could say that Shelley Fabares is one cool chick.

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