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Shelley Fabares from 'Donna Reed' Lives with Transplant Liver That She Risked Death Waiting For

Bettina Dizon
Dec 14, 2021
01:47 P.M.
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Shelley Fabares had a great acting career with her most recognized role as Mary Stone in the sitcom "The Donna Reed Show." But behind the smiles viewers see on-screen, the actress endured pain and hardship.


Unlike many other child stars, Shelly Fabares continued her acting career from her younger years until she transitioned into adulthood. She is undoubtedly one of the most hardworking Hollywood stars who became a household name at a young age.

While displaying an array of characters on screen and making viewers smile, her life was not as great when the camera stopped rolling. In fact, she went through several traumatizing events, including health issues that could have taken away her life.

Shelley Fabares on "The Love Letter," circa 1960. | Source: Getty Images



Born Michele Marie Fabares in 1944, the actress had the entertainment genes in her veins. She was the niece of singer and comedian Nanette Fabray and had a first-hand view of show business.

Her mother, Elsea, got Fabares into modeling, which led to her first appearances on television during the early 1950s. She was only three years old when she appeared in the shows "Captain Midnight" and "Ammie Oakley."

In 1955, she landed another stint on "Producers' Showcase" at eleven years old. She later starred in several episodes of the 1958 television series "Annette" before being cast in "The Donna Reed Show."


Fabares also graced the screens throughout the '60s, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Elvis Presley in "Spinout," "Girl Happy," and "Clambake." She also starred in 47 episodes of "The Brian Keith Show," "Brian's Song," "The Practice," "Highcliffe Manor," "Forever Fernwood," and "One Day at a Time." during the '70s.

Until 2006, Shelley received 91 acting credits but has otherwise kept a low profile. Despite her successful career, Fabares does not recommend the entertainment industry for children. She previously said:

"The chances of a child coming through as I did -- the world is too hard. On the other hand, I would always encourage children of mine if they wanted to be in school plays and dance and sing."


Shelley Fabares at the Alzheimer's Association event on March 21, 2012, in Beverly Hills, California. | Getty Images.


The actress believes that entering the industry as a child can go both ways -- either success or failure. When getting roles becomes a struggle, it may leave the child feeling like a failure, resulting in negative outcomes. "I was just incredibly lucky," she said. "And I have worked hard.


Fabares developed an esophageal bleed without warning and was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center's Emergency Department earlier that year.

Fabares credited her good friend and "The Donna Reed Show" co-star, Donna Reed, for mentoring her through life. "Donna was the most incredible woman," Fabares said. "She was definitely a role model in my life."



While her career was a whirlwind of success, other aspects of Fabares' life were not. For instance, she was not easily accepted by her husband, Mike Farrel's two children. The couple initially met years before in 1970, when Shelley guest-starred in Mike's television series, "The Interns."

But when they reconnected at a CBS affiliates convention twelve years later, intimacy grew between them. In 1984, the couple tied the knot at the Pacific Palisades residence of Fabares' aunt Nanette. Just as it was Farabes' second marriage, following her divorce from Lou Adler, it was also Farrell's.

He had previously been married to the actress and screenwriter Judy Farrell. Fabares told People about becoming a stepmom: "The divorce was very hard on the kids. It took a lot of love, patience, courage, and strength, but now they have two solid homes, which is what we all wanted."


Shelley Fabares at the Hollywood Walk of Fame event on June 28, 2008, in Los Angeles, California.| Getty Images.


To add to her previous hardship with the kids, in 1986, Fabares' confidant, Reed, succumbed to pancreatic cancer while her mother, Elsa, also fell ill. After exhibiting signs of Alzheimer's disease, the actress had to put her mother in a nursing home.


Later on, she had to place her sister in a nursing home. "When Donna and Mother were ill at the same time, mentally, I was totally gone," she recalled. However, her husband supported her all throughout. She added:

"I just stayed at the hospital for months, and never, ever did Mike question it. He was always easing my mind. He ran everything for me. He has become my safe harbor."

Mike Farrell and his wife Shelley Fabares on January 29, 2006, in Los Angeles, California. | Getty Images



Another mishap that happened and ruined Fabares' health took place in 1994. With her home under construction, she accidentally fell through the floor joists, which left all the ribs on the left side of her body broken.

At the time, Fabares starred as Christine Armstrong in the hit show "Coach" which ran for eight years until 1997. However, blood tests taken during a follow-up exam revealed her liver count was "off the charts." Doctors couldn't find the cause of the problem with her liver but stabilized it with medication until 1999.

Fabares developed an esophageal bleed without warning and was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center's Emergency Department earlier that year. Once stabilized, doctors explained that progressive liver failure caused the bleed and that she needed a new liver.


Actress Shelley Fabares during a red carpet event on February 22, 2004, in Los Angeles, California. | Getty Images.


It took 22 months before Farabes received the much-awaited call from her doctor on October 23, 2000. "We have your liver," Dr. Vierling said. The experience changed Shelley's view on life as she added:


"Even though life has returned to some degree of normalcy, I'm a different person. What is important to me now, and how I approach life is very different than it was before."

Finding the perfect match for a liver can be quite difficult. However, there are some instances where the donor and receiver formed close bonds because of it, such as the case of a New York City resident and a cancer patient.

Kate Gillingham donated 60% of her liver to Dave Kane when he needed it most. They ran together at the 50th New York City Marathon four years later.


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