Ted Donaldson, Young Actor in ‘Father Knows Best’ and ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,’ Dies at 89

Ted Donaldson, who starred as Bud Anderson on the original radio version of Father Knows Best and as Neely Nolan in the beloved family drama A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the first feature directed by Elia Kazan, has died. He was 89.

Donaldson died Wednesday of complications from a fall in his Echo Park apartment in January, his friend Thomas Bruno told The Hollywood Reporter.

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In his big-screen debut, Donaldson portrayed a boy who gets his pet caterpillar Curly to dance when he plays “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” on the harmonica in the comedy fantasy Once Upon a Time (1944), starring Cary Grant and Janet Blair.

He also starred as Danny Mitchell in eight B-movies from Columbia Pictures that revolved around a German shepherd named Rusty. The first one, Adventures of Rusty (1945), featured Ace the Wonder Dog.

An only child, Donaldson was born in Brooklyn on Aug. 20, 1933. His father was singer-composer Will Donaldson (he co-wrote “Do Wacka Do,” years later a hit for Roger Miller). After his mother, Jo, died when he was just months old, his dad married organist/composer Muriel Pollock.

Donaldson attended the Professional Children’s School in New York and had a magic act, and he joined the original Broadway production of Life With Father as the son Harlan in 1941. Also that year, he played Tiny Tim opposite Edmund Gwenn as Scrooge in a weeklong serialized radio version of A Christmas Carol.

In 1943, Donaldson was back on Broadway alongside Gregory Peck, Stella Adler and Geraldine Fitzgerald as a younger version of Kenneth Tobey’s character in Sons and Soldiers, directed by Max Reinhardt.

His performance in that led to him auditioning for Columbia chief Harry Cohn for the role of Arthur “Pinky” Thompson in Once Upon a Time, based on the radio play My Client Curly.

ONCE UPON A TIME, Ted Donaldson, Cary Grant, 1944.

Ted Donaldson with Cary Grant in 1944’s Once Upon a Time

Grant took a liking to the boy, supervising his fitting for a new blue serge suit at a Hollywood costumer and then attending, with his wife Betsy Drake, Donaldson’s 1949 high school graduation ceremony at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The superstar actor affectionately called him “Teddy,” Donaldson recalled in a 2018 interview.

After playing an orphan in Mr. Winkle Goes to War (1944), starring Edward G. Robinson and Ruth Warrick, Donaldson landed the part of Cornelius “Neely” Nolan in Fox’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), based on Betty Smith’s popular 1943 novel.

Set in Williamsburg in the early 20th century, the film also featured Dorothy McGuire and James Dunn (in an Oscar-winning turn) as his parents, Katie and Johnny Nolan, and Peggy Ann Garner (recipient of a juvenile Oscar) as his older sister, Francie.

From 1949-54, Donaldson played James “Bud” Anderson Jr. opposite Robert Young on NBC Radio’s Father Knows Best. He got an offer to continue with Young on the TV adaptation at CBS but turned it down.

“I didn’t want to be typed,” he said in the 2002 book Growing Up on the Set. “I didn’t want to be a 21-year-old playing a 15- or 16-year-old kid. I wanted to do other things.” Later, however, he would regret the decision. (Billy Gray portrayed Bud for six seasons on the TV show.)

After Adventures of Rusty, Donaldson came back for The Return of Rusty (1946), For the Love of Rusty (1947), The Son of Rusty (1947), My Dog Rusty (1948), Rusty Leads the Way (1948), Rusty Saves a Life (1949) and, finally, Rusty’s Birthday (1949).

The young Donaldson had a way with animals — he also worked with a burro in Personality Kid (1946) and with a horse in The Red Stallion (1947).

RUSTY LEADS THE WAY, from left, Flame the dog, Ted Donaldson, John Litel, 1948

Ted Donaldson with John Litel and Flame the dog in 1948’s Rusty Leads the Way

His big-screen résumé also included A Guy, a Gal and a Pal (1945), The Decision of Christopher Blake (1948), The Green Promise (1949) and Phone Call From a Stranger (1952). His final onscreen credits came on the TV shows Matinee Theater in 1955-56 and The Silent Service in 1958.

A real gentleman, Donaldson later taught acting classes and worked for years at a bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard. Once, when he delivered a book to a customer’s home, he was “overjoyed and a little embarrassed” to find actress Alexis Smith on the other side of the doorway, Bruno said. The two had worked together in The Decision of Christopher Blake.

“She walked him into her home and sat him down and made him feel welcome,” he said.

Donaldson was a guest at several TCM Classic Film Festivals — including in 2016, when a restored version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn delighted audiences — and was looking forward to returning to the Hollywood event next month.

He never married and had no survivors. Bruno and his wife, Heidi, are setting up a GoFundMe page to help with burial expenses. THR will include a link to the page here when it goes online.

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