Ms. Reed was born Donnabelle Mullenger on a farm near Denison, Iowa. Her parents are William Richard Mullenger (whose paternal grandparents were born in England) and Hazel Jane Shives. One of her nephews, Todd Mullenger, is treasurer at Corrections Corporation of America. His sons are Matt Mullenger and Andrew Mullenger.
Reed is probably best remembered for her roles as the wholesome housewife "Donna Stone" on television's The Donna Reed Show and as "Mary Bailey" in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946). She won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing a prostitute in From Here to Eternity (1953).
Donna Reed was the mother of four children (two with husband Tony Owen, and two adopted with Owen). She was committed to both motherhood and gender equality. In 1967, in opposition to the Vietnam War, she co-founded Another Mother for Peace.
In her later years she temporarily replaced an ailing Barbara Bel Geddes as "Miss Ellie" in the television series Dallas in the 1984-1985 season. When Bel Geddes was well enough to return to the role, Reed was fired. She sued the show's production company and received an undisclosed seven-figure settlement, but this settlement came shortly before her death from cancer.
She died on January 14, 1986, at age 64 in Beverly Hills, California from pancreatic cancer, and was interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.
The Donna Reed Foundation for the Performing Arts, based in Reed's hometown of Denison, was organized after Reed's death in 1986. The non-profit organization grants scholarships for performing arts students, runs an annual festival of performing arts workshops, and operates The Donna Reed Center for the Performing Arts. The performing arts center was formerly an opera house built in 1914, and later renovated into the Ritz Movie Theater where Donna Reed, as a young girl in Denison, first fell in love with movies.