Donna Martell was born Irene De Maria to Italian-American parents. Irene was 17 years old when a fellow student at Los Angeles City College introduced her to Hollywood talent agent Wallace Middleton of the Donaldson-Middleton Agency. Upon interviewing for Middleton, Donna was signed on the spot.
“Six weeks later, I was doing the ingenue lead opposite Roy Rogers and Dale Evans in Republic Pictures’ Apache Rose (1947; see the full movie for free here). It was a thrill for me,” remembered Donna. She told Boyd Magers of WESTERN CLIPPINGS, “I was 17, so naturally my mother had to accompany me to the studio. Like so many other girls at the time, I had looks that stopped traffic. It was all so easy for me.” She went on to do Twilight on the Rio Grande for the studio and when they offered Donna a contract, her agents suggested she refrain from signing with Republic having felt it was too early in her career.
Her first studio contract came with Universal-International, “I had options at Warner Brothers, 20th Century and MGM, but I wanted Universal. They had a star system. Lots of classes, publicity. I thought I would do better there.” After signing, Donna’s first film there was yet another ingenue lead opposite Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in Abbot & Costello Meet the Killer (1951) which also starred Boris Karloff. While at Universal, Donna appeared in a number of 30 min. musical western shorts with Tex Williams and his Boys. “Tex was a darling, wonderful man. So were Deuce Spriggens and Smokey Rogers, his sidekicks.”
Donna went on to appear in Kiplings Kim (1950), opposite Johnny Shefield in Elephant Stampede (1951), Hills of Utah with Gene Autry, Love is a Many Splendored Thing (1955) as the sister of Jennifer Jones, afterwards receiving Photoplay’s Gold Medal award. Donna’s motion picture credits continued with Ten Wanted Men (1955) with Randolph Scott, Last of the Desperados with James Craig, Give a Girl a Break (1953), The Egyptian (1954), and Hell on Devils Island (1957) with Helmut Dantine.
Donna remembered Randolph Scott fondly, “A darling. I wouldn’t fly at the time. We shot on location in Old Tucson, so Mr. Scott gave me his compartment on the train and he flew to Old Tucson on my ticket! We were in Arizona in two weeks.”
During the fabulous 50s and into the 1960s, Donna kicked up dust with many of television’s top name western stars appearing as the lovely dark haired female lead opposite Ray Milland in Markham, Dale Robertson in Wells Fargo, Gene Barry in Bat Masterson, Clint Walker in Cheyenne, Bill Williams in Kit Carson, Jock Mahoney in Range Riders, Barry Sullivan in The Tall Man, Michael Landon in Bonanza (her last tv show appearance), as well as the memorable Gene Autry shows. “I did six or eight of the Gene Autry TV shows, in addition to the features. They kept sending scripts and I’d do them! Gene used to do his own makeup and hair, so you had to do your own as well. They were very frugal at Flying-A Productions. You had to do everything for yourself. The script girl would be the only other female there, so she had to help me with some of the costumes. We’d do two shows at one time-so costume changes were frequent! Gene was very nice, and the shows were a great training ground.” She was also seen in the anthology drama Cavalcade of America.
For her contributions to western cinema and television, she was awarded the Golden Boot Award in 2002.
Apache Rose (1947)—Roy Rogers; Twilight On the Rio Grande (1947)—Gene Autry; Coyote Canyon (1949)—Tex Williams; South of Santa Fe (1949)—Tex Williams; Girl From Gunsight (1949)—Tex Williams; Nevada Trail (1949)—Tex Williams; Ready to Ride (1950)—Tex Williams; Western Courage (1949)—Tex Williams; Hills of Utah (1951)—Gene Autry; Last of the Desperadoes (1955)—James Craig; Ten Wanted Men (1955)—Randolph Scott.
Gene Autry: Killer’s Trail (1951); Gene Autry: Frontier Guard (1951); Kit Carson: Hero of Hermosa (1951); Kit Carson: Riders of Caspistrano (1951); Kit Carson: Snake River Trapper (1952); Kit Carson: Outlaw Paradise (1952); Hopalong Cassidy: Blind Encounter (1952); Range Rider: Ghost of Poco Loco (1952); Range Rider: Harsh Reckoning (1953); Kit Carson: Outlaw Army (1953); Kit Carson: Haunted Hacienda (1953); Frontier: Ferdinand Meyer’s Army (1955); Sheriff of Cochise: Great Train Robbery (1956); Broken Arrow: Apache Girl (1857); Gray Ghost: Master Spy (1958); Bat Masterson: One Bullet From Broken Bow (1959); Cheyenne: Home Is the Brave (1960); Shotgun Slade: Donna Juanita (1960); Tales of Wells Fargo: John Jones (1961); Tall Man: unknown title (1961); Bonanza: Toy Soldier (1963).