Legendary actress and singer Doris Day dies at 97




 

Doris Day, the sunny Pillow Talk actress and singer who was far more than her persona, died early Monday of pneumonia. She was 97.

The Doris Day Animal Foundation confirmed that Day died - surrounded by friends - at her Carmel Valley, Calif., home. While she "had been in excellent physical health for her age," according to the statement, she recently contracted "a serious case of pneumonia, resulting in her death."

Calamity Jane and The Man Who Knew Too Much were among Day's other best-loved films; the latter spawned "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)," which became her signature tune.

Day was the symbol of 1950s and 1960s wholesomeness. But the thrice-divorced star was neither a virginal figure off-screen, nor an innocent on-screen.

"Tomboyish and tough, or smart career woman, she may have capitulated to marriage and domesticity by the final frame, but only on her own terms," culture critic David Benedict once wrote about Day for London's Independent.

Day shared the screen with Hollywood legends Clark Gable (Teacher's Pet), James Cagney (Love Me or Leave Me) and Cary Grant (That Touch of Mink). She worked with James Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock (The Man Who Knew Too Much). She excelled in light comedies opposite the likes of James Garner, Rod Taylor and, above all, Rock Hudson.

With Hudson, Day enjoyed three of her biggest hits: the sly Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back, and Send Me No Flowers.

With Garner, she starred in The Thrill of It All and Move Over, Darling. With Taylor, she made Do Not Disturb and The Glass Bottom Boat.

The frothy, fun Hudson pictures helped make Day Hollywood's No. 1 draw in 1960, 1962, 1963 and 1964, per a long-running survey of theater owners. Among actresses, only Shirley Temple finished first that many times.

Despite her credentials, Day wasn't always held up as the Hollywood standard-bearer she was.

When the American Film Institute ranked the top 50 stars of the 20th century, Day's contemporaries Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor all cracked the top 10; Day, the most bankable actress of them all, didn't make the list.

A onetime Best Actress Oscar nominee, Day neither won a competitive an Academy Award, nor earned an honorary statuette.

In a 2010 New York Times column that advocated for Oscar to give Day her due, filmmaker Douglas McGrath (Emma) wrote that Day was discounted because she made her stock-in-trade "look easy."

Roger Ebert also made the case for Day: "Doris Day was a great star," the critic wrote in 1995, "and someday the record will be set straight on that."

Day, displaying the disposition of one of her trademark characters, was not one to voice complaints.

"Everything just turned out the way it was supposed to," Day once told TCM's Robert Osbourne.

Originally trained as a dancer, the former Doris Kappelhoff, born on April 3, 1922, in Cincinnati, suffered two broken legs in a car accident at age 13. She remembered the crippling incident as "the greatest thing that happened."

"I couldn't walk for almost three years," the star would recall in the Hollywood Reporter. "[So] instead of dancing, I sang. They carried me three times a week up a stairway to my music teacher."

At the end of her convalescence, Kappelhoff emerged as the big-band singer Doris Day. At 17, she married musician Al Jorden, who fathered her son, producer/Grammy-nominated songwriter Terry Melcher ("Kokomo"). Jorden abused Day and the couple divorced in 1943.

Day emerged as a pop star at 23 with the No. 1-selling wartime hit "Sentimental Journey." The performance was warm and alluring. Columnist Walter Winchell would write that Day had "honey in her voice."

In 1946, she married another musician, George Weidler, but that union, too, was short-lived. A disheartened Day intended to return to her hometown when she scored a Hollywood screen test. In her autobiography, Day wrote she was a wreck during the audition for director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), and that she broke down crying - twice - while singing "Embraceable You."

Curtiz was impressed: "To be [a] good actress is to be sensitive," Day said the filmmaker told her.

Day got the part: a featured role, heavy on the singing, in Curtiz's and Busby Berkeley's 1948 musical, Romance on the High Seas. The critics found Day "vivacious." She was on her way.

In a three-year span, from 1949 to 1951, Day made 10 movies, and established herself as a box-office draw.

In 1954, the multi-media star scored her fifth and final No. 1 pop hit with "Secret Love," the Oscar-winning song from Calamity Jane, the Old West musical that would become one of Day's most durable vehicles.

Hitchcock counted himself among Day's fans ("I knew this girl was a great and sensitive dramatic actress," the director said), and he cast her in the same-titled remake of his 1934 thriller, The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Though not a musical, the film saw Day play a retired singer who croons "Que Sera, Sera." The singsong lullaby won an Oscar, and became forever associated with Day, who would warble it in two more movies, Please Don't Eat the Daisies and The Glass Bottom Boat, and make it the theme song of her long-running, if largely forgotten sitcom, The Doris Day Show.

Day capped off the 1950s, and began a new chapter of her career with Pillow Talk.

"Pillow Talk was all about sex," Day said a couple of years after its 1959 release. "But there's a difference between good, clean fun and dwelling on sordid things."

The Pillow Talk formula worked: The comedy about the social-media engine of its day, the telephone party line, rated Day her one and only Best Actress Oscar nomination.

Pillow Talk also marked Day's introduction to Hudson. At the time, the tall, dark and handsome leading man wasn't known for comedy, but Hudson took to the genre-and his leading lady.

"We played our scenes together as if we had once lived them," Day wrote in her book.

With few exceptions, Day would try to recreate the Pillow Talk magic for the rest of her big-screen career. Some films (Lover Come Back) came closer than others (The Glass Bottom Boat). Day's star power waned, and she tumbled out of the box-office Top 10 in 1967.

Around the same time, as The Graduate worked its way from page to screen, Mike Nichols sought out Day for the sultry, seasoned Mrs. Robinson, but the director told Vanity Fair that the actress' husband, the manager Martin Melcher, who routinely produced Day's films, thought the source material was "dirty" and "wouldn't even pass it along to her."

Instead of The Graduate, Melcher steered Day into With Six You Get Eggroll. In its review, the New York Times lamented that the "Widow Day" - a reference to the inordinate number of widows the actress played - was "a very real comic talent that has, over the years, become hermetically sealed inside a lacquered personality."

What the Times didn't note was that by the time of With Six You Get Eggroll, Day was, in fact, a widow: Martin Melcher, whom she wed in 1951, and whom lent his surname to her son, died four months before the film's 1968 release.

After her husband's passing, Day learned she was broke. She sued the attorney Melcher had hired to look after the finances, and eventually won a $22-million judgment.

In the aftermath of Martin Melcher's death, Day chose to honor the TV deal he had set up for her.

"There was no way to postpone shooting, we had to continue," Day said in 1975. "I was hardly aware of what I was doing."

The Doris Day Show, in which its star played yet another widow, ran from 1968-1973. Day made the decision to pull the plug.

"I'd had enough," the actress said.

Indeed, Day never again acted on screen, not on TV and not on film.

In 1976, she married for a fourth time, to Barry Comden, a restaurant maître d', and promoted her memoir, Doris Day: Her Own Story. The United Press International said the book "destroys the old fresh scrubbed image." It discussed - but denied - rumors that Day carried on affairs with baseball star Maury Wills, basketball great Elgin Baylor and rock star Sly Stone.

In 1981, as her latest and last marriage was ending, Day moved north, from Beverly Hills, to Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif. The coastal city would be her home until the end of her life. From there she continued to work as an animal activist - the Doris Day Animal Foundation was established in 1981 - and occasionally made forays in front of the camera, as with her 1985-1986 TV talk show, Doris Day's Best Friends.

It was on the talk show that Day famously reunited with Hudson. A press conference promoting the 1985 taping made international headlines because of the 59-year-old Hudson's gaunt, frail appearance. Within a week, a hospitalized Hudson announced through his publicist that he had AIDS. The news was as noteworthy as it was tragic. Hudson died later that year.

"When I think about Rock, I feel like crying," Day said in 1986. "I don't like sad endings."

Day was coaxed back to Hollywood in 1989 to accept the Golden Globes's Cecil B. DeMille Award.

"I've been away much too long," Day told the audience.

But Day stayed away. She expressed interest in the title role for Albert Brooks's 1996 comedy, Mother, but had second thoughts at a meeting with the actor-filmmaker.

"When push came to shove, she realized she's never gonna act again," Brooks told Psychology Today.

In 2011, at age 89, Day released a new album, My Heart. It charted in both the United States and the United Kingdom, where it was a Top 10 hit.

The bulk of My Heart's songs were previously unreleased cuts that had been produced by Day's son, Terry Melcher, who'd died in 2004 at the age of 64.

Though the Oscar eluded her, Day was honored in her later years with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Three of her recordings, including "Que Sera, Sera," have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Looking back as she approached her 93rd birthday, Day told Closer Weekly she did wonder if she should've stayed in Hollywood, and make more movies.

"[But] there's no sense in having regrets," Day was quoted as saying. "We can't change the past."

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