Doris Day Dies: Iconic Actress, Singer, Animal Rights Activist Was 97

Doris Day

Doris Day, whose career spanned radio, film, TV and, perhaps most famously, the beloved sweetly innocent “sex comedies” of the 1960s, most notably with co-star and friend Rock Hudson, died today. She was 97.

Her death was confirmed by The Doris Day Animal Foundation. Day’s Foundation attributed the death to pneumonia, noting the star had been in excellent health until the recent illness. She died early today surrounded by friends at her home in Carmel Valley, CA.

Behind the scenes on ‘The Man Who Know Too Much’ ITV/REX/Shutterstock

Day was the star of such Hollywood classics as With Six You Get Eggroll, Pillow Talk, That Touch of Mink and her self-titled 1968-73 sitcom. Her performance of “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)” in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much proved so popular that it would become her endurable signature song (and the theme for her TV comedy).

Born Doris Mary Ann Von Kappelhoff — a name she’d occasionally use as a punchline or inside joke on her sitcom — in Cincinnati, Ohio, Day was among the few “girl singers” of the 1940s and ’50s who successfully transitioned to a lasting Hollywood acting career, outdoing even peers like Rosemary Clooney.

Pillow Talk Universal/Shutterstock

Although remembered most often for her frothy, delightful “sex comedies” of the early ’60s — a genre she perfected if not invented and that indeed were both innocent and, for the time, racy — Day proved more than once that she could handle serious drama. Her turn as the mother of a kidnapped child in 1956’s The Man Who Knew Too Much remains an eye-opener, especially for today’s audiences, who might be more familiar with 1959’s Pillow Talk more than 1950’s Young Man With a Horn or 1955’s Love Me or Leave Me, in which Day turned in a brilliant lead as the singer Ruth Etting.

Although she largely had been out of the public eye for years, devoting herself to the animals she loved and the Foundation she created for them, Day continued to have a strong place in the nation’s heart. Her foundation notes that nearly 300 fans gathered in Carmel on April 3 to celebrate her 97th birthday.

Her first hit came at age 15, when she recorded “Sentimental Journey” with Les Brown’s band. That song and “Que Sera Sera” would be her biggest hits.

In all, according to her foundation, Day made 39 films. Although she never won an Oscar — an ongoing source of outrage among her fans — she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004 and a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2008.

After leaving her CBS The Doris Day Show in 1973 — the series had undergone numerous cast changes and revisions of premise in an attempt to achieve an elusive hit status — Day turned her focus to the Doris Day Animal Foundation. Her devotion to animals was a frequent plot point in the TV series, and she fought against animal testing and advocated for spay/neuter education. Her “Spay Day” program would become an international event, according to the foundation, which continues to provide support to smaller rescue organizations nationwide, with a focus on assisting senior pets.

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In her 1975 autobiography, Doris Day: Her Own Story, written with A.E. Hotchner, Day revealed that the death of third husband Martin Melcher in 1968 brought shocking news: She was broke and deeply in debt, and Melcher had committed her to the television series that she did not want to do. Her son, record producer Terry Melcher, broke the news that she owed $450,000 and that the $20M she’d made over her career was gone. She later won a $23M lawsuit against her lawyer and business manager, and the TV series brought considerable financial stability.

Terry Melcher, Day’s only child, died of melanoma in 2004 at 62. He had built a successful career in his own right, both as a songwriter and producer, working with such pioneers of the Southern California rock sound as the Beach Boys, the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas, among many others. And there was one notable personality he did not work with: Charles Manson, whose anger at Melcher for turning him down prompted Manson to send his “family” members to slaughter the inhabitants of a house that Manson thought Melcher still owned: the home of Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate.

Day’s final marriage, to businessman Barry Comden, lasted from 1976-82.

Other select film and TV credits for Doris Day, who famously is name-checked in the “Grease” song “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” include: Calamity Jane, The Ballad of Josie, Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?, The Glass Bottom Boat, Send Me No Flowers, Move Over Darling, Lover Come Back, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, Teacher’s Pet, The Pajama Game, Julie, The West Point Story and Tea For Two.

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