Actress Doris Day dies at age 97

Day made more than three dozen movies in 20 years, starting out in roles as the girl next door

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Doris Day, the bubbly, blonde actress and singer who starred in Pillow Talk and other romantic comedies in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and who later became an animal-welfare advocate, has died. She was 97.

She died Monday at her Carmel Valley, California, home, according to the Associated Press, which cited the Doris Day Animal Foundation. She had recently contracted a serious case of pneumonia, the foundation said.

Day reached the height of her popularity in sophisticated romps with co-stars James Garner, Cary Grant and, in particular, Rock Hudson. Pillow Talk, released in 1959, was the first of three pictures they made and turned the pair into a top draw at theaters.

“It was an enormous departure from the kind of films she’d been doing for a dozen years,” said Ross Hunter, producer of the movie, in Day’s autobiography. “Doris hadn’t a clue as to her potential as a sex image.”

She made more than three dozen movies in 20 years, starting out in roles as the girl next door. That early, goody-two-shoes image led performer Oscar Levant to famously quip he knew Day “before she became a virgin.”

Big band singer

Day's career had its roots in music. She sang in the 1940s with the era's big bands, honing a talent movie directors made use of later. Her rendition of Que Sera, Sera, in Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956, with co-star Jimmy Stewart, became an integral part of the movie's plot and a signature number for her. It won an Academy Award for composers Jay Livingston and Ray Evans.

Doris Kappelhoff was born April 3, 1924, in Cincinnati to German Catholic parents. Her father, a music teacher, left the family when Day was in her teens.

Day trained as a dancer until a car accident wrecked her right leg, forcing her to spend two years recuperating. She switched to singing and, by age 16, was performing with big bands.Several successful records such as 1944’s “Sentimental Journey” led to a contract with Columbia Records.

In the early 1950s, she branched out into dramatic roles in movies starring Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, and James Cagney.

Oscar nomination

Pillow Talk was witty and rife with sexual innuendos considered risque at the time. Day's character, an interior decorator, clashed with Hudson's over his monopolization of their shared phone line, which he uses to romance a stable of girlfriends. Day's performance earned an Academy Award nomination.

Hudson and Day had never met before the film, yet “the very first day on the set I discovered we had a performing rapport that was remarkable,” Day wrote. “We played our scenes together as if we had once lived them.”

The pair teamed up in the 1960s for two more films, Lover Come Back, in which they played competing advertising executives, and Send Me No Flowers, in which Hudson played a hypochondriac who thinks he is dying and tries to find a new husband for his wife, played by Day. Hudson died in 1985.

Other roles later in her career included that of a woman who fears she is being stalked in Midnight Lace; a doctor's wife who becomes the star of a soap commercial in The Thrill of It All; and an unemployed computer operator in That Touch of Mink.

Day turned down the part of Mrs Robinson in The Graduate, a role that earned an Academy Award nomination for Anne Bancroft.

Winding Down

Her last film, with Brian Keith, was With Six You Get Eggroll in 1968.

"I thought I should've stayed because I loved movies so much," Day told Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air show in 2012. "But there were all kinds of new people coming up and, I thought, I've done mine. I've had a great time. So now it's their turn."

Day married four times. She wed trombone player Al Jorden in 1941 and they divorced two years later, soon after the birth of a son Terry, who became a record producer known for hits with the Byrds and the Beach Boys. Terry Melcher died in 2004.

I thought I should've stayed because I loved movies so much. But there were all kinds of new people coming up and, I thought, I've done mine. I've had a great time. So now it's their turn.

Her 1946 marriage to George Weidler, a saxophonist, dissolved after three years. Day married her third husband, Marty Melcher, in 1951. He became her manager and, when he died in 1968, Day discovered he had spent about $20 million of her money, leaving her bankrupt. She successfully sued the couple’s lawyer for $22.8 million, settling for $6 million.

She retired to Carmel, where she co-owned the Cypress Inn.

Day devoted the last decades of her life to animal causes. Film critic Rex Reed, referring to Day’s efforts to help homeless and abused dogs in Los Angeles, called her “the Joan of Arc of the Four-Legged Set.”

In 1987, she founded the Doris Day Animal League, a nonprofit organization that lobbies for the humane treatment of animals. The group helped pass a 1998 California law requiring counseling for people convicted of animal abuse. She founded the Doris Day Animal Foundation in 1998 to offer educational and community programs on animal protection.

Her fourth husband, Barry Comden, whom she married in 1976 and divorced five years later, died in 2009.