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'Fresh Air' Remembers Hollywood Legend Doris Day

May 15, 2019
Originally published on May 21, 2019 12:07 pm

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to listen back to the interview I was lucky enough to record with Doris Day, who stayed out of the public eye for decades after giving up her movie career. She died Monday at the age of 97. As film critic Carrie Rickey wrote in her obituary for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Doris Day was beloved for her popular songs, films and wholesomeness. It's hard to name another figure whose sunny persona was so at odds with her stormy life.

I spoke with Doris Day in April 2012 after TCM, Turner Classic Movies, released a DVD box set of four of her films and a double CD of her recordings. We first broadcast this interview one day before Day's 88th birthday. Here's our broadcast from 2012.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: I'm thrilled to be able to celebrate Doris Day's birthday with an interview that I just recorded with her. Before we hear it and before I tell you why I love her singing, let me tell you why when I was young I didn't. This is the reason.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUE SERA, SERA (WHATEVER WILL BE, WILL BE)")

DORIS DAY: (Singing) Que sera, sera. Whatever will be will be. The future's not ours to see. Que sera, sera. What will be will be.

GROSS: Although that song is from a Doris Day movie I like, Alfred Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much," I hadn't yet seen the film when the song played constantly on my parents' radio station for years, the station they tortured me with when what I wanted to hear was rock 'n' roll. Day's romantic comedies of the '60s also seemed like they were for my parents, not for me. Then I grew up and started listening to jazz and jazz singers, and I heard some of Doris Day's recordings with just a pianist or trio. Her voice is so beautiful. You'll hear what I mean on this 1962 track with Andre Previn.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOOLS RUSH IN")

DAY: (Singing) Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. And so I come to you, my love. My heart's above my head. Though I see the danger there. If there's a chance for me, then I don't care. Fools rush in where wise men...

GROSS: So the next step for me was going back and watching her early movies and finding songs like this one with the Page Cavanaugh Trio from her first film "Romance On The High Seas" released in 1948.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S YOU OR NO ONE")

DAY: (Singing) It's you or no one for me. I'm sure of this each time we kiss.

PAGE CAVANAUGH: (Singing) The lady's in love.

DAY: (Singing) Now and forever and when forever's done, you'll find that you are still the one. Please...

CAVANAUGH: (Singing) The lady said please.

DAY: (Singing) ...Don't say no to my plea.

GROSS: Pretty good, right? In 1954, Doris Day starred opposite Frank Sinatra in the film "Young At Heart." He played a songwriter, and at the end of the film, they duet on the song his character writes. And if you're a fan of Day and Sinatra, watching and hearing them together is something special.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU, MY LOVE")

DAY: (Singing) Yes and because of you, my love, my wishful dreams came true, my love.

DORIS DAY AND FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) In my uncertain heart, I am only certain of how much I love you, my love.

GROSS: So I've told you some of the reasons why I love Doris Day. I guess everyone who loves her has their own reasons. And when I say everyone, I mean lots of people. Doris Day is the biggest female box office star in Hollywood history. She started singing in big bands when she was a teenager, made her first film when she was 24 and, after making about 40 movies, walked away from that part of her life in 1968. After that, her mission was rescuing and caring for animals. Doris Day ended her public life many years ago. We phoned her at her home in California.

Doris Day, welcome to FRESH AIR. I know you rarely give interviews, so let me start by saying that even if we only get to speak for a few moments, I'm so excited that I get to wish you a happy birthday and tell you how much your work means to me.

When I grew up, your movies were very popular, but I kind of thought of them as my parents' generation, likewise with the recordings. But when I started making my own taste, I fell in love with your early recordings, and that led me to your movies - your early movies, your later movies. And I just love your work.

DAY: Thank you so much. I can't believe it.

GROSS: Now...

DAY: You're so sweet to say all those nice things.

GROSS: I have to say your voice still sounds like Doris Day's voice.

DAY: Does it?

GROSS: Yeah.

DAY: Well that's good, huh?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Did singing always feel more pure to you, like, 'cause I always think, like, when you're in a movie, you're playing a part. But when I hear you singing, I just feel like that is you; that is, like, just cutting to your essence. There's something so beautiful and also naked about it. Like, there's no - you're not - I don't feel like you're playing a character. Do you know what I'm saying? I feel like I'm hearing your essence.

(LAUGHTER)

DAY: Well, that sounds good to me.

GROSS: But did you feel different as a singer than as an actress?

DAY: No, not at all. I just - you know, I was put in a film. I had never acted. And then I discovered that we were - that I would be singing in that first film. And it was just natural. It was - it just came so natural.

GROSS: And that was "Romance On The High Seas."

DAY: Yes.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Doris Day in 2012. She died Monday at the age of 97. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARTURO SANDOVAL'S "TEE PEE TIME")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering Doris Day. She died Monday. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with her in 2012.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: So a lot of people may already know this story, but when you were a teenager and Paramount offered to bring you from your home in Cincinnati to Hollywood, you had a going-away party. And on the way home, the car you were in was hit by a train, and one of your legs was shattered. And that ruined what your dream was at the time, which was to be a dancer. And it's only after that that you discovered you could sing. And when I hear that story, I think, how could Doris Day possibly have known that she couldn't sing until (laughter) - until she was a teenager and laid up after this accident?

DAY: When that accident happened, I was a dancer with a boy partner. And I was very young, but we used to sing together, and then we would dance. So I was used to singing. But then when that accident happened, it was a bad thing for my - I - my leg was hurt badly and my right foot so much so that I couldn't walk, and I had to lie down.

And I was just lying down all of the time, and a couple of years went by because the bones in my right leg from the knee down were not healing. And so that went on for a few years. And I did nothing but just lie there because they had to wait until the bone - and the bones would come together.

GROSS: Did that give you a sense of patience or anxiety, I mean 'cause you must have been really nervous about healing at the time. Only patience can see you through something like that.

DAY: Well, my mother didn't go into the details about the bones not knitting. She just said, you know, we have to take our time with this, and you understand that. And I said, sure, whatever I have to be will be. And that sounds like "Que Sera"...

GROSS: It sure does. I was going to point that out.

(LAUGHTER)

DAY: No, but I didn't mind. I wasn't upset, and I wasn't anxious to get out of bed. I knew that I had to lie there and be quiet. And suddenly it pulled together, and I was able to stand. And then before too long, I was singing with a band in Cincinnati at the age of 16. But the man who brought his band into the place was well-known in Cincinnati and loved by everybody.

And my mother told him about 16. And she said that she's not supposed to be singing anywhere and getting paid at 16. And he said, we'll put a pretty gown on her. We're going to fix her hair really beautiful, and she's going to sing the way I like her to sing. And then we go on from there, and she's 18 (laughter).

GROSS: Aha. So you had a lie a little bit (laughter).

DAY: Oh, he did. He did it. I kept that - the two years older - for years. It was really funny. I was always two years older than I really was. And so then, you know, as the years go on and my mother said to me, do you know what? She said, it just occurred to me. You've been whatever the number was that she'd talked about it - maybe, like, 30 - she said, you know what? You're not really 30. You're 28. And I looked at her, and I said, oh, my gosh, I forgot all about that. (Laughter) We both did.

GROSS: So what birthday are we actually celebrating now?

DAY: Eighty-eight.

GROSS: OK, so that's the real number, OK.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So you became famous for your romantic comedies in the '50s and '60s, but there was this image of you that became formed that the characters you played were kind of, you know, like, bland and a little stereotyped or something. But really when you look at the roles you played, like, you're a working woman and - you're an independent, single, working woman in some of those, like, really classic films.

You know, like, in "Pillow Talk" in 1959 with Rock Hudson, you're an independent interior decorator. In "Lover Come Back To Me," 1961 with Rock Hudson, you worked in the advertising industry. In "Touch Of Mink" with Cary Grant 1962, you're a career woman. So you know, you're actually playing these independent, working women.

DAY: That's what I was.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DAY: For real.

GROSS: For real, right. For real, you must have been pretty tough, actually.

DAY: Oh, I don't know.

GROSS: No?

DAY: I don't know about being tough. But what we were doing was something that I was just loving. You know, I just loved my work. And whatever they wanted me to do, I wanted to do.

GROSS: Did you get the sense that there was this, like, image of who Doris Day was that was sometimes not really who either your characters were or who you were?

DAY: No, no, I didn't. I just did what it wanted me to do. I didn't compare, in other words, and say, oh, God, I'm not like that. Whatever - when I read the script, the words told me what I was. And I never had a problem with that. I played me doing that.

GROSS: Is that the way you saw it - playing yourself but as somebody else?

DAY: Playing myself no matter what it was.

GROSS: Playing yourself as if you were in that position of your character.

DAY: That's right. It had to be done like that. I had to say things like that. It was fine.

GROSS: What was the biggest stretch for you, the character most unlike you?

DAY: Oh, they were all different, though I didn't feel different in any of them even though they were different. I loved, you know, being married, and I love not being married but working on it...

GROSS: (Laughter).

DAY: ...And doing what I was supposed to do and be. That's the way I worked.

GROSS: So you left the movies after 1968. Your last film was "With Six You Get Eggroll." And it was the same year that your husband of the time died. Why did you leave movies then?

DAY: I don't know. I thought that I had done all the different things, and I loved doing them. And then I had a feeling of just quieting down. And I came out to Carmel, and it was so nice. You know, and I have so many doggies. And I thought, this would really be nice - to get out of Los Angeles because it was changing down there quickly. And it wasn't good.

And I came up, and we redid a home. And I just moved in, and that was it. And to be in films - when I think about that, then I thought I should have stayed because I love that 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. And that's the way I felt.

GROSS: But it didn't have to be, like, one or the other. You could have lived in Carmel and still made movies, maybe fewer movies. But you could have.

DAY: Yeah, I could have but I have so many dogs that I love dearly, and I was working and helping the SPCA. I was - I rented a place that I could have dogs not in my house. I rented a big place. And I was able to have the SPCA every end of the week bring many, many dogs to me.

They all were in nice places, clean - everything was fine. I took good care of them. And so many people called. Darling ladies came and said, I want to help you. I'll work for nothing. I love dogs, too, and cats. And I said, well, that's great. And so that's what I started to do right away. And I just loved it. I placed dogs with wonderful people and lovely homes, and the dogs were just precious.

And then one day, a woman came out where we always did the work and said that, you're to get off the property or - who's Doris Day here? You're out of here in two weeks. It was just rude, and we managed to get out. And I kept all the dogs that I had there.

GROSS: Where? Where did you keep them?

DAY: In my house.

GROSS: Oh, gosh.

DAY: I had a big, big house.

GROSS: How many dogs was that?

DAY: (Laughter) Oh, at once about 30.

GROSS: Oh, my God, are you kidding?

DAY: No, and I kept them.

GROSS: You kept them all.

DAY: Yep.

GROSS: Thirty.

DAY: Mmm hmm. Well, I had a big, big house here.

GROSS: How big was it?

DAY: Oh, big (laughter).

GROSS: Like, how many rooms?

DAY: Oh, my gosh - three upstairs, four upstairs, four downstairs - a lot of rooms.

GROSS: OK.

DAY: It's so difficult. And then I had my own area in another spot. It was connected of course. And that was just perfect for me. Everything was right. It was good. And I could have as many dogs as I wanted. And oh, I kept them until they went to heaven.

GROSS: Wow. You really lived with a lot of dogs for a long time (laughter).

DAY: Well, there was another area of the house, and they had a big run. They had a huge area to play. They were just fabulous, just fabulous. And I kept them all.

GROSS: So how many animals do you live with now?

DAY: Six.

GROSS: I would have thought that was a lot. Now it seems like nothing (laughter).

DAY: Well, I can - well, I...

GROSS: Are they dogs, or are any of them cats?

DAY: Oh, yes, cats, too, lots of cats.

GROSS: How many cats?

DAY: Oh, God, maybe 10.

GROSS: Now?

DAY: But I have lots of room. Oh, yeah. And they're in a special area in the house. They have an outdoor area. It's closed. They can't get out. But the ceiling is all glass, and they look up there, and they see the trees. And when it rains, they love it. And it's perfect for them.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Doris Day in 2012. She died Monday at the age of 97. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANK JONES AND FRANK WESS' "A HANKERIN'")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering Doris Day. She died Monday. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with her in 2012.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: So I want to confess something to you, which is when I was growing up, the first real big hit of yours that I knew was "Que Sera, Sera," which you sing in "The Man Who Knew Too Much," the Alfred Hitchcock film. And so my confession is that I didn't like it (laughter).

DAY: Me neither.

GROSS: That's what I read - that you didn't like it either and you didn't want - so I was so happy to read that. Tell me why you didn't like it.

DAY: Well, the first time that somebody told me it was going to be in that movie, I thought, why - 'cause the movie - you know how horrible it was toward the ending when our boy was kidnapped. And I didn't think that there was a place to put that song. And I heard the song before I - you know, I knew what the story was completely. But then they tell me that that's going to be in the movie. I thought, why?

GROSS: For anybody who doesn't know the song, the lyric is que sera, sera, whatever will be will be. The future's not ours to see. Que sera, sera.

DAY: Yeah. And I thought, I'm not crazy about that. Where are they going to put it? You know, for what? Is it when I put him in bed sometime and I sing that to him or something? I do that in another film. And I thought maybe that's what it's going to be. And I just - I didn't think it was a good song.

GROSS: And just standing on its own as a song, did you like it?

DAY: No, it isn't the kind of song that I like to sing.

GROSS: So how did you feel about that being - well, there's probably a No. 1 hit, and yet you didn't really like it very much.

DAY: Well, I thought that was wonderful because I think it came - it became that because of children. And then I understood it because it was for the child, for our child in the movie.

GROSS: Right.

DAY: And so then I - you know, I realized. So maybe it isn't a favorite song of mine, but people loved it, and kids loved it. And it was perfect for the film. So you know, I can't say that it's a favorite song of mine that I think is fabulous, but boy it sure did something. It came out, and it was loved.

GROSS: What is a favorite song of yours?

DAY: Oh, I have too many.

GROSS: OK.

DAY: Oh, my God, I loved - I love to sing love songs. And I like to sing others, too. But there are so many that I love. I just really love them, and I love singing them.

GROSS: So I guess I just want to say thank you. Thank you for the interview. Thank you even more for your movies and your music. I'm so happy that I've had the chance to talk with you 'cause I know how little of this you do.

DAY: I'm happy that I had a chance to talk to you, too, Terry. It is Terry, isn't it?

GROSS: Yes, it is (laughter).

DAY: That's funny.

GROSS: Oh, because that's your son's name, yeah.

DAY: You're really good at what you do.

GROSS: Oh, thank you.

DAY: And I enjoyed it a lot. I really did.

GROSS: Oh, that makes me so happy. Thank you.

DAY: And it's so nice to say hello to you and to know you.

GROSS: Thank you. Thank you. I wish you good health.

DAY: And I wish you good health.

GROSS: Thank you.

DAY: And I send my love to you.

GROSS: My interview with Doris Day was recorded in April of 2012 and was originally broadcast one day before her 88th birthday. She died Monday at the age of 97.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL NEVER STOP LOVING YOU")

DAY: (Singing) I'll never stop loving you. Whatever else I may do, my love for you will live 'til time itself is through. I'll never stop wanting you. And when forever is through, my heart will beat the way it does each time we Meet. The night doesn't question the starts that appear in the skies, so why should I question the stars that appear in my eyes? Of this I'm more than just sure. My love will last and endure. I'll never - no, I'll never stop loving you.

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guests will be journalist Katherine Eban, who's investigated the safety and effectiveness of the generic drugs many of us take. She says most generics are now made overseas, often in India and China. Although the manufacturers are supposed to meet the same standards as U.S. drug makers, she reports on troubling cases of forged records and unsanitary conditions. She's written a new book called "Bottle Of Lies." I hope you can join us. I'm Terry Gross.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Doris Day was 97 at the time of her death. In this broadcast after she died, we say we had interviewed her in 2012 just before her 88th birthday. That was the information we had from Day at the time of the interview. But based on her birth certificate, which was obtained more recently by The Associated Press, Day was born in 1922, not 1924 as was widely believed. That made her one day shy of 90 years old at the time of the 2012 Fresh Air broadcast — two years older than we had stated at the time.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.