9:00am

Mon April 2, 2012
Movie Interviews

Doris Day: A Hollywood Legend Reflects On Life

Originally published on Mon April 2, 2012 12:54 pm

The biggest female box-office star in Hollywood history, Doris Day started singing and dancing when she was a teenager, and made her first film when she was 24. After nearly 40 movies, she walked away from that part of her life in 1968, and started rescuing and caring for animals.

Now 87, the actress lives in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif. Last year, she released My Heart, her first record since 1967's The Love Album. She's also the subject of a new four-DVD box set of her films — and was named TCM's star of the month for April, which means 28 of her movies will air during prime time this week on the network.

The Making Of A Star

Day started her career as a teenage dancer in Cincinnati. She was spotted by a Paramount Pictures talent scout who wanted to fly her out to Hollywood, but a car accident on the night of her going-away party shattered her leg and her dreams of being a professional dancer. As Day recovered from her injuries, she listened to the radio and discovered she had a talent for singing.

"I had to lie down, and I was just laying down all the time, and a couple of years went by. And the bones in my right leg from the knee down were not healing," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "And that went on for a few years. ... And [then] when I started to heal, that's when I started to sing — by myself — in a beautiful club in Cincinnati at the age of 16."

The club was 18-and-up, so Day's bandleader lied to the club owners and told them that his young singer was, in fact, a legal adult.

"I kept forgetting that I wasn't two years older for years," she says. "As the years go on, and my mother said to me, 'You know what, it just occurred to me. You're not really 30. You're 28.' And I looked at her and said, 'Oh my gosh, I forgot all about that.'"

'Romance On The High Seas'

Day's singing career eventually led her to Hollywood, where she got a part in the 1948 film Romance on the High Seas, without knowing she was auditioning for the role.

"I was just out in Hollywood singing, and my manager was with me, and we were going to have lunch," she says. "And he drove out to the studio, and I knew nothing about that. We were standing around, and I said, 'What are we doing?' and he said, 'I'm arranging something.'"

Day's manager told her that a young man was auditioning for a role in a movie and she needed to help him out. That man, unbeknownst to Day, was actually the film's director.

"So I read my lines, and after that, he came up and took my hands and said, 'Darling, you were very good' and I thought, 'How funny' and said, 'Thank you so much, it was nice to meet you.' And with that, we left," she says.

Day was due to leave Los Angeles the following morning, but received a phone call in her hotel room. It was actor Jack Carson.

"And he said, 'Miss Day, this is Jack Carson. I know it's early in the day to be calling you, and I heard that you were leaving for New York. I want to tell you something — you are going to be in the best part, the most important part, in the movie I'm doing next. And I want you to be in it,'" she says.

Day accepted the offer and soon began working on the film. On her second day of work, she was invited into a studio to watch herself on the screen for the first time.

"I went in and I just stood there, and Jack came up to me and he put his arms around me," she says. "And he said, 'Everything is just perfect. And you're the one. And I really enjoyed it today.' And he gave me a big hug."

In the '50s and '60s, Day starred in a string of romantic comedies, but frequently played an independent working woman. In 1959's Pillow Talk, she played an independent interior designer opposite Rock Hudson. In Love Come Back, she worked in the advertising world. In Touch of Mink, with Cary Grant, she played a career woman.

"I didn't feel different in any of them," she says, "even though they were different. I loved being married, and I loved not being married but working on it. And doing what I was supposed to do and be. That's the way I worked."

Working With Animals

Day stopped making movies in 1968, in part because she wanted a quieter lifestyle than what was available in Los Angeles.

"I came out to Carmel and it was so nice, and I have so many doggies," she says. "And I thought that this would really be nice."

In 1971, Day co-founded Actors and Others for Animals, and began to take an active role in animal rescue work with the SPCA. She placed dozens of rescue dogs in people's homes and rescued many on her own. At one point, she had 30 dogs living in her house.

"It was another area of the house," she says. "There was a lovely outside place to eat, and it was so pretty and lovely with the fountain and everything. And on the other side of that was where I had the dogs. And they had a big area to run and they had a huge area to play. They were just fabulous and I kept them all."

Day currently has six dogs and four cats.

"If I come across a doggie who needs a home, that's when I take them," she says. "They're in a special area — an outdoor area — but the ceiling is all glass and they look up there and see the trees. They have two big rooms inside and then one outside. They just love it."


Interview Highlights

On Singing 'Que Sera Sera' In The Man Who Knew Too Much

"The first time somebody told me it was going to be in that movie, I thought, 'Why?' I didn't think there was a place to put that song. ... I thought, 'I'm not crazy about that. Where are they going to put it? For what?' ... I didn't think it was a good song."

On The Popularity Of 'Que Sera Sera'

"I thought that was wonderful, because it became that because of children. And then I understood it. Because it was for our child in the movie. Then I realized, 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 I can't say that it's a favorite song of mine, but, boy, it sure did something."

On What She Likes To Sing

"I like to sing love songs. I like to sing others, too. There's so many that I love. I love them and I love singing them."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME")

DORIS DAY: (as Ruth Etting) What have you accomplished? Can you produce a picture? Have you done one successful thing on your own? Just who do you think you are?

JAMES CAGNEY: (as Martin Snyder) Whoever I am kiddo, I'm what makes you tick.

GROSS: That's Doris Day having it out with James Cagney in the 1955 film "Love Me or Leave Me," one of the four Doris Day films TCM has just released in a new DVD box set in celebration of her 88th birthday, which is tomorrow.

TCM has also just released a two-CD set of her recordings, and she's TCM's star of the month, which means they'll be showing her movies in primetime tonight through Friday night this week, a total of 28 films.

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")

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. Que Sera, Sera.

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 this film when the song played constantly on my parent's radio station for years - the station they tortured me with when what I wanted to hear was rock 'n roll.

DAY: 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 a trio. Her voice is so beautiful. You'll hear what I mean on this 1962 track with Andre Previn that's included on the new TCM's CD reissue.

(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 above my head. Though I see the danger there. If there's a chance for me, then I don't care. Fools rush in...

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. This movie is also included in the TCM DVD box.

(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 TRIO: (Singing) The lady's in love.

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

TRIO: (Singing) The lady said please.

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

GROSS: Pretty good, right? In 1954, Doris Day start 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 are 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.

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

GROSS: So I 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 gives 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 parent's 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, ah.

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?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So, you know, I'm wondering, when you gave up acting and performing - your last movie was in '68, your last TV I think was in '73 - and you've been avoiding the public eye and keeping photographers away, but do you still enjoy singing even if it was just around the house?

DAY: Oh, I love singing. But I had bronchitis which I, you know, that I never had before my life and only when I moved here, and it was very, very, very rough on me. And I think that my voice is - it seems that it's different to me and it makes me feel terrible because I love to sing so much. And sometimes I sing around the house. Sometimes I start singing and it sounds, it sounds like me and I feel, you know, so good about that, and sometimes it doesn't because the air up here is so different than when I was in Los Angeles. It's totally different.

GROSS: When did you get the bronchitis?

DAY: Oh, it was a few years ago.

GROSS: And where are you, exactly?

DAY: I'm in Carmel. I'm in the Carmel Valley.

GROSS: Oh, I know, I know that area. Yeah. And it can get kind of chilly and foggy.

DAY: Mm-hmm. It sure does.

GROSS: So did singing always feel more pure to you, like 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? Just I feel like I'm hearing your essence.

(SOUNDBITE OF 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 would, that I would be singing in that first film and it was just natural. It just came so natural.

GROSS: And that was "Romance on the High Seas."

DAY: Yes.

GROSS: My guest Doris Day. Tomorrow is her 88th birthday. TCM is showing her movies every night this week, and there's a new four-DVD box set of her films and a two-CD set of recordings curated by her. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN YOU WISH UPON A STAR")

GROSS: Let's get back to the interview I recorded last week with Doris Day. We called her at her home in California. Tomorrow is her 88th, and in celebration, TCM is showing her movies every week day this week.

So a lot of people may already know the 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 were 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 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 that accident happened it was a bad thing for my leg. It 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 the time and then a couple of years went by because the - I hate to go into all of this. It must be boring.

GROSS: No.

DAY: 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 in the bones would come together.

GROSS: Did that give you a sense of patience or anxiety? I mean, because you must have been really nervous about healing. At the same 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 has to be, will be. And that sounds like "Que Sera."

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

(SOUNDBITE OF 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 the band in Cincinnati at the age of 16. But then 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Ah-ha, so you had to lie a little bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAY: So he did, he did it. I kept that 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, you know what? She said it just occurred to me you've been whatever the number was that she'd talked about, she's 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAY: We both did.

GROSS: So what birthday are re-really celebrating now?

DAY: Eighty-eight.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF 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, 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 Carey Grant, 1962, you're a career woman. So, you know, you're actually playing these independent working women.

DAY: That's what I was. For real.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: For real. Right. For real, you must've 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: Hmm. 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. I didn't feel different in any of them, even though they were different. I loved, you know, being married and I loved not being married, but working on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF 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 "With Six You Get Egg Roll," 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 so 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've stayed because I loved 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've lived in Carmel and still made movies, maybe fewer movies, but you could've.

DAY: Yeah, I could have but I have so many dogs that I love dearly and I was working and helping the SPCA. 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.

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 have a big, big house.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: How many dogs was that?

DAY: Oh, at one time 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: Mm-hmm. Well, I had a big, big house here.

GROSS: How big was it?

DAY: Oh, big.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Like how many rooms?

DAY: Oh, my gosh. Three upstairs, four upstairs, 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.

DAY: Well, see, it 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've thought that was a lot; now it seems like nothing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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

GROSS: Are they dogs? 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: My guest is Doris Day. Tomorrow is her 88th birthday. TCM is showing her movies every night this week and there is a new four-DVD box set of her films and a two-CD set of her recordings that she curated herself. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Let's get back to the interview I recorded last week with Doris Day. We called her at her home in California. Tomorrow is her 88th birthday and in celebration, TCM is showing her movies every weekday night this week.

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAY: I didn't either.

GROSS: That's what I've 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 somebody told me it was going to be in that movie, I thought, why? Because the movie, you know, how horrible it was toward the ending when our boy was kidnapped. And I didn't think 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?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And for anybody who doesn't know the song, the lyric is Que Sera, Sera, whatever will be, will be. The future is 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 did 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 - that was probably a number one hit and yet you didn't really like it very much.

DAY: Well, I thought that was wonderful because I think it became that because of children.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

DAY: 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 and I think it's 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 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 because I know how little of this you do.

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

GROSS: Yes, it is.

DAY: Isn't that funny.

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

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

GROSS: Oh, well, 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: Doris Day spoke to us from her home in Carmel, California. Tomorrow is her 88th birthday. TCM is showing her movies every weekday night this week and TCM has teamed up with Sony Masterworks and Warner Home Video to release a four-movie DVD package and a double-CD set curated by Doris Day collecting 31 songs. Happy Birthday, Doris Day.

I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related program: