Doris Day, ‘the girl next door’ was a fiercely compassionate pioneer | Opinion

Celebrated actress, singer Doris Day dies at 97

Known for starring in a number of musicals, Doris Day was an American actress, singer and animal rights activist.
Up Next
Known for starring in a number of musicals, Doris Day was an American actress, singer and animal rights activist.

Doris Day died on Monday at 97.

Depending on your age, that is front-page news, for obvious reasons, or not. But those for whom her death is a “Meh” are living with the results of her enlightened spirit.

Day’s fame, first as a girl singer in a big band, then as a Hollywood and TV actress was legendary, and rightly so. She was a movie blonde, but far from the Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly or Jayne Mansfield type. She was “the eternal virgin,” the good girl next door. The sexiest thing about Day were her freckles and her sunny, million-volt disposition. She once said, “I never said or sang anything that I didn’t believe.”

Hers was an outlook that, ironically, put this all-American girl decades ahead of the rest of society in embracing the rejected and showing compassion for beings unable to speak for themselves.

Off-screen, Day was at the intersection of several significant events in American history — the shocking events of the Charles Manson murders, the panicked bigotry spawned by the AIDS epidemic and animal rights.

In 1969, when followers of madman Charles Manson stormed into an Los Angeles home and murdered five people, among them the pregnant actress Sharon Tate, police soon learned that the intended victim was likely Day’s only son, Terry Melcher, a record producer who had lived in the house months earlier. Manson had met Melcher via Beach Boy Dennis Wilson. Manson wanted rock ’n’ roll fame, too. But Melcher grew wary about the weird guy who had shown up at his house. When Melcher told his famous mother, Day insisted he move out.

Day likely saved her son’s life, but for years afterward, she and Melcher, who died in 2004, lived in fear of retaliation from free Manson family members.

Day was there at another touchstone moment, when it was revealed that AIDS, which was turning gay men into pariahs — at least, more than they already were in the early 1980s — had come for handsome 1950s lover-boy actor Rock Hudson. The headlines went berserk.

In 1985, Day was launching a television show, a first of its kind, focused on her well-known animal welfare activism. She wanted her old movie co-star Hudson to be her first guest. But Hudson had contracted the AIDS virus. He was in a fight for his life.

Secretive, but unable to say No to Day, Hudson agreed to show up for a promotional appearance with her, which went the equivalent of what today is called “viral.” What America saw that day — an almost unrecognizable gaunt and frail Hudson — gave people a humanizing look at the disease.

And there was Day, without realizing it, launching a new reality that would change so much about AIDS in America. After all, this was a perceived heterosexual hunk dying of AIDS. Many outside Hollywood didn’t know Hudson was gay — and even Day had helped promote that false image of Hudson. On her show, she hugged and kissed Hudson at a time when uninformed Americans were afraid to even shake hands with someone with HIV/AIDS.

Day’s courage brought humanity where there had been hysteria. She helped turn that tide.

She also rescued and cared for thousands of dogs, an issue that no longer seems quirky. After her television show ended its run, she retired to then little-known Carmel, California, which her presence helped put on the map. Day did all that and more in a lifetime, with a contagious smile on her face and, more important, compassion in her heart.