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Laraine Day, 87; 'Dr. Kildare' film actress had love of baseball

November 12, 2007|Myrna Oliver | Special to The Times

Laraine Day, the actress best remembered for her portrayal of Lew Ayres' fiancee in a series of 1940s Dr. Kildare movies, has died. She was 87.

Day died Saturday at the home of her daughter, Gigi Bell, in Ivins, Utah, according to her publicist, Dale Olson. Day had moved to Utah in March after the death of her husband of 47 years, producer Michel M. Grilikhes.

The actress made more than four dozen films from the late 1930s to 1960, working opposite such luminaries as Ayres, Cary Grant, Robert Mitchum, Lana Turner, John Wayne, Spencer Tracy, Joel McCrea and Kirk Douglas.

In addition to the Kildare series, she demonstrated solid acting ability in such films as Alfred Hitchcock's noir "Foreign Correspondent" and her personal favorites, 1943's "Mr. Lucky" with Grant and the 1946 psychological drama "The Locket" with Mitchum.

Yet she failed to become a Hollywood superstar. Studio executives pigeonholed the dark-haired actress as "attractive ordinary" and seldom paired her with top directors who could have boosted her career.

"Let someone else be the world's greatest actress," she said with characteristic geniality in 1953. "I'll be the world's greatest baseball fan."

The actress' affinity for baseball came out of her second marriage, to Leo Durocher, the legendary manager of what were then the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants.

Day hated baseball as a girl and never attended a game. When she met Durocher, she didn't know who he was or what the Dodgers were.

Durocher, she later told fans, converted her to baseball by recounting fascinating anecdotes about players.

"Baseball is not a lot of statistics to me," she said in 1950. "It's blood and tears."

That year, to help the Giants attract more female fans, Day launched a 15-minute television interview show with players before home games. The show originated from a booth at the Polo Grounds and was carried by New York's WPIX.

Variety, in reviewing her first show, complimented "her good looks, infectious personality and better-than-speaking acquaintance with baseball."

She became known as "the first lady of baseball" and accompanied Durocher and the Giants to Cuba for spring training. She traveled with the team during the regular season and in 1952 wrote "Day With the Giants," which the New York Herald Tribune called "an amusing, informative book, the first to report on baseball from the viewpoint of the wife."

Although they divorced in 1960, the couple remained friends until Durocher's death in 1991. When he was posthumously inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., it was Day who was chosen from his four wives to attend.

Born La Raine Johnson on Oct. 13, 1920, into a devout Mormon family in Roosevelt, Utah, she moved to Long Beach with her family as a child.

Determined to become an actress since she saw her first movie at age 6, she studied with the drama teacher Elias Day and signed her first contract with RKO.

She starred opposite George O'Brien in a series of westerns under her birth name, but would eventually take Day's name in gratitude for his help.

Half a dozen other films followed before her career took off with the role of nurse Mary Lamont in the Dr. Kildare series from 1939 to 1941.

Long before Richard Chamberlain took the role to television, Ayres and Day entertained movie audiences with "Calling Dr. Kildare," "The Secret of Dr. Kildare," "Dr. Kildare's Strange Case," "Dr. Kildare Goes Home," "Dr. Kildare's Crisis" and "The People vs. Dr. Kildare." When MGM decided their contract leading lady was becoming stereotyped in the role, they had her killed by a truck before Ayres could marry her in "Dr. Kildare's Wedding Day."

In the 1950s, aside from her baseball shows, Day had a short-lived television variety show, "The Laraine Day Show," and spent a year as a panelist on the TV show "I've Got a Secret."

Although she acted sporadically on the big screen through the late 1950s, her last major film was the 1954 airplane melodrama, "The High and the Mighty" opposite Wayne.

Day also was a regular in the early days of television, appearing on "Climax" and "Playhouse 90" and later on such series as "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "Wagon Train," "Let Freedom Ring," "FBI," "Sixth Sense," "Murder, She Wrote," "Fantasy Island," "Love Boat" and "Lou Grant."

After two divorces, Day married Grilikhes in 1961.

According to her publicist, Day and Grilikhes were instrumental in the development of the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii. They also arranged for the Te Arohanui Maori Company of singers and dancers of New Zealand to tour the United States, which included a performance at the Hollywood Bowl, recorded for international distribution with Day serving as narrator.

She is survived by two daughters with Grilikhes, Gigi Bell and Dana Grilikhes Nassi; a son, Christopher, and daughter, Michelle, with Durocher; numerous grandchildren; and a twin brother, Lamar Johnson, of Chico, Calif.

Services and burial will be private. A public memorial is being planned.

Instead of flowers, the family suggests donations to Share Inc., P.O. Box 1342, Beverly Hills, CA 90213.

Times staff writer Jon Thurber contributed to this report.

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