You’ve all heard the story, right? How Doris Day’s husband and manager Martin Melcher died one day in 1968, whereupon Day learned that she had horrible debts and that she was committed to doing a television show. She had never been consulted and didn’t want to do it, but not doing it meant financial ruin. So she grinned and bore it.
The Doris Day Show is also famous for the major shifts in its premise, rare among tv shows. First she is a widowed mom living with her two sons on a California ranch; then she gets a job on a San Francisco magazine and commutes; then she and the boys move to San Francisco; then the boys vanish without explanation and she is just a single woman living in San Francisco, working on a magazine. Nowadays we have a name for that: serial killer.
The Doris Day Show is also justly celebrated for the incredible cast. At various times it included Denver Pyle, McLean Stevenson (the show is what put him on the map; he left in order to take the role of Henry Blake on M*A*S*H), Rose Marie, Bernie Kopell, Kay Ballard, Billy DeWolfe, Jackie Joseph, John Dehner, and Peter Lawford, with people like Strother Martin, Edward Andrews, Larry Storch, Lew Ayres, Van Johnson, and Patrick O’Neal in recurring parts. When you’re a beloved movie star you can attract good talent.
The show was on for five years (1968-1973) before being killed along with numerous other programs in the so-called “Rural Purge” at CBS. This was a good run, but the grind and constant exposure meant the end of Day’s film career. Her last film was With Six You Get Eggroll (1968) with Brian Keith, who was also about to be ensnared by a sitcom, Family Affair. Day did some talk and variety shows after this, but The Doris Day Show essentially represents the last leg of a career that had begun in the 1940s. What’s especially unfortunate about that is that she was only 51 years old when her show went off the air. She has been in effective retirement for the past 45 years.
It wasn’t until I recently went back and watched some episodes that I realize that I had seen the show in my very early childhood; it was one of the first tv shows I ever saw. There’s a sweetness and naivete in the tone that reminds me a lot of other shows from the same period, like Here’s Lucy and The Mothers-in-Law. This is of course what got her cancelled in the edgy, rapidly transformational 1970s. And it was what kept her from pursuing movie roles afterward, not knowing how to update her squeaky clean screen persona for the new times. Mary Tyler Moore was the one who had tweaked something Doris Day-esque and made it palatable in modern terms. But Moore was younger. Day was a mature woman. She’d have to completely reinvent herself to stay in step with the times. She opted to preserve the memory of her older image and leave it at that. For more on Doris Day during the earlier phase of her career go here.