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Laraine Day; actress was called first lady of baseball

LARAINE DAY LARAINE DAY (ap/file)
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Special To The Los Angeles Times / November 13, 2007

LOS ANGELES - Laraine Day, the actress best remembered on screen as Lew Ayres's fiancée in a series of 1940s "Dr. Kildare" movies, has died. She was 87.

Ms. Day died Saturday at the home of her daughter, Gigi Bell, in Ivins, Utah, according to publicist Dale Olson. Ms. 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 fim noir, "Foreign Correspondent," and her personal favorites, the 1943 "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."

Ms. Day's affinity with baseball occurred solely because of her second marriage to Leo Durocher, the legendary manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers (1939-46, 1948), New York Giants (1948-55), Chicago Cubs (1966-72), and Houston Astros (1972-73).

Ms. Day hated baseball as a schoolgirl and never attended a game. When she met Durocher she didn't know who he was.

Durocher, she later told fans, converted her to baseball by telling her 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 baseball fans, Ms. Day launched a 15-minute television interview show with players prior to home games.

The show originated from a booth at the Polo Grounds and was carried by New York's WPIX.

She became known as "the first lady of baseball" and accompanied Durocher and the Giants to Cuba for spring training, traveled during the regular season with them, and in 1952 wrote a book, "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 his death in 1991.

Born La Raine Johnson on Oct. 13, 1920, into a devout Mormon family in Roosevelt, Utah, Ms. Day 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.

At 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.

A half dozen other films followed before her career took off when she became nurse Mary Lamont in the Dr. Kildare series from 1939 to 1941.

Long before Richard Chamberlain took the role to television, Ayres and Ms. Day entertained theater 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, Ms. Day had a short-lived television variety show, "The Laraine Day Show," and spent a year as a panelist on the television 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.

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

Following her divorces from Ray Hendricks and Durocher, Ms. Day married Grilikhes in 1961.

Ms. Day leaves two daughters with Grilikhes, Gigi Bell and Dana Grilikhes Nassi; a son, Christopher, and daughter, Michelle, with Durocher; a twin brother, Lamar Johnson, of Chico; and numerous grandchildren.

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