Long before Bill Hayes recorded “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” — a tune that’s instantly recognizable to millions, or became a soap opera super star on “Days of Our Lives” who was known for a romance that blossomed on and off-screen — he was a kid from south suburban Harvey who’d ride his bike to singing telegram jobs.
Mr. Hayes, who worked on the daytime soap opera for 53 years, appearing in more than 2,000 episodes, died Jan. 12 at his North Hollywood home from natural causes. He was 98.
From his earliest years, playful song was integral in the Hayes household. Mr. Hayes and his two brothers fell asleep to their father, an encyclopedia company executive, crooning lullabies in his baritone voice. Father and sons also sang around the house as a quartet.
The experiences undergirded a singing career on stage and screen that in 1970 led Mr. Hayes to the soap opera world. He played ex-con Doug Williams, who won a place in the hearts of millions of viewers, largely through the unmistakable chemistry he shared with the restive young beauty Julie Olson, played by Susan Seaforth — his future real-life wife.
“We had a scene together shortly after meeting, and the head writer saw something going on between the two of us, just two people looking at each other, and he threw out the other plot lines he had for our characters,” Seaforth Hayes said.
Mr. Hayes wasn’t looking for love. His marriage to his high school sweetheart, Mary, had just come to an end, and he found himself caring for their five kids. After years of traveling as a successful screen and stage actor, a soap opera gig that filmed in the Los Angeles area offered Mr. Hayes a way to be home with his family at the end of each day.
Increasingly flirtatious scenes culminated in a kiss that needed more than five takes to get right due to a faulty record player skipping in the background.
Seaforth Hayes remembers being “forever grateful for the prop man’s faulty equipment.”
But it was just scripted. The actress, who was 30 at the time, and 15 years younger than Mr. Hayes, wanted a romantic relationship with her co-star in real life, too.
“I’d seen enough to know that he was special,” she recalled.
She bought cook books and began inviting him to a dinner parties. Mr. Hayes was the only common guest at all of gatherings. Her strategy worked. The couple married in real life in 1974 and on screen two years later in an episode that was viewed by more than 16 million people. And thousands of fans showed up to the show’s Burbank studios the day their characters wed. Showrunners set up tents and closed circuit television screens so they could watch.
The couple — known to fans simply as “Doug and Julie” — appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1976 above the tagline “Soap Operas: Sex and Suffering in the Afternoon.”
The couple filmed their last scene together on the show, which now streams on Peacock, three weeks before he died.
“We got into a conversation that we often had in real life, which begins with me saying ‘Did I ever tell you how much I love you?’ And then he would say ‘No. You never did,’” Seaforth Hayes said.
William Foster Hayes III was born on June 5, 1925, at Ingalls Memorial Hospital in Harvey to Betty Hayes, a schoolteacher, and William Foster Hayes II.
Mr. Hayes attended DePauw University for a year before joining the Navy. The war ended before he finished training to become a fighter pilot. He returned to school and earned a liberal arts degree in 1947 and later earned a master’s degree in music from Northwestern University.
His first break came when he secured a role in a national tour of the musical “Carousel.” He later performed dozens of stage productions including in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Me and Juliet” on Broadway.
His television debut came in 1949 as a singer on “Fireball Fun-for-All,” an NBC variety show featuring the vaudeville act Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson.
He went on to become a regular on “Your Show of Shows,” another variety show featuring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. Mr. Hayes became friends with two other legends who worked on the show: Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.
In 1955, Mr. Hayes also rode the popularity that Disney brought to the character Davy Crockett after record producer Archie Bleyer heard a song featured on a television series about the frontiersman, saw the potential for a stand-alone hit, and rang Mr. Hayes to sing it.
“We met that night at 10 o’clock in a RCA recording studio. We did
— one track, one take. It was a hit record,” Mr. Hayes recounted in “World by the Tail: The Bill Hayes Story,” a
of his life that he produced in 2017 with his grandson Dave Samuel.
The song topped the charts for several weeks, sold more than one million copies and earned Mr. Hayes a gold record.
In 1959 Mr. Hayes hosted “The Oldsmobile Theatre,” a musical anthology television series, along with Florence Henderson — the future star of “The Brady Bunch.”
Mr. Hayes was known for his kindness.
During a 2018 presentation of Lifetime Achievement Awards to Mr. Hayes and his wife at the 45th Annual Daytime Emmy Awards, a video was played featuring actor Brian Cranston. The “Breaking Bad” star recalled how, as a very young actor, he landed a part on “Days of Our Lives” and how upset he became after he became after arriving late to the set due to an alarm clock mishap — until Mr. Hayes knocked on his dressing room door.
“He spent 20 minutes helping a stranger to feel a little less humiliated,” Cranston wrote in the comment section of a
story announcing his death — recounting the same tale. “He really cheered me up. I will never forget his kindness and patience. From that moment, I think of Bill whenever I see an actor in need.”
Comedian Tom Dreesen, who also grew up in Harvey, and had his own success in entertainment, including as an opening act for Frank Sinatra, said he was one of many kids from the area who looked up to Mr. Hayes.
“It was like, ‘It can be done. You can do it from here,’” said Dreesen, a pal who cherished the memory of a time both men returned to their high school to be inducted into its hall of fame.
Mr. Hayes, who regularly returned to Chicago for years to work and visit relatives, began studying tap dance in his late 60s and continued into his 90s.
“His beautiful spirit of adventure and involvement in life was something out of another age,” said his wife, noting that the couple went on a 15,000 mile road trip across North America in 2014.
“He truly was part of that greatest generation,” she said.
Mr. Hayes loved organizing regular family reunions, which included talent shows.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Hayes is survived by his daughters Carolyn Hayes Samuel Huff and Margaret Hayes Jackson; his sons, Thomas Harley Hayes and William Foster Hayes IV; 12 grandchildren; and 30 great-grandchildren. His daughter Catherine Hayes, also known as Christian, died in 2010.
A memorial is scheduled at 1 p.m. Feb. 10 at the First Christian Church of North Hollywood.