The exuberant singer-dancer-actor Donald O'Connor honed his skills from a young age on the vaudeville circuit as part of a long running family act. His amazing acrobatics, winning personality and incredible comedic timing were quickly noticed by Hollywood and he was featured in a series of B-pictures from the late 1930s through the 1940s, including "Sing, You Sinners" (1938) with Bing Crosby and Fred MacMurray, and the popular talking mule comedy "Francis" (1949). However, it was the MGM masterpiece "Singin' in the Rain" (1952) that finally gave O'Connor a first class vehicle for his skills. Even decades after its release, the performer's instantly famous "Make 'em Laugh!" song and dance number remained a knockout. Further assignments in major musicals like "Call Me Madam" (1953) and "There's No Business Like Show Business" (1954), as well as numerous turns on television variety programs and in stage shows gained him a well deserved following. His abilities were so well known that when gigs in movies or on television were not available to O'Connor, he could easily find work on stage or as a top flight Las Vegas performer. Although O'Connor's career in later years was temporarily derailed by his battles with alcohol and health issues, his incredible smile, winning personality and seemingly boundless energy stayed with him throughout the decades and his best work ranked among the most exhilarating to be found in the golden age of Hollywood musicals.
Donald David Dixon O'Connor was born into a show business family on Aug. 28, 1925 in Chicago, IL. His parents were vaudeville stars with thriving careers, but not long after their son's birth, the family suffered a pair of tragedies. Donald's older sister was run over and killed by a car and then a few weeks later, his father died of a heart attack at the young age of 47. O'Connor's mother carried on, however, and he made his own vaudeville debut as part of the act at the ripe old age of 13 months. He continued to perform on stage throughout his childhood and his lively singing and dancing won over crowds across the country. The family eventually relocated to California in the hopes of breaking into the movies; between shows, O'Connor received his education at the Hollywood Professional School.
While performing at a Motion Picture Relief Fund benefit, O'Connor was spotted by talent scouts from Paramount Pictures, who quickly placed the talented youth opposite Bing Crosby and Fred MacMurray in "Sing, You Sinners" (1938). With tips from Crosby, the youth quickly adjusted to performing on film and came off like a natural. Offered a contract with the studio, O'Connor soon appeared in fare like "Tom Sawyer, Detective" (1938), "Million Dollar Legs" (1939), and "Beau Geste" (1939). Most of O'Connor's roles during this period relied little on his acrobatic talents, but his inherent charm and burgeoning acting talents carried the day. However, his tenure with the company proved short-lived and he returned to the long days and hard travelling life of the vaudeville circuit. The family suffered another terrible loss when O'Connor's older brother, Billy, died of scarlet fever at 26.
After two more years on the road, Hollywood called again and O'Connor was signed by Universal for its new young talent unit, "Jivin' Jacks and Jills," and appeared in minor musicals like "What's Cookin'?" (1942), "Private Buckaroo" (1942) and "Top Man" (1943). O'Connor quickly became the company's answer to MGM's Mickey Rooney and while the pictures were often cheap and slapdash, his exuberance and impressive dancing - which continued to improve throughout the making of the films - made up for many of their shortcomings. Although he was eventually drafted into the army air corps, it seemed like O'Connor had never left as Universal cannily staggered the release of his movies. During this time, he married actress Gwen Carter and when his duties in the service concluded, O'Connor alternated between the stage, radio gigs and more "B" pictures for the company. One such project, the comedy "Francis" (1949), which cast O'Connor opposite a talking mule, ended up being a surprise hit that spawned a franchise series.
After a long stint in such inconsequential fare, O'Connor no doubt felt considerable pride when he was invited by Gene Kelly to join the cast of "Singin' in the Rain" (1952). The lavish MGM production was one of the finest musicals of the Golden Age and O'Connor's exuberant "Make 'em Laugh!" number, which found him playing piano, romancing a dummy, doing back flips, spinning in circles on the floor a la Curly Howard, running up walls, and crashing through scenery, one of its undisputed highlights. For his efforts, the actor won a Golden Globe and the film's considerable success led to more plum assignments in the musical extravaganzas "Call Me Madam" (1953), where he shared a memorable duet with Ethel Merman, and "There's No Business Like Show Business" (1954), with Marilyn Monroe. While it was rare for successful actors to work simultaneously in the movies and on television, O'Connor did just that and won an Emmy Award for his hosting duties on "The Colgate Comedy Hour" (NBC, 1950-55), appearing with his wife and their young daughter in one episode.
O'Connor and Carter's marriage, however, had been strained for some time and ended soon after. O'Connor went on marry another actress, Gloria Noble, and the pair remained together for the rest of his life. "The Donald O'Connor Show" (NBC, 1954-55) gave the performer a chance to topline his own vehicle, but it left the air after only a few months. Even while he appeared in glossy, high-end productions from MGM and 20th Century Fox, O'Connor remained under contract to Universal. By the time "Francis in the Navy" was released in 1955, O'Connor had had enough of playing second fiddle to a mule (which the actor jokingly claimed received the lion's share of fan mail), so he was replaced for one final entry by, ironically, Mickey Rooney, whose career was now on a downward trajectory. Unfortunately, O'Connor's own hot streak was derailed by "The Buster Keaton Story" (1957), an ill-advised celebration of the silent comedian's life and legacy that bore only a scant resemblance to the actual story. For all of his varied talents, O'Connor failed to convince as The Great Stone Face and the picture was a critical and financial bust.
In the wake of that disappointment and the increasing lack of interest in movie musicals, O'Connor was absent from the silver screen until the 1961 military comedy "Cry for Happy." He next travelled to Italy for "The Wonders of Aladdin" (1962), a colorful and entertaining European production, with O'Connor an offbeat choice for the title character. Back home, O'Connor brightened the Sandra Dee/Bobby Darrin farce "The Funny Feeling" (1965) and made a memorable appearance on the premiere episode of "The Judy Garland Show" (CBS, 1963-64), the only time he performed with the troubled singer. He also hosted several episodes of the variety program "The Hollywood Palace" (ABC, 1964-1970) and a new version of "The Donald O'Connor Show" (syndicated, 1968) appeared, but the talk show failed to generate sufficient ratings. He had more success as a dependable Las Vegas headliner at The Sahara, but by this point in his life, O'Connor had developed a major drinking habit and suffered a heart attack in 1972. He recovered, but failed to curb his alcohol intake and a few years later, spent several months in a rehab program. Now sober, O'Connor returned to the silver screen for the first time in over 15 years with a supporting part in the period drama "Ragtime" (1981), which starred James Cagney, who had not made a movie in 20 years.
However, O'Connor's next few years were plagued by a series of disappointments. The horror comedy "Pandemonium" (1982) received no theatrical release to speak of. Return trips to Broadway also failed to gel for him. A sequel to "Bye Bye Birdie" called "Bring Back Birdie" (1981) had one of the shortest Broadway runs ever, lasting a mere two days and four performances. He had more luck as Cap'n Andy in a Great White Way revival of "Show Boat" (1983), but even its two-month run was unremarkable. O'Connor again found work on the small screen on programs like "The Love Boat" (ABC, 1977-1986), "Murder, She Wrote" (CBS, 1984-1996), "Highway to Heaven" (NBC, 1984-89), and even the gruesome cable series "Tales from the Crypt" (HBO, 1989-1996). He also toured with Mickey Rooney in productions of "Two for the Show" (1989) and Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys" (1990).
The Robin Williams flop "Toys" (1992) did nothing for anyone involved, but O'Connor kept active with other stage work and appeared on the popular sitcoms "Frasier" (NBC, 1993-2004) and "The Nanny" (CBS, 1993-99). He earned his final movie credit in the Walter Matthau/Jack Lemmon farce "Out to Sea" (1997) as a cruise line dance instructor and still proved to be remarkably fleet of foot at age 71. Following performances in the Fabulous Palm Spring Follies, O'Connor was hospitalized for pneumonia in 1999. He pulled through and returned to the show, but his health remained fragile. The entertainer spent his final years in a San Fernando Valley retirement home and died on Sept. 27, 2003, leaving Debbie Reynolds the sole survivor of the lead cast of "Singin' in the Rain."
By John Charles