Donald O'Connor


Actor
Donald O'Connor

About

Also Known As
Donald David Dixon O'Connor
Birth Place
Chicago, Illinois, USA
Born
August 28, 1925
Died
September 27, 2003
Cause of Death
Heart Failure

Biography

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 Cr...

Photos & Videos

Feudin', Fussin' and A-Fightin' - Publicity Stills
Feudin', Fussin' and A-Fightin' - Scene Stills
Feudin', Fussin' and A-Fightin' - Movie Poster

Family & Companions

Gwen Carter
Wife
Actor. Married in 1944; divorced in 1954.
Gloria Noble
Wife
Married in November 1956.

Notes

On his "Francis" movies, O'Connor told Playbill: "I used to think of it as a bring-down. I'd make a film like 'There's No Business Like Show Business' ... then have to go back and work with a jackass."

"In vaudeville, we all had to pull together, otherwise we never could have made the jumps. When anybody got sick, you stayed with them in the hotel room. Everybody helped one another. But get out on that stage and they'd try to murder you! There was a healthy competition." --Donald O'Connor in Playbill

Biography

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 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

Filmography

 

Cast (Feature Film)

Out to Sea (1997)
That's Entertainment! III (1994)
Toys (1992)
A Time to Remember (1988)
Father Walsh
Pandemonium (1982)
Ragtime (1981)
That's Entertainment! (1974)
Narrator
That Funny Feeling (1965)
Harvey Granson
Cry for Happy (1961)
Murray Prince
The Wonders of Aladdin (1961)
Aladdin
The Buster Keaton Story (1957)
Buster Keaton
Anything Goes (1956)
Ted Adams
Francis in the Navy (1955)
Lt. Peter Stirling/Slicker Donevan
There's No Business Like Show Business (1954)
Tim Donahue
Francis Joins the WACS (1954)
Peter Sterling
I Love Melvin (1953)
Melvin Hoover
Francis Covers the Big Town (1953)
Peter Stirling
Walking My Baby Back Home (1953)
Jigger Millard
Call Me Madam (1953)
Kenneth Gibson
Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Cosmo Brown
Francis Goes to West Point (1952)
Peter Stirling
Double Crossbones (1951)
Davey Crandall[/Bloodthirsty Dave]
Francis Goes to the Races (1951)
Peter Sterling
Francis (1950)
Peter Stirling
Curtain Call at Cactus Creek (1950)
Edward Timmons
The Milkman (1950)
Roger Bradley
Yes Sir, That's My Baby (1949)
William Waldo Winfield
Are You with It? (1948)
Milton Haskins
Feudin', Fussin and A-Fightin' (1948)
Wilbur McMurtry
Something in the Wind (1947)
Charlie Read
Patrick the Great (1945)
Pat Donahue, Jr.
Follow the Boys (1944)
Bowery to Broadway (1944)
Chip Off the Old Block (1944)
Donald Corrigan
This Is the Life (1944)
Jimmy [Plum]
The Merry Monahans (1944)
Jimmy Monahan
When Johnny Comes Marching Home (1943)
Frankie [Flanagan]
It Comes Up Love (1943)
Ricky [Ives]
Top Man (1943)
Don Warren
Mister Big (1943)
Donald
Give Out, Sisters (1942)
Don
Get Hep to Love (1942)
Jimmy Arnold
What's Cookin'? (1942)
Tommy
Private Buckaroo (1942)
Donny
Beau Geste (1939)
Beau Geste as a child
Night Work (1939)
Butch Smiley, the orphan
Death of a Champion (1939)
Small Fry
Boy Trouble (1939)
Butch
Unmarried (1939)
Ted Streaver at 12
Million Dollar Legs (1939)
Sticky Boone
On Your Toes (1939)
Phil, as a boy
Sing You Sinners (1938)
Mike Beebe
Tom Sawyer, Detective (1938)
Huckleberry Finn
Sons of the Legion (1938)
Butch Baker
Men with Wings (1938)
Patrick Falconer, as a child
Melody for Two (1937)

Cast (Special)

Mitzi Gaynor: Hollywood's Cockeyed Optimist (2001)
Hollywood at Your Feet: The Story of the Chinese Theatre Footprints (2000)
The Nicholas Brothers: Flying High (1999)
Ethel Merman: There's No Business Like Show Business (1999)
The Golden Globe's 50th Anniversary Celebration (1994)
Legend to Legend Night (1993)
Bob Hope: The First Ninety Years (1993)
Strung Along (1992)
Happy Birthday, Bob -- 50 Stars Salute Your 50 Years With NBC (1988)
America's Tribute to Bob Hope (1988)
Remembering Bing (1987)
Happy Birthday, Hollywood! (1987)
Irving Berlin's America (1986)
The 58th Annual Academy Awards Presentation (1986)
Presenter
NBC's 60th Anniversary Celebration (1986)
The Night of 100 Stars II (1985)
The American Film Institute Salute to Gene Kelly (1985)
Performer
Texaco Star Theater: Opening Night (1982)
The All-Star Salute to Mother's Day (1981)
The Music Mart (1980)
Bing!... A 50th Anniversary Gala (1977)
Donald's Dublin (1972)
Host
Li'l Abner (1971)
And Debbie Makes Six (1967)
Guest
Hollywood Melody (1962)
Host
The Donald O'Connor Show (1960)
Host
The Gene Kelly Show (1959)
Guest

Producer (Special)

The Donald O'Connor Show (1960)
Producer

Music (Special)

Happy Birthday, Bob -- 50 Stars Salute Your 50 Years With NBC (1988)
Song Performer

Cast (Short)

The Lion Roars Again (1975)
Himself
Just One More Time (1974)
Himself
That's Entertainment! (Gala Premiere) (1974)
Himself

Cast (TV Mini-Series)

The Desilu Story: The Rags to Riches Success of the Desilu Empire (2003)
Bandit: Bandit's Silver Angel (1994)
A Mouse, a Mystery and Me (1987)
Voice
Alice in Wonderland (1985)

Life Events

1937

At age 11, appeared in films for the first time doing a specialty number with his brothers in "Melody for Two"

1938

Made solo film debut in "Sing You Sinners"

1940

Returned to vaudeville

1942

Resumed film career under contract to Universal

1950

Made first film with mule co-star, "Francis"

1952

Moved up in status with "Singin' In the Rain"

1954

Was Marilyn Monroe's leading man in "There's No Business Like Show Business"

1956

Conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic at premiere performance of his first symphony, "Reflections d'un Comique"

1968

Hosted the short-lived syndicated "The Donald O'Connor Show"

1974

Was on-screen co-narrator for "That's Entertainment!"

1981

Appeared in first book musical on Broadway, the short-lived "Bring Back Birdie"

1984

Starred as Cap'n Andy in the Broadway revival of "Show Boat"

1997

Returned to features as a dance instructor in "Out to Sea"

Photo Collections

Feudin', Fussin' and A-Fightin' - Publicity Stills
Here are several stills taken to help publicize Universal's Feudin', Fussin' and A-Fightin' (1948), starring Donald O'Connor, Marjorie Main, Percy Kilbride, and Penny Edwards.
Feudin', Fussin' and A-Fightin' - Scene Stills
Feudin', Fussin' and A-Fightin' - Scene Stills
Feudin', Fussin' and A-Fightin' - Movie Poster
Feudin', Fussin' and A-Fightin' - Movie Poster
I Love Melvin - Donald O'Connor Publicity Stills
Here are a few photos of Donald O'Connor taken to help publicize MGM's I Love Melvin (1953). Publicity stills were specially-posed photos, usually taken off the set, for purposes of publicity or reference for promotional artwork.
Sing You Sinners - Behind-the-Scenes Photo
Here is a photo taken behind-the-scenes during production of Sing You Sinners (1938), starring Bing Crosby and a young Donald O'Connor.

Videos

Movie Clip

Singin' In The Rain (1952) - Moses Supposes Silent star Don (co-director and choreographer Gene Kelly) with diction coach (Robert Watson), joined by musical partner Cosmo (Donald O’Connor) for the flat-out athletic tap number to the song by Roger Edens, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, a rousing bit from Singin’ In The Rain, 1952.
Singin' In The Rain (1952) - All I Do Is Dream Of You The studio boss (Millard Mitchell) after a talking-picture demo, with Cosmo (Donald O’Connor) pal of star Don (Gene Kelly), who’s delighted to find snooty Cathy (Debbie Reynolds) doing a cheesecake gig, song by Nacio Herb Brown and producer Arthur Freed, bimbo Lina (Jean Hagen) getting pied, in Singin’ In The Rain, 1952.
Singin' In The Rain (1952) - I'm Not An Actor! After the premiere, silent-movie star Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) with musical partner Cosmo (Donald O’Connor) in Hollywood, gets mobbed and, with a coy contemporary-swashbuckling escape, meets opinionated Cathy (Debbie Reynolds), early in MGM’s Singin’ In The Rain, 1952.
Singin' In The Rain (1952) - Dignity, Always Dignity Dora (Madge Blake) the M-C, sidekick Cosmo (Donald O’Connor) already in place, co-director Gene Kelly (as matinee idol Don Lockwood), with Jean Hagen, silent for now (as co-star Lina), launches the biography bit, song by Al Hoffman and Al Goodhart, from the opening to MGM’s Singin’ In The Rain, 1952.
Singin' In The Rain (1951) - Zelda's Kid Sister In the “Revolution In Hollywood” montage, Rita Moreno as “Zelda” in the cocktail shaker routine and the cutaways, with four Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed tunes, Jimmy Thompson the crooner, Debbie Reynolds with him as Kathy, Millard Mitchell the studio boss, Donald O’Connor as Cosmo, Tommy Farrell as Sid the A-D, in Singin’ In The Rain, 1951.
Singin' In The Rain (1951) - That Famous Zip Girl In fact the greater part of Rita Moreno’s performance as flapper movie star “Zelda Zanders,” in Singin’ In The Rain, 1951, at the opening of the Gene Kelly/Jean Hagen (Don Lockwood, Lina Lamont) movie, introduced by Madge Blake, Stuart Holmes her “eligible bachelor.”
That Funny Feeling (1965) - All Men Are My Brothers Exposition about Bobby Darin as New York publishing exec Tom, who rings his apartment not realizing that the maid working there is Sandra Dee, the gal who turned his head minutes earlier on the way to work, then consulting with Donald O’Connor as his boss, early in That Funny Feeling, 1965.
There's No Business Like Show Business - A Man Chases A Girl There's just the off-stage voice of Marilyn Monroe, as Donald O'Connor (playing "Tim" of the Donahue showbiz clan), begins a typically athletic solo number based on Irving Berlin's "A Man Chases A Girl," in There's No Business Like Show Business, 1954.
There's No Business Like Show Business - Heat Wave Still the most remembered number from a musical with many, Marilyn Monroe as "Vicki" with her provocative rendering of Irving Berlin's Heat Wave, staged by Robert Alton, from There's No Business Like Show Business, 1954.
Singin' In The Rain (1952) - Wired For Sound Comedy set piece on the switch to talkies, Gene Kelly as silent-star Don Lockwood, Jean Hagen stealing it as his dingbat screen lover Lina, with the disastrous voice, Douglas Fowley the imploding director, Millard Mitchell the studio boss with the slapstick payoff, in Singin’ In The Rain, 1952.
Sing You Sinners (1938) - Don't Let That Moon Get Away Bing Crosby is nearly ne’er-do-well brother Joe, quite innocently escorting his older brother’s fianceè (Ellen Drew) at a night club where the band leader (Harry Barris) coaxes him into a song, an original by John Burke and James V. Monaco, in Paramount’s Sing You Sinners, 1938.
Sing You Sinners (1938) - It's Not Macaroni Exposition in the Beebe household, Fred MacMurray as eldest brother Dave, Elizabeth Patterson as mom, Donald O’Connor as little Mike and Bing Crosby as the less-reliable younger brother Joe, though he was several years older than MacMurray, early in Paramount’s Sing You Sinners, 1938.

Trailer

Family

Edward Joseph O'Connor
Father
Circus performers-turned-vaudevillians.
Effie Irene O'Connor
Mother
Circus performers-turned-vaudevillians.
Jack O'Connor
Brother
Vaudeville performer. Did act with brother Donald for many years.
Tichi Noble Wilkerson Miles Kassel
Sister-In-Law
Widow of W.R. Wilkerson; owner and publisher of THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER until sale of trade paper in 1988.
Donna O'Connor
Daughter
Mother, Gwen Carter.
Alice O'Connor
Daughter
Mother, Gloria Noble.
Donald Frederick O'Connor
Son
Mother, Gloria Noble.
Kevin O'Connor
Son
Mother, Gloria Noble.

Companions

Gwen Carter
Wife
Actor. Married in 1944; divorced in 1954.
Gloria Noble
Wife
Married in November 1956.

Bibliography

Notes

On his "Francis" movies, O'Connor told Playbill: "I used to think of it as a bring-down. I'd make a film like 'There's No Business Like Show Business' ... then have to go back and work with a jackass."

"In vaudeville, we all had to pull together, otherwise we never could have made the jumps. When anybody got sick, you stayed with them in the hotel room. Everybody helped one another. But get out on that stage and they'd try to murder you! There was a healthy competition." --Donald O'Connor in Playbill