Donald David Dixon Ronald O'Connor
August 28, 1925
|Died||September 27, 2003 (aged 78)|
|Occupation||Dancer, singer, actor|
(m. 1944; div. 1954)
Donald David Dixon Ronald O'Connor (August 28, 1925 - September 27, 2003) was an American dancer, singer and actor. He came to fame in a series of films in which he co-starred with Gloria Jean, Peggy Ryan, and Francis the Talking Mule.
His best-known works came in the film Singin' in the Rain (1952), for which O'Connor was awarded a Golden Globe. He also won a Primetime Emmy Award from four nominations and received two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame throughout his career.
Though he considered Danville, Illinois, to be his hometown, O'Connor was the 200th child born in St. Elizabeth Hospital in Chicago. Often, both of his parents struggled to remember where and when exactly O'Connor was born, due to the family's extensive travel as a Vaudeville team. Indeed, his parents, Effie Irene (née Crane) and John Edward "Chuck" O'Connor, were vaudeville entertainers; she was a bareback rider and he was a circus strongman and acrobat. His father's family was from Ireland.
O'Connor later said, "I was about 13 months old, they tell me, when I first started dancing, and they'd hold me up by the back of my neck and they'd start the music, and I'd dance. You could do that with any kid, only I got paid for it."
When O'Connor was only two years old, he and his seven-year-old sister, Arlene, were hit by a car while crossing the street outside a theater in Hartford, Connecticut; Donald survived, but his sister did not. A few weeks later, his father died of a heart attack while dancing on stage in Brockton, Massachusetts. His brother Billy died a decade later from scarlet fever and his eldest sibling Jack died from alcoholism in 1959. His three other siblings died during childbirth. O'Connor said the tragedies "marred my childhood and it's still haunting."
O'Connor's mother was extremely possessive of her youngest son due to these traumas, not allowing him to cross the street on his own until he turned 13. Effie also stopped O'Connor from learning hazardous dance routines, and made sure she always knew where he was when he wasn't performing. She was a typical stage mother, often striking him.
O'Connor later said regarding Effie, "She wanted me to be as great as I possibly could be. She did her best."
O'Connor joined a dance act with his mother and elder brother Jack. They were billed as the O'Connor Family, the Royal Family of Vaudeville. They toured the country doing singing, dancing, comedy, and acting. "Our entire family composed an act", he says. "We really didn't have a choice; if you were in the family you appeared in the act. I loved vaudeville. The live audiences created a certain spontaneity."
He later said, "I learned two dance routines. I looked like the world's greatest dancer. I did triple wings and everything. But I had never had any formal training. So, when I went into movies and started working with all those great dancers, I had a terrible time. I couldn't pick up routines because I didn't have any formal training. At the age of 15 -- from 15 on, I really had to learn to dance. And that's quite old for someone to start dancing real heavy, professionally."
O'Connor signed a contract at Paramount. He appeared in Men with Wings (1938), directed by William Wellman, as Fred MacMurray's character as a boy. He was billed fifth in Sing You Sinners (1938) playing Bing Crosby's and MacMurray's younger brother.
He was in Sons of the Legion (1938), then had the lead in a B-picture, Tom Sawyer, Detective (1938), playing Huckleberry Finn opposite Billy Cook's Tom Sawyer. O'Connor third billed in both Boy Trouble (1939) and Unmarried (1939), playing John Hartley as a young boy in the latter.
In 1941, O'Connor signed with Universal Pictures for $200 a week, where he began with What's Cookin'? (1942), a low-budget musical with The Andrews Sisters, Gloria Jean and Peggy Ryan. The film was popular and Universal began to develop O'Connor and Ryan as their version of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.
He, Ryan, and the Andrews Sisters were in Private Buckaroo (1942) and Give Out, Sisters (1942); then he was co-starred opposite Universal's teenage singing star Gloria Jean in four films: Get Hep to Love (1942), When Johnny Comes Marching Home (1943), It Comes Up Love (1943), and School for Jive, which showed O'Connor to such good advantage that he became the focal point of the film, retitled Mister Big (1943). Universal added $50,000 to the budget and elevated the "B" movie to "A" status.
During World War II, on his 18th birthday in August 1943, O'Connor was drafted into the United States Army. Before he reported for induction on February 6, 1944, Universal already had four O'Connor films completed. They rushed production to complete four more by that date, all with Ryan: This Is the Life (1944), with Foster; The Merry Monahans (1944), with Blyth and Jack Oakie; Bowery to Broadway (1945), another all-star effort where O'Connor had a cameo; and Patrick the Great (1945).
Universal did not know what to do with their teen star turned young adult for one year. O'Connor was almost broke. A merger in 1946 had reorganized the studio as Universal-International. The studio paired O'Connor opposite their biggest female star, Deanna Durbin, in Something in the Wind (1947).
"I wasn't really a dancer, a good dancer, until I got older," he said later. "I could do those wings and stuff and I looked very good, but my heavens it was very, very hard for me to pick up on -- pick up steps. It was just oh -- so laborious for me. I didn't have a short cut like the other dancers do."
In 1949, O'Connor played the lead role in Francis, the story of a soldier befriended by a talking mule. Directed by Arthur Lubin, the film was a huge success. As a consequence, his musical career was constantly interrupted by production of one Francis film per year until 1955. O'Connor later said the films "were fun to make. Actually, they were quite challenging. I had to play straight in order to convince the audience that the mule could talk."
O'Connor received an offer to play Cosmo the piano player in Singin' in the Rain (1952) at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. This earned him a Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Comedy or Musical. The film featured his widely known rendition of "Make 'Em Laugh," which he choreographed with help from the assistant dance directors and his brother.
O'Connor said " all hoofers, they dance from the waist down. And I had to learn to dance from the waist up. And then, I became what's known as a total dancer."
O'Connor said he was forced to go to the hospital during the production of Singin' in the Rain due to injuries and exhaustion.
"The scene was building to such a crescendo, I thought I'd actually have to kill myself," said O'Connor.
In 1952 O'Connor signed a three-picture deal with Paramount.
He began appearing regularly on television. One review in 1952 called him "1952' new star. Movie bred, he has the versatility of a Jimmy Durante and the effervescence of youth. He can dance, he can sing, he can act, and he can spout humor, but not yet with the finesse of a veteran."
He did Francis Joins the WACS (1954) then played Tim Donahue in the 20th Century Fox all-star musical There's No Business Like Show Business (1954), which featured Irving Berlin's music and also starred with Ethel Merman, Marilyn Monroe (O'Connor's on screen love interest), Dan Dailey, Mitzi Gaynor and Johnnie Ray.
He was meant to play Bing Crosby's partner in White Christmas (1954). O'Connor was unavailable because he contracted an illness transmitted by the mule  and was replaced in the film by Danny Kaye.
He emceed the 1954 Oscars.
O'Connor was reluctant to keep making Francis films but agreed to Francis in the Navy (1955). Arthur Lubin, who directed the series, later recalled that O'Connor "got very difficult" to work with after a while. "He'd sit in his dressing room and stare into space, and I think he had problems at home."
Francis in the Navy was Donald O'Connor's last film for Universal after 13 years with the company. At a farewell luncheon, the studio executives presented him with a gift: a camera and 14 rolls of film. O'Connor was stunned at the insignificance of the gift after all the millions of dollars he had made for the studio, and in later life recalled, "What can I say about these people?"
The Brussels Symphony Orchestra recorded some of his work, and in 1956 he conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a performance of his first symphony, Reflections d'Un Comique.
He hosted a color television special on NBC in 1957, one of the earliest color programs to be preserved on a color kinescope; an excerpt of the telecast was included in NBC's 50th anniversary special in 1976.
He subsequently focused on theatre work and his nightclub act, performing in Las Vegas. He returned to Universal for the first time in ten years to make the Sandra Dee comedy That Funny Feeling (1965).
In 1968, O'Connor hosted a syndicated talk show also called The Donald O'Connor Show. The program was cancelled due to the dancer becoming "too political." The jokes were often seen as offensive. O'Connor was reprimanded by the studio.
O'Connor claimed to have overcome his depression after being hospitalized for three months after collapsing in 1978. He wrote letters to his friends and family explaining that his life had "completely changed." The dancer was paralyzed from the waist down but recovered by way of physical therapy. The letters detail the lives of other patients, particularly a 30-year-old man who was completely immobilized.
"I won't take anything I have for granted again," written in each letter.
O'Connor credited the patients he met and thanked God for allowing him to recover.
He was Cap'n Andy in a short-lived Broadway revival of Show Boat (1983) and continued to tour in various shows and acts.
"I've been on the road forever," he said in 1985, adding "I'd consider another movie or a TV series, but I won't play an old man. Art Carney is about my age and he's making a career out of being old. I'm still singing and dancing. I'm not ready to be old."
O'Connor guest starred on The Littlest Hobo, Fantasy Island, Simon & Simon, Hotel, Alice in Wonderland, The Love Boat, and Highway to Heaven, and was in the films Pandemonium (1982), A Mouse, a Mystery and Me (1988), and A Time to Remember (1988).
He bought a theatre, the Donald O'Connor Theatre, and would perform in it with his children. In a 1989 interview he said "There's an element out there that wants to be entertained-and they can't find this kind of thing I do. And yeah, I think I wear well. I sing, I dance, I do comedy. I'm not threatening. When you grow up in a circus family, the more things you learn, the more you get paid. So I can do straight comedy without the song and dance; I can do all kinds of combinations. Whatever's in at the time, I can fit into."
He developed heart trouble and underwent successful quadruple-bypass surgery in 1990.
In 1992 he said, "I never wanted to be a superstar. I'm working on being a quasar, because stars wear out. Quasars go on forever... I look for the parts where I die and they talk about me for the rest of the movie."
O'Connor's last feature film was the Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau comedy Out to Sea, in which he played a dance host on a cruise ship. O'Connor was still making public appearances well into 2003. He said he went on the road "about 32 weeks a year. I do my concert work and I do night clubs and that kind of stuff. So I don't dance much any more, but I do enough to show people I can still move my legs."
The most distinctive characteristic of O'Connor's dancing style was its athleticism, for which he had few rivals. Yet it was his boyish charm that audiences found most engaging, and which remained an appealing aspect of his personality throughout his career. In his early Universal films, O'Connor closely mimicked the smart alec, fast-talking personality of Mickey Rooney of rival MGM Studio. For Singin' in the Rain, however, MGM cultivated a much more sympathetic sidekick persona, and that remained O'Connor's signature image.
O'Connor was married twice and had four children. His first marriage was in 1944 to Gwendolyn Carter, when he was 18 and she was 20. They married in Tijuana. Together they had 1 child, a daughter Donna. The couple divorced in 1954. During the turbulent nine year marriage, there was physical abuse toward O'Connor brought on by Carter and her frustration over the lack of an acting career. In the divorce Carter was given ownership of their home and custody of their daughter. According to reports at the time the couple split, O'Connor was left with only the dog and sought the help of multiple psychiatrists. Carter remarried in 1955 to actor Dan Dailey. O'Connor married his second wife, actress Gloria Noble, in 1956, remaining together until his death in 2003. They had 3 children, son Donald Frederick, daughter Alicia, and son Kevin. Noble died in 2013.
Donald was honored with a retrospective at New York's Lincoln Center and an honorary degree from Boston University. He chose to keep much of his philanthropy work private. Some of it includes work for the United States Army and Red Cross. He created the Donald O'Connor Alcoholism Counseling Scholarship.
O'Connor had undergone quadruple heart bypass surgery in 1990, and he nearly died from pleuralpneumonia in January 1999. He died from complications of heart failure on September 27, 2003, at age 78 at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital, in Woodland Hills, California. His remains were cremated. His belongings were auctioned off and all proceeds were given to charity.