By Susan M. Kelly
Being born into a family of acrobats, it was only fitting that Donald O’Connor’s
most beloved and enduring performance would be one of the most spirited and
physically taxing in movie history, the classic “Make ‘Em Laugh”, from Singin’
in the Rain.
Young Donald was
one of seven children born to John Edward “Chuck” O’Connor, an acrobat with
Ringling Brothers-Barnum and Bailey Circus, and Effie, a circus bareback rider.
Though three of the O’Connor children would die in infancy, those who survived
were all eventually incorporated into show business. Effie kept the family act
going despite many deaths, including that of her husband, until 1941.
years in the family stage act, O’Connor made his film debut at age 12 in “Melody
for Two” (1937), along with his brothers Jack and Billy. The following year he
was signed by Paramount to play a feature role in “Sing, You Sinners”, with Bing
Crosby and Fred MacMurray. He followed the film with several others over the
next few years, including “Tom Sawyer, Detective” (1938) and “Beau Geste”
(1939), in which he played the Gary Cooper
character as a boy.
Geste”, O’Connor left Hollywood to return to Vaudeville, but sadly the great
stage genre was in its waning days and he soon found himself back in films,
signing with Universal in 1942. He starred in a series of youth musicals such
as “What’s Cookin’?” and “Get Hep to Love”, in 1942, and “Strictly the Groove”
in 1943, usually opposite the equally energetic Peggy Ryan, as the studios
attempted to lighten the mood of the country during the war years.
In 1949, he was
cast as an Army private who finds he is the only person who can carry on a
conversation with a talking mule in “Francis”. The film was a hit with young
audiences and it was followed with five sequels. O’Connor eventually quit the
series in 1955, saying, “When you’ve made six pictures and the mule still gets
more fan mail than you do…” The final “Francis” film starred Mickey Rooney.
appearing opposite his four legged co-star, O’Connor made films such as “The
Milkman” (1950) and “Double Crossbones” (1951), but nothing seemed to take the
public’s fancy as much as the Francis films.
stepped in, in 1952, when he was cast as Gene Kelly’s pal Cosmo Brown in the MGM
classic “Singin’ in the Rain”. Though a star vehicle for Kelly, O’Connor’s
amazing “Make ‘em Laugh” routine stole the show, but not without taking it’s
toll. O’Connor required three days of bed rest after filming the sequence, but
it would remain his signature piece for the rest of his career.
Picking up on
the success of “Singin’ in the Rain”, MGM fashioned a star vehicle for O’Connor,
1953’s “I Love Melvin”, which he followed with co-starring roles in “Call Me
Madam” (1953) opposite Ethel Merman at 20th Century-Fox, “There’s No
Business Like Show Business” (1954) with Merman and Marilyn Monroe and “Anything
Goes” (1956) with Bing Crosby and Mitzie Gaynor at Paramount.
opposite Bing Crosby in the now classic “White Christmas” in 1954, he came down
with pneumonia and was replaced by Danny Kaye. He was given the star treatment
once again in 1957 with “The Buster Keaton Story”, but the film proved to be a
flop and he made only a few films after that.
During the 50’s,
O’Connor had turned his attention to the budding new media of television,
becoming one of the rotating hosts of “The Colgate
Hour”. He starred in three different incarnations of “The Donald O’Connor
Show” for NBC in 1951 and 1954-55. He was nominated for an Emmy as the
Outstanding Personality of 1952, but lost out to Bishop Fulton J. Sheen.
He won the following year. His final TV stint came in 1968 as the host of
a short-lived talk show.
TV, O’Connor returned to his original love, the stage. Despite suffering a
heart attack in 1971, he found some success as a nightclub performer, teamed
with Sidney Miller, and then with his “Singin’ in the Rain” co-star Debbie
Reynolds. He returned to film briefly with a cameo in the film “Ragtime” in
1981 and one final time, as Robin Williams’ toy-manufacturer father in “Toys”
Never one to
slow down, he kept active on many fronts, composing concert music, starring as
Captain Andy in a touring stage revival of “Show Boat” and in 1993, releasing
his own exercise video “Let’s Tap”. He remained active right up until his
death, from heart failure, in September of last year.
From stage to
screen to television, Donald O’Connor’s lifelong goal was to keep audiences
entertained. With youthful energy and unlimited talent, he was able to do just
that – and so much more. There truly was nobody better at making ‘em laugh.
Susan M. Kelly has been working as a freelance
writer for the last 12 years, during which time she has written everything
from press releases and brochures to newspaper articles and web text. She
currently lives and works in Dunellen, NJ. Watch for her profiles in
Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.
Other Donald O'Connor Pages:
A Tribute to Donald
O'Connor The song and dance man, star of Singin' in the Rain , and
buddy of Francis the Mule, is dead at the age of 78, after a show business
career of over 75 years. Here's our tribute, originally created in 1999.