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By Susan M. Kelly

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Mr. & Mrs. Donald O'Connor with their two-year-old daughter Press PhotoBeing 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.

After several 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.

After “Beau 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.

Donald O'Connor press photo with his two-year old daughterIn 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.

When not 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.

Then fate 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.

Originally cast 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 Donald O'Connor with Penny Edwards press photoComedy 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.

After leaving 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” (1992). 

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 The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.

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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.