Donald O'Connor

Active - 1936 - 1997  |   Born - Aug 28, 1925 in Chicago, Illinois, United States  |   Died - Sep 27, 2003   |   Genres - Comedy, Musical

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Biography by Hal Erickson

The son of a stage acrobat, American actor/dancer/singer Donald O'Connor was hoofing away as a child in his family's vaudeville act. He was discovered for films in 1938's Sing, You Sinners, spending the next few years in movies usually playing "the star as a child" -- that is, cast as the younger version of the film's leading man for prologue and flashback sequences. A 1941 Universal contract led to a string of peppy medium-budget musicals with such pure-forties titles as Get Hep to Love (1941) and Are You With It? (1949); O'Connor's most frequent costar was another teenage vaudeville vet, Peggy Ryan. In 1950, O'Connor was cast in the non-dancing role of a hapless army private who can't convince anyone that a mule can talk in Francis (1950). The film was a major moneymaker, leading Universal to inaugurate a Francis series starring O'Connor, Francis the Mule, and Francis' voice, Chill Wills. O'Connor bailed out before the final film in the series, Francis in the Haunted House (1956), complaining that the mule was getting more fan mail than he was. During the Francis epics, O'Connor was loaned to MGM for what is regarded as his finest film role, happy-go-lucky Cosmo Brown in Singin' in the Rain (1952). If he'd never made another film, O'Connor would be a musical-comedy immortal solely on the basis of his Rain setpiece, the athleticly uproarious Make 'Em Laugh (1952). When the sort of musicals in which he specialized went into a Hollywood eclipse, O'Connor concentrated on TV and nightclubs, save for a few less than satisfying cinematic assignments such as The Buster Keaton Story (1957) and the Italian-made curiosity The Wonders of Alladin (1961). When O'Connor returned to films for 1965's That Funny Feeling it was in support of the musical flavor-of-the-decade Bobby Darin. In 1967, O'Connor tried his hand at a syndicated talk-variety program, where he proved excellent as usual at performing but ill at ease as an interviewer. The 1970s were a maelstrom of summer theatre appearances, club dates and an on-and-off liquor problem for O'Connor; when he resurfaced briefly in 1981's Ragtime, movie audiences breathed a sigh of satisfaction that an old friend was back and seemingly as fit as ever. One of Donald O'Connor's most high profile later day film appearance was a cameo at the beginning of Barry Levinson's Toys (1992), wherein the verteran actor supplied a much-needed chunk of solid entertainment value to an otherwise ponderous project. A year after appearing as menacing witch Baba Yaga in the 1996 family fantasy Father Frost, O'Connor made his final film appearance in the Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau ocean cruise comedy Out to Sea.

In late September of 2003, legendary actor Donald O'Connor died of heart failure in Calabasas, CA. He was 78.

Movie Highlights

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  • Raised in a vaudeville family, he was one of seven children (though three died in infancy).
  • At age 11, appeared in his first film, Melody for Two (1937), doing a specialty number with his two brothers.
  • In 1938, made his solo film debut, appearing opposite Bing Crosby in Sing You Sinners.
  • Was drafted into the Army in 1944, but before he reported for induction, he quickly did three films for Universal Pictures; the company released them while he was overseas.
  • Costarred with Francis the talking mule for six hit movies, beginning in 1949 (he quit the series prior to the seventh film).
  • Was a regular host of NBC's The Colgate Comedy Hour.
  • Was Marilyn Monroe's leading man in There's No Business Like Show Business (1954).
  • Inducted into the International Tap Dance Hall of Fame in 2004.