O’Connor, Donald David Dixon Ronald

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O’Connor, Donald David Dixon Ronald

(b. 28 August 1925(?) near Chicago, Illinois; d. 27 September 2003 in Woodland Hills, California), dancer, singer, and actor, a vaudevillian who became one of the best dancers in the heyday of movie musicals and early television.

Officially, the date and place of O’Connor’s birth are given as 28 August 1925 and Chicago, Illinois, but, in fact, his mother did not remember the exact date or town. O’Connor was the fourth surviving child (of seven) of Effie Irene (Crane) O’Connor and John (variously given as “Chuck,” “John Edward,” and “Edward Joseph”) O’Connor, former circus performers who were performing in vaudeville by the time of O’Connor’s birth. His siblings were two much older brothers, Jack and Billy, and a sister, Arlene, about five years his senior. The O’Connors played major vaudeville circuits as “The O’Connor Family—Royal Family of Vaudeville,” an act in which the children participated practically from birth. The act included traditional vaudeville offerings, such as singing, dancing, and comedy, but added circus stunts, like acrobatics. When O’Connor was about a year old, his sister Arlene was killed by a car and, only weeks later, his father died of a heart attack. The act continued, however, and O’Connor developed into a versatile performer while still a child. He received limited formal schooling: first by correspondence and later at the Hollywood Professional School.

O’Connor’s actual film debut was an uncredited specialty number with his older brothers in Melody for Two (1937), but O’Connor considered his screen debut to be his outstanding performance in Sing You Sinners (1938) with Bing Crosby and Fred MacMurray. O’Connor would make eleven films, including Tom Sawyer—Detective (1938) and Beau Geste (1939), before being dropped by Paramount in 1939. He returned to his family’s act until he was hired in 1942 as part of the Jivin’ Jacks and Jills by Universal for a series of low-budget, youth-oriented B musicals, beginning with What’s Cookin’? (1942). O’Connor and his partner in these films, Peggy Ryan, were such good comedians and dancers that they quickly became minor stars. Some of the best of their fourteen films are Mr. Big (1943), Chip off the Old Block (1944), and The Merry Monahans (1944). During this period he developed his adult style of dancing—nimble, rapid-fire, acrobatic, often comic. O’Connor was about five feet, eight inches and thin, with sandy hair, blue eyes, an expressive face that he used to comic effect, and a youthful, impish quality he never lost. He was known for his humor, good nature, and hard work.

When O’Connor was drafted in 1944, Universal rushed his movies through production so they could be released while he was away. On 7 February 1944 he wed Gwen Carter (they would divorce in July 1954). He served until 1946 in Special Services, entertaining the troops. The pictures O’Connor made in the late 1940s, such as Something in the Wind (1947) and Feudin’, Fussin’, and A-Fightin’ (1948), were lackluster, though his performances were reviewed favorably. At this time he worked on radio regularly and became a father with the birth of his first child in 1946.

O’Connor’s next career peak came with the Universal comedy Francis the Talking Mule (1950), which, though lightweight, was a big hit, spawning a series of seven films between 1950 and 1955, all but the last of which included O’Connor. O’Connor’s greatest films were made when Universal lent him out to other studios: Call Me Madam (Twentieth Century–Fox), There’s No Business Like Show Business (Twentieth Century–Fox), and what is generally considered the greatest movie musical of all time—Singin’ in the Rain (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer [MGM]). His solo in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), “Make ‘Em Laugh,” which he choreographed based on vaudeville gags, is a comic masterpiece that many view as one of the best moments in movie musical history. Elsewhere in the film, he matches Gene Kelly in tap dancing (for example, in the amazing “Moses Supposes” number) and displays charm and wit as Kelly’s comic sidekick. O’Connor won a 1952 Golden Globe Award for the role. After Singin’ in the Rain, MGM borrowed O’Connor again for I Love Melvin (1953), with Debbie Reynolds. His dance on roller skates was a big hit, even if the picture was not. O’Connor went to Twentieth Century–Fox and co-starred in Call Me Madam (1953) with Ethel Merman and Vera-Ellen. Then Twentieth Century–Fox brought O’Connor and Merman back again for There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954), with Dan Dailey, Mitzi Gaynor, and Marilyn Monroe.

O’Connor made great use of his vaudeville training as an enormously successful host and guest star in the new medium of television throughout the 1950s, especially on The Colgate Comedy Hour (1951–1954) and Texaco Star Theatre (1954–1955). He even hosted the first televised Academy Awards show, in 1954. O’Connor was nominated for an Emmy several times, winning in 1953 for Best Male Star of a Regular Series for The Colgate Comedy Hour. On a personal level, the late 1950s brought great happiness: in November 1956 O’Connor married Gloria Noble, with whom he had three children. At this time O’Connor composed light symphonic music and even conducted performances of one of his pieces, “Reflections d’un comique,” in 1955.

Film musicals declined sharply almost immediately after their zenith. Anything Goes, with Bing Crosby, was O’Connor’s only picture in 1956. In 1957 he had a rare dramatic role, as Buster Keaton, in the terrible movie The Buster Keaton Story. He was on television and in films increasingly less through the 1960s. By the 1970s a drinking problem he had developed was reaching the crisis point, ruining his home life and career. In spite of this, he still did appear on television occasionally and served as one of the many narrators of the highly successful MGM film That’s Entertainment (1974), featuring archival footage of the studio’s musicals. O’Connor’s wife and children left him in 1978 because of his drinking, and he was hospitalized for alcoholism later that year. He then received treatment, overcame his alcoholism, reconciled with his wife and children in 1979 and remained a recovering alcoholic the rest of his life.

O’Connor continued a more modest, but profitable career nearly to the end of his life—mostly in live performances at concerts, nightclubs, and theater, often with friends from movies or vaudeville, with regular forays into television and occasionally films. He tried Broadway for the first time in 1981 with Bring Back Birdie, which was a flop. He then closed out of town with Say Hello to Harvey! the same year. The 1983 revival of Show Boat, however, had a good run, and he received favorable reviews. He toured with Show Boat and other plays for many years. O’Connor portrayed small but well-noticed parts in several major films: Ragtime (1981), Pandemonium (1982), Toys (1992), and Out to Sea (1997), which was his final film. In 1992 O’Connor made a workout video, Let’s Tap! He participated in the retrospective documentaries What a Glorious Feeling: The Making of “Singin’ in the Rain” and Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer, both in 2002. Noteworthy among his later television performances were his Emmy-nominated musical number on the 1980 Academy Awards program and a rare dramatic appearance on Tales from the Crypt in 1992. In the late 1990s he even hosted a weekly magazine show, Senior Lifestyle, on the Senior Citizen’s Network.

In 1997 O’Connor was honored by the New York Committee to Celebrate Tap with the Flo-Bert Award for his dancing and for his charitable work supporting scholarships in dance and on behalf of the aged and poor in the dance community. Those were not his only charitable activities; in his later years in particular, he did charity work related to alcoholism and for the preservation of vaudeville houses and the history of vaudeville. The Film Society of Lincoln Center also honored O’Connor in 1997 with a two-evening program devoted to his career. On that occasion Anna Kisselgoff, the dance critic for the New York Times, wrote: “To call Donald O’Connor a song-and-dance man is like calling Shakespeare a strolling player.”

O’Connor developed heart trouble in the 1980s, underwent a four-artery bypass in 1990, and nearly died from an aggressive pneumonia in 1999. Still, he appeared publicly as late as 2003. By the end of his life O’Connor had earned two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (for film and for television) and had received several other awards but had never won an Oscar. With his typical wit, a few days before his death, O’Connor joked, “I’d like to thank the Academy for my lifetime achievement award that I will eventually get.” O’Connor died of heart failure at the Motion Picture and Television Fund Hospital in Woodland Hills, California, at the age of seventy-eight. He was cremated at Forest Lawn and his ashes were scattered at sea.

He was described by the critic John Crosby as “one of the greatest all-around talents in show business.” Although most famous for his role in Singin’ in the Rain, O’Connor danced, sang, and played comic and serious roles in movies, radio, television, and stage for over seven decades. He was one of the greatest dancers in movie history, but he was also one of the last vaudevillians who did a little bit of everything, and he brought some of that old art form to later audiences. O’Connor had few roles worthy of his skill, but from the days of vaudeville to the twenty-first century his humor, energy, and talent endured.

Biographical information and an interview are in Rusty E. Frank, Tap! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and Their Stories, 1999–1955 (1994). Other informative articles are John Stanley, “Donald Still Dancin’, Singin’—Rain or Shine,” San Francisco Chronicle (2 Feb. 1992), and Susan King, “Dance Host with the Most,” Los Angeles Times (3 July 1997). Obituaries are in the Independent (London) and New York Times (both 29 Sept. 2003) and Variety (6–12 Oct. 2003). A made-for-television video biography, Donald O’Connor: Make ‘Em Laugh (part of the Biography series, 1999), includes clips from his career.

Patricia L. Markley