O'Connor in 1952
Donald David Dixon Ronald O'Connor
August 28, 1925
|Died||September 27, 2003 (aged 78)|
|Resting place||Forest Lawn Memorial Park|
|Education||Professional Children's School |
Hollywood Professional School
Danville High School
(m. 1944; div. 1954)
(m. 1956; his death 2003)
Donald David Dixon Ronald O'Connor (August 28, 1925 - September 27, 2003) was an American actor, dancer, and singer. He came to fame in a series of films in which he co-starred alternately 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 born in St. Elizabeth Hospital in Chicago. 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 sister Arlene, who was seven at the time, were in a car crash outside a theater in Hartford, Connecticut; O'Connor survived, but his sister did not. A few weeks later, his father died of a heart attack while dancing on stage in Brockton, Massachusetts.
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."
When they did not tour they stayed with O'Connor's Uncle Bill in Danville, Illinois. O'Connor never went to school.
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 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 B-level 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, Ryan, Jean and Jane Frazee were in Get Hep to Love (1942) and When Johnny Comes Marching Home (1942). He made It Comes Up Love (1942) with Jean but without Ryan.
O'Connor, Jean and Ryan were in Mister Big (1943). Before this film was released, O'Connor's popularity soared. Universal added $50,000 in musical numbers to the film and promoted 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).
With a backlog of seven features, deferred openings kept O'Connor's screen presence uninterrupted during the two years he was overseas.
"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".
O'Connor said " all hoofers, they dance from the waist down. And I had to learn to dance from the waist up. And I learned that from Bob Alton (ph), a great choreographer, and from Kelly. And then, I became what's known as a total dancer."
O'Connor said he smoked around 4 packs of cigarettes a day during filming.
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 humour, 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,[dubious ]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 films later recalled that O'Connor "got very difficult" to work with after a while. "He started drinking and I think he had problems at home. He started swearing at me and being late on set."
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).
O'Connor overcame alcoholism after being hospitalized for three months after collapsing in 1978. His career had a boost when he hosted the Academy Awards, which earned him two Primetime Emmy nominations.
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 began to use nitroglycerin pills before performances so that he would have the stamina to complete them. He underwent successful quadruple-bypass surgery in 1990.
In 1992 he said "I'm no longer a superstar, Now 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 17, on the eve of his departure into the army. They married in Tijuana. They had a daughter, Donna. The couple divorced in 1953.
O'Connor had undergone quadruple heart bypass surgery in 1990, and he nearly died from pleuralpneumonia] in January 1998. 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 and buried at the Forest Lawn-Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles.