Born Donald David Dixon Ronald O'Connor, August 28, 1925, in Chicago, IL; died of heart failure, September 27, 2003, in Woodland Hills, CA. Singer, dancer, and actor. Donald O'Connor was a singer, dancer, and actor best known for his jaunty, spirited solo in the film Singin' in the Rain. He also starred in several of the well–loved Francis the Talking Mule movies. In all, he made more than 70 motion pictures and won the Emmy, Peabody, Golden Globe, and Sylvania awards. O'Connor was honored with two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Born in Chicago, Illinois, O'Connor was the youngest of seven children born to John Edward O'Connor, a circus strongman, dancer, and comedian, and Effie Irene Crane O'Connor, a circus acrobat, tightrope walker, bareback rider, and dancer, and was carried onstage for applause when he was three days old. When he was six months old, his father suffered a heart attack and died in the middle of a performance. His mother continued to act, and eventually involved O'Connor in her act when he was about one year old. The two traveled throughout the United States to perform on the vaudeville circuit, and O'Connor was performing as a singer and dancer by the age of three. Although his mother passed on some rudimentary education to him, he spent most of his time learning the tricks of the show–business trade: tap–dancing, soft–shoe, and handstands. As a result, he could not relate to ordinary children, who attended school, did not work, and did not know how to dance. One tragic event, other than the death of his father, marred his childhood: his sister was hit by a car and killed.
By the time he was 12, O'Connor had a song–and–dance act with his brothers, Billy and Jack, and the three boys made a short film in 1937. In 1938, after a Hollywood talent scout saw him perform at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, O'Connor appeared in his first big film, Sing You Sinners, playing Bing Crosby's younger brother. In the following year, he appeared in the Gary Cooper film, Beau Geste. That same year, his brother, Billy, died from scarlet fever, and the family act broke up in 1940. O'Connor, now on his own, got a contract with Universal for $200 a week, and gradually earned more noteworthy roles.
On February 7, 1944, O'Connor married Gwendolyn Carter; they had a daughter, Donna, and divorced ten years later. In the 1940s, according to Richard Severo in the New York Times, the New York World–Telegram called him "the funniest man around right now" and he received favorable reviews in Variety. O'Connor was drafted near the end of World War II, and spent his time in the service entertaining combat troops. While he was in the service, Universal continued to pay him his salary of $50 a day.
After the war O'Connor returned to films, and usually received favorable reviews even when the movies he appeared in bombed. Some of the motion pictures he appeared in were 1947's Something in the Wind, starring Deanna Durbin; 1948's Feudin', Fussin' and A'Fightin', and 1949's Yes Sir, That's My Baby. I Love Melvin, released in 1953, was panned by both critics and audiences, but both loved the roller–skating tap dance he performed in it. In 1954, O'Connor was so well–known and well–liked that he was asked to be master of ceremonies at that year's Academy Awards.
In 1950, O'Connor began starring in a long series of films co–starring a talking mule. The first, Francis, was followed by five sequels; for a sixth installment, O'Connor decided not to participate, and his role as the film's human lead was taken by Mickey Rooney. In the 1950s, O'Connor also began appearing in television roles. According to the New York Times ' Severo, New York Herald Tribune television critic John Crosby called O'Connor "one of the greatest all–around talents in show business."
O'Connor made his immortal scene in Singin' in the Rain in 1952. Starring with Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, O'Connor danced across the screen in the "Make 'Em Laugh" number. In 2002, according to Robert W. Welkos in the Los Angeles Times, O'Connor said, "No one ever thought [the film] would be this big or make this kind of splash." O'Connor choreographed the routine, which included dancing up walls and doing backflips.
In 1956, O'Connor married again, this time to Gloria Noble; this marriage would last for the rest of his life. They would eventually have three children, Alicia, Donald Frederick, and Kevin. O'Connor's career sagged in the late 1950s when Hollywood musicals went out of style, although he did appear in the title role of The Buster Keaton Story in 1957. He remained out of the public eye for some time after this film, although in 1981, he reappeared briefly in Ragtime, and in 1983, he appeared on Broadway in a revival of Show Boat.
O'Connor, who had started drinking during his stint in the armed forces, eventually became an alcoholic. When he recognized this, in 1979, he stopped drinking, but as a result of the drinking and his poor eating habits, he had developed heart disease. In 1990, he had successful quadruple–bypass surgery, began exercising, changed his diet, and continued to maintain sobriety. In 1997, O'Connor appeared in the comedy Out to Sea, which starred Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon.
In 1992, according to the New York Times ' Severo, O'Connor said that as he got older his views of what a good part was had changed. "Now I'm looking for the parts where I die and they talk about me for the rest of the movie," he joked. At the age of 78, O'Connor died of heart failure on September 27, 2003, at the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital in Woodland Hills, CA. He is survived by his wife, Gloria; four children, his niece, Patty O'Connor Norton; and four grandchildren.
Los Angeles Times, September 28, 2003, p. B22; New York Times, September 29, 2003, p. A19; Times (London), September 29, 2003, p. 26; Washington Post, September 28, 2003, p. C11.
— Kelly Winters