Donald O'Connor

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.

Donald O'Connor
O'Connor in 1952
Donald David Dixon Ronald O'Connor

(1925-08-28)August 28, 1925
DiedSeptember 27, 2003(2003-09-27) (aged 78)
Resting placeForest Lawn Memorial Park
EducationProfessional Children's School
Hollywood Professional School
Danville High School
Years active1937–1999
Gwen Carter
(m. 1947; div. 1955)

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.

Early years

Though he considered Danville, Illinois to be his hometown, O'Connor was the seventh child and 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.[1][2] His father's family was from Ireland.[3]

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." [4]

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.[5] His brother Billy died a decade later from Scarlet Fever and his eldest sibling Jack died from alcoholism in 1959. His three other siblings died during childbirth. O'Connor said it "marred my childhood and it's still haunting."

O'Connor's mother was extremely possessive of her youngest son, not allowing him to cross the street on his own until he turned 13 and a typical stagemother, often striking him.

O'Connor later said regarding Effie, "She wanted me to be as great as I possibly could be. She did her best."


O'Connor Family

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."[6]

When they did not tour they stayed with O'Connor's Uncle Bill in Danville, Illinois. O'Connor never went to school.[7]

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."[4]

O'Connor began performing in movies in 1937, making his debut aged 11 in Melody for Two appearing with his family act. He was also in Columbia's It Can't Last Forever (1937).[7]


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.[8]

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.

O'Connor was billed fourth in Million Dollar Legs (1939) with Betty Grable. He played Gary Cooper as a young boy in Beau Geste (1939), directed by Wellman.

Night Work (1939) was a sequel to Boy Trouble and O'Connor was in Death of a Champion (1939).[5]

He went to Warner Bros to play Eddie Albert as a young boy in On Your Toes (1939). He then returned to his family act in vaudeville for two years.[7]


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.[9] The film was popular and Universal began to develop O'Connor and Ryan as their version of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.[10]

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.[8]

O'Connor and Ryan were in Top Man (1943), with Susanna Foster, and Chip Off the Old Block (1944), with Ann Blyth. O'Connor and Ryan both had cameos in Universal's all-star Follow the Boys (1944).

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 in the Air Corps. Later moved to Special Unit in the Air Corps.

Return from war service

Universal did not know what to do with their teen star turned young adult for one year. O'Connor was almost broke. A merger in 1946 had reorganized the studio as Universal-International. The studio paired O'Connor opposite their biggest female star, Deanna Durbin, in Something in the Wind (1947).

He starred in Are You with It? (1948) with Olga San Juan, Feudin', Fussin' and A-Fightin' (1949) with Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride, and Yes Sir, That's My Baby (1949) with Gloria De Haven.[11]

"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."[4]


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."[12]

O'Connor followed the first Francis with comedies: Curtain Call at Cactus Creek (1950), The Milkman (1950), and Double Crossbones (1951).

He did Francis Goes to the Races (1951), another big hit. In February 1951 he signed a new contract with Universal for one film a year for four years, enabling him to work outside the studio.[13]

Singin' in the Rain

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," completely improvised. O'Connor composed the music for the famous scene at the last minute.

O'Connor said " all hoofers, they dance from the waist down. And I had to learn to dance from the waist up. And then, I became what's known as a total dancer."[4]

O'Connor said he was forced to go to the hospital during the production of Singin' in the Rain due to injuries and exhaustion.

"The scene was building to such a crescendo, I thought I'd actually have to kill myself," said O'Connor. [14]

In 1952 O'Connor signed a three-picture deal with Paramount.[15]

He went back to Universal for Francis Goes to West Point (1952) then returned to MGM for I Love Melvin (1953) a musical with Debbie Reynolds.

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."[16]

He supported Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam (1953) at 20th Century Fox, later saying the film contained his best dancing.[17]

After Francis Covers the Big Town (1953), Universal put O'Connor in a musical in colour, Walking My Baby Back Home (1953) with Janet Leigh.

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,and was replaced in the film by Danny Kaye.[18]

He emceed the 1954 Oscars.[19]

The Donald O'Connor Show

He starred in The Donald O'Connor Show (1954–55) for one season. O'Connor was a regular host of NBC's Colgate Comedy Hour.[5]

O'Connor was reluctant to keep making Francis films but agreed to Francis in the Navy (1955).[20] Arthur Lubin who directed the films later recalled that O'Connor "got very difficult" to work with after a while. "He'd sit in his dressing room and stare into space, and I think he had problems at home."[21]

O'Connor and Crosby united on Anything Goes (1956) at Paramount. That studio also released The Buster Keaton Story (1957), in which O'Connor had the title role.

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.[22]

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.

In the late 50s he began guest starring on shows like Playhouse 90, The DuPont Show of the Month, and The Red Skelton Hour. But his focus moved increasingly to touring live shows.[23]


O'Connor teamed with Glenn Ford in Cry for Happy (1961) at Columbia and he played the title role in The Wonders of Aladdin (1961) for MGM.

He subsequently focused on theatre work and his nightclub act, performing in Las Vegas.[24] He returned to Universal for the first time in ten years to make the Sandra Dee comedy That Funny Feeling (1965).[25]

He did episodes of Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, Vacation Playhouse, ABC Stage 67 and The Jackie Gleason Show. He also appeared in several productions of Little Me.[26]

In 1968, O'Connor hosted a syndicated talk show also called The Donald O'Connor Show. The program was cancelled due to the dancer becoming "too political." The jokes were often seen as offensive. O'Connor was reprimanded by the studio.[27]


He began to use nitroglycerin pills before performances so that he would have the stamina to complete them. He then suffered a heart attack in 1971, leading him to quit taking the medication.[28]

He was in a TV production of Li'l Abner (1971) and continued to perform on stage, notably in Las Vegas.[29]

He guest-starred on episodes of The Girl with Something Extra, Ellery Queen, The Bionic Woman, Police Story, and Hunter.[30]

O'Connor claimed to have overcome his depression after being hospitalized for three months after collapsing in 1978.[5] He wrote letters to his friends and family explaining that his life had "completely changed." The dancer was paralyzed from the waist down but recovered by way of physical therapy. The letters detail the lives of other patients, particularly a 30 year old man who was completely immobilized.

"I won't take anything I have for granted again," written in each letter.

O'Connor credited the patients he met and thanked God for allowing him to recover.

His career had a boost when he hosted the Academy Awards, which earned him two Primetime Emmy nominations.


He appeared as a gaslight-era entertainer in the 1981 film Ragtime, notable for similar encore performances by James Cagney and Pat O'Brien. It was his first feature film role in 16 years.

O'Connor appeared in the short-lived Bring Back Birdie on Broadway in 1981. The following year he was in I Ought to Be in Pictures in Los Angeles.[31]

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." [6]

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."[32]

He developed heart trouble and underwent successful quadruple-bypass surgery in 1990.[33]


O'Connor continued to make film and television appearances into the 1990s, including the Robin Williams film Toys (1992) as the president of a toy-making company. He continued to perform live.[34]

He had guest roles in Murder, She Wrote, Tales from the Crypt, The Building, The Nanny and Frasier, and was in the films Bandit: Bandit's Silver Angel (1994), and Father Frost (1996).

In 1992 he said, "I never wanted to be a superstar. 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."[33]

In 1998, he received a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars.[35]

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."[4]

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.

Personal life

O'Connor was married once and had four children. His marriage was in 1947 to Gwendolyn Carter, when he was 21 and she was 20. They married in Tijuana.[36] Together they adopted four children: Donna, Alicia, Frederick, and Kevin. The couple divorced in 1955. [37][38] During the turbulent nine year marriage, there was physical abuse toward O'Connor brought on by Carter and her frustration over the lack of an acting career. Carter was given ownership of their home and won full custody of their children. According to reports at the time the couple split, O'Connor was left with only the dog and sought the help of multiple psychiatrists.

"I have 60 years of emotional turmoil under my belt," stated O'Connor. [5]

Donald was honored with a retrospective at New York's Lincoln center and an honorary degree from Boston University. He chose to keep much of his philanthropy work private. Some of it includes work for the United States Army and Red Cross. He created the Donald O'Connor Alcoholism Counseling Scholarship.


O'Connor had undergone quadruple heart bypass surgery in 1990,[39] 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.[40] His remains were cremated and buried at the Forest Lawn–Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles. His belongings were auctioned off and all proceeds were given to charity.






  1. "O'Connor, Donald David Dixon Ronald". Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. 2007. Retrieved 2012-08-24.
  2. Frank Cullen; Florence Hackman; Donald McNeilly (8 October 2006). Vaudeville, Old and New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-93853-8.
  3. Current Biography Yearbook, Vol. 16. H.W. Wilson Co. 1955. Retrieved 2012-08-24.
  4. DONALD O'CONNOR Weekend All Things Considered; Washington, D.C. : 1. Washington, D.C.: NPR. (May 25, 1997)
  5. Richard Severo (29 September 2003). "Donald O'Connor, 78, Who Danced His Way Through Many Hollywood Musicals, Is Dead". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-08-24.
  6. DONALD O'CONNOR'S MUSICAL JOURNEY KEEPS HIM ON ROAD: [SPORTS FINAL, CN Edition] Dale, Steve. Chicago Tribune 20 Dec 1985: 50.
  7. The Life Story of DONALD O'CONNOR Picture Show; London Vol. 62, Iss. 1607 (January 16, 1954): 12.
  8. Chicago Born Donald O'Connor Is a Veteran of Stage and Films at 25 Zylstra, Freida. Chicago Daily Tribune 27 July 1950: c1.
  9. Obituaries: Donald O'Connor, 78, comic and dancer Anonymous. Back Stage; New York Vol. 44, Iss. 40, (Oct 3-Oct 9, 2003): 47.
  10. Zylstra, Freida. (July 25, 1950) "Chicago Born Donald O'Connor Is a Veteran of Stage and Films at 25" Chicago Daily Tribune
  11. DONALD O'CONNOR, MISS MAIN SET COMEDY PACE G K. Los Angeles Times 9 Aug 1948: 12.
  12. Donald O'Connor's musical Journey keeps him on road Dale, Steve. Chicago Tribune 20 Dec 1985: n_a50.
  13. "Drama: Howard Duff Will Soon Starr in 'Cave'". Los Angeles Times. 9 Feb 1951. p. B10.
  14. T, Teresa and Tracy Ann Murray, T 'n'. "Donald O'Connor Web Site".
  15. PARAMOUNT SIGNS DONALD O'CONNOR: Actor Will Make 3 Pictures for Studio -- Betty Hutton's Film May Be One of Them By THOMAS M. PRYOR Special to THE NEW YORK TIMES. 24 Jan 1952: 23.
  16. YOUNG DONALD O'CONNOR MAKES GOOD IN VIDEO Chicago Daily Tribune 20 Apr 1952: e2.
  17. "Donald O'Connor interview - Mindy Aloff". Retrieved March 30, 2016.
  18. Donald O'Connor Enters Hospital Hopper, Hedda. Los Angeles Times 9 Aug 1953: 3.
  19. Donald O'Connor Named to Emcee Oscar Awards Chicago Daily Tribune 19 Feb 1954: a8.
  20. Donald O'Connor Scheduled for Another 'Francis' Film Hopper, Hedda. Chicago Daily Tribune 18 Oct 1954: b16.
  21. Davis, Ronald L. (2005). Just Making Movies. University Press of Mississippi. p. 183.
  22. Obituary: Donald O'Connor: Dynamic dancer and comedian Bergan, Ronald. The Guardian 29 Sep 2003: 1.21.
  23. MOULIN ROUGE DATE: Donald O'Connor Joins Rush to L.A. Stage Scott, John L. Los Angeles Times 1 Mar 1959: f3.
  24. Donald O'Connor Billed at Sahara Scott, John L. Los Angeles Times 15 Aug 1966: c21.
  25. Donald O'Connor Returns to Universal Los Angeles Times 17 Aug 1965: C10.
  26. Donald O'Connor Stars in 'Little Me' Scott, John L. Los Angeles Times 19 Apr 1968: c18.
  27. Alex McNeil, Total Television, p. 231
  28. "Donald O'Connor by Susan M. Kelly".
  29. LAS VEGAS SCENE: Donald O'Connor in Dancing Shoes Again Scott, John L. Los Angeles Times 12 Apr 1973: g21.
  30. Donald O'Connor in Drama Role With Vince Edwards Los Angeles Times 3 July 1976: b4.
  31. DONALD O'CONNOR IN 'PICTURES', Los Angeles Times 12 Apr 1982: g3
  32. Donald O'Connor Keeps Studio City Theater in the Family-Literally: [Valley Edition] ARKATOV, JANICE. Los Angeles Times 3 Mar 1989: 28.
  33. Donald O'Connor, 78, Who Danced His Way Through Many Hollywood Musicals, Is Dead: [Obituary (Obit)] Severo, Richard. New York Times 29 Sep 2003: B.6.
  34. IN STEP WITH: Donald O'Connor Brady, James. The Washington Post 14 Mar 1993: AA16.
  35. "Palm Spring Walk of Stars". Retrieved 2012-08-24.
  36. Donald O'Connor Weds Secretly New York Times 8 Feb 1944: 12.
  37. Donald O'Connor Divorced New York Times 17 June 1953: 32.
  38. Donald O'Connor to Marry New York Times 10 Oct 1956: 46.
  39. "Archives -".
  40. Welkos, Robert W. (2003-09-28). "Donald O'Connor, 78; Entertainer Immortalized by 'Singin' in the Rain'". Retrieved 12 November 2012.
  41. "The Littlest Hobo: The Clown". IMDb. Retrieved 2012-08-24.
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