Donald O’Connor, best known for the physical and musical acumen that made him a star in the 1950s, and the mastermind behind Singin’ in the Rain’s famous “Make ‘Em Laugh” number, died on September 27, 2003. He was 78.
O’Connor had barely left the womb before embarking on his long show-business career. The son of an acrobat, Effie Irene Crane, and a circus strongman, Chuck O’Connor, one of the O’Connors of Bansha, Co. Tipperary Donald was raised on the stage. After his father’s death, his mother incorporated her children into her vaudeville acts. In 1938, he made his Hollywood film debut as Bing Crosby’s younger bother in Sing You Sinners after being scouted out at a benefit in the Biltmore Hotel in LA.
In 1944, O’Connor was drafted. After the war, he starred and co-starred in a number of major films, including Yes Sir, That’s My Baby (1948), also starring Gloria De Haven, and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” scene is known as one of the best in Hollywood history. The director, Stanley Donen, and Gene Kelly, who co-directed, gave O’Connor free rein to shape that particular number. The result was uproarious, and made film history.
O’Connor starred opposite a mule in the movie Francis (1950). The film’s popularity led to several sequels, including Francis Goes to the Races (1951), and Francis Goes to West Point (1952). In 1956, O’Connor turned down his seventh Francis film, Francis in the Haunted House, a role that was later given to Mickey Rooney. At this point, O’Connor’s film career started to taper off. Up until 1965, he only made a sprinkling of films, after which he took a 16-year hiatus, not to be revived until Ragtime in 1981.
In 1979, rather than battling with his career, O’Connor fought the alcohol addiction which he had developed during his service in WWII. While he had quit drinking, he had started using nitroglycerine pills before performances in order to maintain a waning endurance due to heart problems. After a successful quadruple-bypass surgery in 1990, O’Connor started to take his health more seriously, developing a healthier diet and regular exercise routine. In 1997, O’Connor made a rare and final film appearance in Out to Sea with Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, and his old film partner, Gloria De Haven.
Despite the usual ups and downs, Donald O’Connor led a full and colorful life. His contribution to film is immeasurable, and whether consciously or not, his work will continue to inspire actors for generations to come. He is survived by his second wife, Gloria Noble, and his three children, Alicia, Donald Frederick and Kevin. ♦