Monday, April 20, 2020

Seven Things to Know About Donald O'Connor

1. Show business was in his blood. His father, John, worked as an acrobat, clown, trapeze artist, and strong man for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. His mother Effie was a circus bareback horse rider and dancer. When Donald was thirteen-months-old, he and his sister Arlene, who was six, were hit by a car while crossing the street. She died instantly. A few months later, Donald's father collapsed on stage and died from a heart attack.

2. Donald joined the family vaudeville act almost as soon as he could walk. He, his brother Jack, and his mother were billed as The O'Connor Family, the Royal Family of Vaudeville. They sang, danced, and performed comic routines all over the country. Donald never received any formal dance training, something he later said made it difficult to transition to movies.

3. He was signed to a contract with Paramount in 1936 at age 11. His first major role was in Sing You Sinners (1938), in which he played the youngest brother of Bing Crosby and Fred MacMurray. He sang with Crosby on "Small Fry," composed by Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser. Incidentally, Donald O'Connor played Fred MacMurray as a boy in Men With Wings, Gary Cooper as a youth in Beau Geste, and Eddie Albert as a kid in On Your Toes.

Donald and co-star Francis.
4. In 1941, Donald signed with Universal Pictures, where he was often paired with Peggy Ryan in musicals like Private Buckeroo and When Johnny Comes Marching Home (both 1942). He was drafted in 1943 and spent two years in the Air Corps. When he returned, he made a handful of musicals and comedies before being cast opposite a "talking mule" in Francis (1950). The film was a huge hit and O'Connor starred in five of the six sequels between 1951 and 1955. When asked why he quit the profitable Francis series, O'Connor famously quipped: "When you've made six pictures and the mule still gets more mail than you do...."

5. Donald O'Connor, who was a heavy smoker, was physically exhausted after performing his famous wall-climbing dance to "Make 'Em Laugh" in Singin' in the Rain (1952). When he was done, Gene Kelly asked if he could do it again the next day because the footage was ruined due to a technical problem. O'Connor, ever the professional, recreated the dance again. For his performance in Singin' in the Rain, Donald O'Connor won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical. Gene Kelly was not nominated.

6. In 1954-55, Donald starred in The Donald O'Connor Show, which was also known as Here Comes Donald. The half-hour sitcom alternated with The Jimmy Durante Show as part of The Texaco Theatre. In this sitcom, O'Connor and co-star Sid Miller played songwriters trying to peddle their songs. It was really just an excuse for the duo sing, dance, and perform comedic bits. While that show didn't last long, O'Connor did win an Emmy Award earlier in 1954 as a regular on The Colgate Comedy Hour.

Debbie Reynolds and O'Connor.
7. Donald O'Connor was married twice. His first wife, Gwen Carter, has a small unbilled part in Singin' in the Rain. They had a daughter and divorced in 1954 after ten years of marriage. He married Gloria Noble in 1956. They had three children and remained together until his death. Donald O'Connor died from complications due to heart failure in 2003. He was 78.



4 comments:

  1. I am always happy to watch Donald O'Connor and happier still to be reminded of things I knew about him, and to be enlightened by new things.

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  2. Watching Gene Kelly dance is/was enthralling (matched on occasion, of course, by Cyd Charisse). The only other time I took my eyes off him was when Donald O'Connor was performing "Make 'Em Laugh."

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  3. During his teen years, O'Connor was often referred to as Universal's answer to Micky Rooney!

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  4. Donald O'Connor is always a joy to watch. I didn't realize the tragedies that occurred in his family in such a short space of time.

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