Nationality: American. Born: Donald David Dixon Ronald O'Connor in Chicago, Illinois, 28 August 1925. Family: Married 1) Gwendolyn Carter, 1944 (divorced 1954), daughter: Donna; 2) Gloria Noble, 1956, three children. Career: Member of "The O'Connor Family" circus and vaudeville act as a child; 1937—film debut in Melody for Two; 1938–39—made films under contract with Paramount; then resumed family act; 1941—contract with Universal; 1944–46—served in entertainment division of the U.S. Army; 1949—starred in
Melody for Two (Louis King)
Sing You Sinners (Ruggles) (as Mike Beebe); Sons of the Legion (Hogan) (as Butch Baker); Men with Wings (Wellman) (as Pat Falconer at age 10); Tom Sawyer—Detective (Louis King) (as Huck Finn)
Unmarried (Neumann) (as Ted Streaver at age 12); Night Work (Archainbaud) (as Butch Smiley); Boy Trouble (Archainbaud) (as Butch); Million Dollar Legs (Grinde) (as Sticky Boone); Beau Geste (Wellman) (as Beau as a child); Death of a Champion (Florey) (as Small Fry); On Your Toes (Enright) (as Phil as a boy)
What's Cookin'? (Cline) (as Tommy); Private Buckaroo (Cline) (as Donny); Give Out Sisters (Cline) (as Don); Get Hep to Love (Lamont) (as Jimmy Arnold)
When Johnny Comes Marching Home (Lamont) (as Frankie); It Comes Up Love (Lamont) (as Ricky); Strictly in the Groove (Keays); Mister Big (Lamont) (as Donald); Top Man (Lamont) (as Don Warren)
Chip Off the Old Block (Lamont) (as Donald Corrigan); Follow the Boys (Thorpe); This Is the Life (Feist) (as Jimmy Plum); Bowery to Broadway (Lamont); The Merry Monahans (Lamont) (as Jimmy Monahan)
Patrick the Great (Ryan) (as Pat Donague Jr.)
Something in the Wind (Pichel) (as Charlie Read)
Are You with It? (Hively) (as Milton Haskins); Feudin', Fussin', and A-Fightin' (Sherman) (as Wilbur McMurty)
Yes Sir, that's My Baby (Sherman) (as William Waldo Winfield); Francis ( Francis the Talking Mule ) (Lubin) (as Peter Stirling)
Curtain Call at Cactus Creek (Lamont) (as Edward Timmons); The Milkman (Barton) (as Roger Bradley)
Double Crossbones (Barton) (as Dave Crandall); Francis Goes to the Races (Lubin) (as Peter Stirling)
Singin' in the Rain (Kelly and Donen) (as Cosmo Brown); Francis Goes to West Point (Lubin) (as Peter Stirling)
Call Me Madam (Walter Lang) (as Kenneth); I Love Melvin (Weis) (as Melvin Hoover); Francis Covers the Big Town (Lubin) (as Peter Stirling); Walkin' My Baby Back Home (Lloyd Bacon) (as Jigger Millard)
Francis Joins the Wacs (Lubin) (as Peter Stirling); There's No Business Like Show Business (Walter Lang) (as Tim Donahue)
Francis in the Navy (Lubin) (as Peter Stirling/Slicker Donovan)
Anything Goes (Robert Lewis) (as Ted Adams)
The Buster Keaton Story (Sheldon) (title role)
Cry for Happy (George Marshall) (as Murray Prince); Le meraviglie di Aladino ( Les Mille et une nuits ; The Wonders of Aladdin ) (Levin) (as Aladdin)
That Funny Feeling (Thorpe) (as Harvey Granson)
That's Entertainment! (Haley Jr.—compilation) (as host)
Ragtime (Forman) (as Evelyn's dance teacher)
Pandemonium ( Thursday the 12th ) (Sole)
The Last Great Vaudeville Show (Iscove—for TV); Alice in Wonderland (Harry Harris—for TV) (as Lory Bird)
Irving Berlin's America (Dubose—for TV)
A Mouse, a Mystery and Me (Nichols—for TV)
A Time to Remember (Travers) (as Father Walsh)
Toys (Levinson) (as Kenneth Zevo)
The Building (Bowab, Kreppel—series for TV); Frasier (Ackerman, Beren—series for TV) (as Harlow Stafford); The Nanny (Day, Drescher—series for TV) (as Fred)
That's Entertainment! III (Friedgen and Sheridan—compilation); Bandit: Bandit's Silver Angel (Needham—for TV) (as Uncle Cyrus)
Out to Sea (Coolidge) (as Jonathan)
Interview, in Photoplay (London), November 1982.
Thomas, Tony, That's Dancing! , New York, 1985.
Current Biography 1955 , New York, 1955.
Reed, J. D., "Can You Tap This," in People Weekly (New York), 21 December 1992.
Vaughan, Don, "Donald O'Connor: Still Making 'em Laugh," in Filmfax (Evanston), May-June 1995.
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Donald O'Connor's vaudeville background has been in evidence throughout his film career. Bing Crosby allegedly asked, "Isn't there anything he can't do?" Singer, dancer, and comedian, O'Connor played in many low-budget musicals and established his reputation by proving that, indeed, he could do just about everything. Perhaps his most popular role was as the straight man to a talking mule in six films of the Francis series. He was never stereotyped by that role, however, and throughout the several years of production of those films, he appeared in a number of important musicals and continued his vaudeville exploits in two successful television shows. It was fitting that, in one of his later films, he played Buster Keaton, whose multiple physical talents and vaudeville background were similar to O'Connor's.
During the early 1940s, under contract to Universal, O'Connor was cast in a number of musicals, often directed by Charles Lamont, that exploited his vaudeville talents and teenage charm. In Top Man , Chip Off the Old Block , and The Merry Monahans , for example, he was teamed with Peggy Ryan in films that seemed Universal's answer to MGM's Garland-Rooney films. Often called on to assume adult responsibilities, O'Connor's characters won their way in the world (and the girl's heart) by show-business expertise. Later, in more mature roles in Singin' in the Rain , I Love Melvin , and Call Me Madam , he retained some of that youthful quality and spirit of delight in performing.
"Make 'em Laugh" from Singin' in the Rain displays all of O'Connor's inventive vaudeville-based skills. As he sings the song, itself a paean to the virtues of popular entertainment, O'Connor performs a series of body maneuvers and slapstick gags: he gets hit by a plank, walks into a wall, gets his feet entangled and falls, and, finally, runs up a wall and backflips off it. Each of these displays him as the limber-legged and rubber-faced vaudeville comedian. Other numbers show his tapping ability, as well. In I Love Melvin he is required to tap on roller skates and, a frequent O'Connor trademark, to assume a variety of identities with quick costume changes.
Although he brought his trademark panache to the Francis series, O'Connor is more happily remembered partnering peppy Debbie Reynolds than a quadruped. It is regrettable that MGM could not have given O'Connor a permanent home after Singin' in the Rain : what other dancer stole scenes from Gene Kelly? Of O'Connor's five major shots at big studio musical comedy immortality, only one ( Singin' in the Rain ) is an undisputed masterwork. Whereas I Love Melvin is mere breezy escapism (a sort of upscale version of his Universal Studio romps), Anything Goes is a regrettably garish shortchanging of Cole Porter; yet O'Connor bucks and wings his way through both until their limitations evaporate. Blessed with a partner of equal merit in Vera-Ellen, O'Connor helps Ethel Merman turn Call Me Madam into one of the sunniest transfers of a Broadway hit to the screen. And if nothing in There's No Business Like Show Business matches his silken dancing to "It's a Lovely Day Today" in Call Me Madam , Show Business does provide him with ample opportunities to dazzle aficionados. Despite contending with squeaky-clean Johnny Ray and resistibly upbeat Mitzi Gaynor, not to mention the daunting prospect of coming face to face with Monroe's bosom, O'Connor energetically steals the film by dancing with the exuberance of someone born in a trunk, who could dance before he could walk. If it had been filmed earlier, he would have been the definitive leprechaun in Finian's Rainbow , but such major roles were sadly not his lot; lending class to vulgarly conceived production numbers was his forte.
Not faring well after the demise of the Hollywood musical, O'Connor failed to storm Broadway in a foolish sequel called Bring Back Birdie . Nevertheless, he continued to wow his fans in summer stock, embarked on a second career as a composer, and made a graceful all-too-brief comeback as a dance instructor in Ragtime . Watching his clowning around on a standout episode of Frasier 's 1995–96 season and struck by his galvanizing routines showcased in That's Entertainment! III , one can only regret the waste of his talents for the past 30 years. Despite the extinction of the film musical, O'Connor, one of the last movie stars to have trained in vaudeville, has achieved a special place as an indispensable link among various types of popular American entertainment.
—Jerome Delamater, updated by Robert Pardi