Actor Donald O’Connor was born on August 28, 1925, in Chicago, Illinois. He was the fourth surviving child of Effie and Edward O’Connor, two stars of vaudeville who had first won fame as Ringling Bros. circus performers. Ten months after O’Connor’s birth, his 7-year-old sister Arline was struck by a car and killed. O’Connor’s devastated father died of a heart attack weeks later.
During the Great Depression, the surviving O’Connor’s traveled from city to city, performing for food if necessary. Effie O’Connor had become extremely overprotective of her remaining children, seeming never to completely recover from the shock of losing her daughter and husband. O’Connor joined the family act when he was just a toddler. He enjoyed being on stage, which also served as escape from his domineering mother.
In 1937, O’Connor was spotted by Paramount Pictures, and hired to play Bing Crosby’s brother in Sing You Sinners (1938). The hit musical launched his career as Paramount’s newest child actor. He went on to make 11 films from 1938-39, usually playing an orphan or the younger version of the film’s lead, including Men With Wings (1938), Unmarried, and Beau Geste (both 1939).
After an impressive start, O’Connor’s film career was abruptly put on hold. He had to return to vaudeville in the latter part of 1939, when his brother Bill suddenly died. O’Connor served as Bill’s replacement, touring with the family act until 1942. Later that year, he was hired by Universal Studios and paired up with dancer Peggy Ryan. The duet joined a new Hollywood dance troupe, The Jivin’ Jacks and Jills, for a series of B-musicals. The ensemble debuted in the 1942 film What’s Cookin’?, for which they were credited as a group. However, O’Connor and Ryan’s well-received performance earned them separate billing in their next projects.
Assuming that O’Connor would soon be called into the Army, Universal held him to a stringent work schedule, hoping to cram in as much rehearsal time as possible. As expected, on his 18th birthday, he was drafted, and the films were rushed into production. Throughout the rest of World War II, Universal continued to release the popular and profitable O’Connor/Ryan films.
While in the Army, O’Connor served in the Special Services Corps, where he was given the suitable job of entertaining his fellow soldiers. After his discharge he returned to Hollywood where he starred in Something in the Wind (1947), opposite Deanna Durbin. He was cast in a few other minor musicals, including Fuedin’, Fussin’ and A Fightin’ (1948), Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby (1949) and Curtain Call at Cactus Creek (1950).
O’Connor launched a new phase of his screen career with his role as Peter Stirling in Francis the Talking Mule (1949). The films were among Universal’s most profitable titles, and the success of the first Francis film spawned six sequels. Over the next few years, O’Connor reprised his role in five of the sequels, including Francis Goes to the Races (1951), Francis Goes to West Point (1952), Francis Covers the Big Town (1953), Francis Joins the Wacs (1954) and Francis in the Navy (1955).
O’Connor finally jumped onto Hollywood’s A-list with the MGM musical Singin’ in the Rain (1952). His solo dance number “Make ‘Em Laugh” marked a defining achievement in his career. O’Connor’s role as Cosmo Brown earned him a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor, and secured a place for him in film history.
After Singin’ in the Rain, O’Connor was increasingly in demand for big-budget musicals, while at the same time he continued to work on the Francis films, and as a television entertainer. In 1953, he starred in three big screen musicals, Walking My Baby Back Home, I Love Melvin, and Call Me Madam. The latter featured Ethel Merman, and marked her return to the film after a 15-year hiatus. Later that year, O’Connor secured a niche in early television, by winning an Emmy Award for Best Male Star for his role as a rotating host on The Colgate Comedy Hour.
In 1954, O’Connor began working on the Donald O’Connor Texaco Show, a bi-weekly program for the Texaco Star Theater. Later that year, he appeared in There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954), which featured an all-star cast, including Marilyn Monroe, Dan Dailey, Ethel Merman, Mitzi Gaynor and Johnny Ray. He attempted to shed his boy-next-door image with a more dramatic role in the 1957 biopic The Buster Keaton Story. However, as the 1950s came to a close, O’Connor came across fewer and fewer parts.
During the 1960’s O’Connor made occasional TV appearances, hosting a few variety programs and specials. His film work was limited to a handful of features, including The Wonders of Aladdin (1961), Cry For Happy (1961) and That Funny Feeling (1965), with Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee. With the demise of his film and television career, O’Connor returned to his vaudeville roots, appearing in stage productions throughout Las Vegas, Reno, and New York. In 1968, he had a brief run on television with his own syndicated variety show The Donald O’Connor Show.
In the 1970s, O’Connor developed an addiction to alcohol. As a result of his problem, his only film contribution was as one of the many hosts of 1974’s That’s Entertainment. In 1981, he costarred with Chita Rivera in the Broadway production of Bring Back Birdie, which was a less impressive sequel to the original Bye Bye Birdie. His next Broadway effort as Cap’n Andy in the 1983 revival of Showboat proved to be a hit.
Most recently, O’Connor won new fans in the 1992 comedy Toys, with Robin Williams, and 1997’s Out to Sea, with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. In 1999, he survived a highly publicized and nearly fatal battle with pneumonia.
Unfortunately, six years after his battle with pneumonia, O’Connor died of heart failure on September 27, 2003, in Woodland Hills, California. In 1944, O’Connor married his childhood sweetheart Gwen Carter. They had a rather turbulent relationship and divorced in 1953. He wed starlet Gloria Noble in 1956; the couple has three children.