Publicity photo (1952)
|Born||Donald David Dixon Ronald O'Connor
August 28, 1925
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
|Died||September 27, 2003
Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Resting place||Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery|
|Occupation||Dancer, singer, actor|
(m. 1944; div. 1954)
(m. 1956; his death 2003)
Donald David Dixon Ronald O'Connor (August 28, 1925 - September 27, 2003) was an American dancer, singer, and actor who came to fame in a series of movies in which he co-starred alternately with Gloria Jean, Peggy Ryan, and Francis the Talking Mule.
He is best known today for his role as Don Lockwood's friend and colleague Cosmo Brown in Singin' in the Rain (1952).
Though he considered Danville, Illinois to be his hometown, O'Connor was born in St. Elizabeth Hospital in Chicago. His parents, Effie Irene (née Crane) and John Edward "Chuck" O'Connor, were vaudeville entertainers. His father's family was from Ireland. When O'Connor was only 2 years old, he and his sister Arlene, who was 7 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.
O'Connor began performing in movies in 1937, making his debut aged 11 in Columbia's It Can't Last Forever (1937).
He was in Sons of the Legion (1938), then had the lead in a B-picture, Tom Sawyer, Detective (1938), playing Huckleberry Finn. O'Connor was in Boy Trouble (1939) and played John Hartley as a young boy in Unmarried (1939).
O'Connor was billed fourth in Million Dollar Legs (1939) with Betty Grable and played Gary Cooper as a young boy in Beau Geste (1939). Night Work (1939) was a sequel to Boy Trouble and he was in Death of a Champion (1939).
In 1940, when he had outgrown child roles, he returned to vaudeville.
In 1941, O'Connor signed with Universal Pictures, where he began by appearing in seven B-picture musicals in a row, starting with What's Cookin'? (1942) with The Andrews Sisters, Gloria Jean and Peggy Ryan. He and Ryan were in Private Buckaroo (1942) and Give Out, Sisters (1942), both with the Andrews Sisters.
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.
On his 18th birthday in August 1943, during World War II 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), The Merry Monahans (1944), Bowery to Broadway (1945) 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.
Upon his return, 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), Feudin', Fussin' and A-Fightin' (1949), and Yes Sir, That's My Baby (1949).
In 1949, he played the lead role in Francis, the story of a soldier befriended by a talking mule. 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."
O'Connor then received an offer to play Cosmo the piano player in Singin' in the Rain (1952) at MGM. 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". O'Connor said he smoked around 4 packs of cigarettes a day during filming.
In 1952 O'Connor signed a three-picture deal with Paramount. 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.
After Francis Covers the Big Town (1953), Universal put O'Connor in a musical in colour, Walking My Baby Back Home (1953). He did Francis Joins the WACS (1954) then played Tim Donahue in the 20th Century Fox musical There's No Business Like Show Business (1954), which featured Irving Berlin's music and also starred with Ethel Merman, Marilyn Monroe, Dan Dailey, Mitzi Gaynor and Johnnie Ray.
It was because of the Francis series that O'Connor missed playing 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.
O'Connor was reluctant to keep making Francis films but agreed to Francis in the Navy (1955).Arthur Lubin who directed the films later recalled that O'Connor "got very difficult" to work with after a while. "He started drinking and I think he had problems at home. He started swearing at me and being late on set."
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. 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.
O'Connor teamed with Glenn Ford in Cry for Happy (1961) and played the title role in The Wonders of Aladdin (1961). He subsequently focused on theatre work then returned to films in the Sandra Dee comedy That Funny Feeling (1965).
O'Connor overcame alcoholism after being hospitalized for three months after collapsing in 1978. 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 and continued to make film and television appearances into the 1990s, including the Robin Williams film Toys as the president of a toy-making company. He had guest roles in 1996 in a pair of popular TV comedy series, The Nanny and Frasier.
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.
O'Connor was married twice and had four children. His first marriage was in 1944 to Gwendolyn Carter, with whom he had a daughter, Donna. The couple divorced in 1954. He married for a second time, to Gloria Noble, in 1956. Together they had three children: Alicia, Donald Frederick, and Kevin. O'Connor and Noble were married until his death in 2003.
O'Connor had undergone quadruple heart bypass surgery in 1990, and he nearly died from double pneumonia 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. His remains were cremated and buried at the Forest Lawn-Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles.