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Last Updated: Sunday, 28 September, 2003, 11:38 GMT 12:38 UK
Obituary: Donald O'Connor

Donald O'Connor
Donald O'Connor: Veteran song and dance man

The legendary song and dance man Donald O'Connor, who entertained audiences for more than seven decades, has died.

It seemed his vocation was, indeed, to Make 'em Laugh - "I move fast, and I keep changing my hats", he explained about his routines.

It was the musical Singin' in the Rain, and his hilarious, athletic, knockabout comic routine, that afforded O'Connor a permanent place in showbusiness history, but by then he had already spent many years on the boards.

Describing himself as "born into the business", O'Connor certainly inherited his athleticism from his parents, both circus performers, and made his first stage appearance three days after his birth.

Teen idol

He graduated with his family from vaudeville to slapstick comedy, where he became a versatile performer, able to sing, dance and perform acrobatics.

Donald O'Connor with Marilyn Monroe
He tripped the light fantastic with Marilyn Monroe
His family's tours were sometimes joined by the Marx Brothers, busy rehearsing their on-screen routines. O'Connor just thought other children were strange, who "didn't work or do anything".

He made his first proper film appearance, aged only 13, in the Paramount musical, Sing You Sinners. He soon moved to Universal Studios where, despite having little confidence in his own dancing ability, his career took off.

Teamed mostly with Peggy Ryan, O'Connor became a teen idol of the 1940s, with many of his films released gradually while he was away on military service.

As musicals went out of fashion, so he transferred his skills to comedy. He played Peter Sterling, a young man with a talking mule as a best friend in the "Francis" movie series of the 1950s.

In the musical, we saw that mankind could have a glow - that life could be singin' in the rain
Donald O'Connor
O'Connor said later, "Those movies were ridiculous, but we were great friends until he started getting more fan mail."

Illness prevented the actor appearing in White Christmas, but he was given instead the role of Gene Kelly's sidekick in Singin' in the Rain.

O'Connor's Make 'em Laugh routine, with its pratfalls and wall-walks, caused him cuts and bruises during a day of filming, but earned him a Golden Globe award.

His other musical successes included Call Me Madam, There's No Business like Show Business, Walking My Baby Back Home, I Love Melvin with Debbie Reynolds, and Anything Goes with Bing Crosby.

Gene Kelly with Donald O'Connor
"Singin'" co-stars: Gene Kelly with Donald O'Connor
O'Connor's television variety show, The Colgate Comedy Hour, won its star an Emmy award, and he later took the title role in The Buster Keaton story. But he made few film or television appearances after that, concentrating instead on writing music.

The actor delighted in telling how James Bond producer Cubby Broccoli had once asked him to play the 007 spy, but O'Connor's greatest achievement undoubtedly remained his ability, as he put it, to "leap over furniture, dance on the wall, and recite 24 bars of Moses Supposes!"

Singin' in the Rain actor dies
28 Sep 03  |  Entertainment

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