HOLLYWOOD — Donald O'Connor, the breezy song-and-dance comedian who created movie magic with his spirited rendition of "Make 'em Laugh" in the Hollywood musical "Singin' in the Rain" and also played lovable straight man to a talking mule named Francis, died Saturday. He was 78.
O'Connor died of heart failure at the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital in Calabasas, Calif., surrounded by his family, said his daughter, Alicia O'Connor. In 1999, O'Connor suffered a severe bout of viral pneumonia with heart and lung complications, requiring nine months' recuperation, but eventually he returned to limited performing.
"Even when he was in pain," his daughter said of his brief recent illness, "he was still trying to make people laugh. Only two nights ago he told us, 'I'd just like to thank the Academy (of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) for my lifetime achievement award that I will eventually get.'
"He was a jokester, so we just laughed," she said. "It really brought the whole family together."
O'Connor and his wife of 47 years, Gloria, lived in Sedona, Ariz., but had returned to the Los Angeles area after O'Connor became ill to be with his family.
The quip about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was poignant because O'Connor, who made more than 70 films during his long career and hosted the first televised Academy Awards show, had won every major honor — Emmy, Peabody, Golden Globe and Sylvania — except the Oscar.
With an athletic spring in his step and a charming, boy-next-door persona, O'Connor devoted his entire life to show business, from the circus and vaudeville to movies, television, nightclubs, symphony halls and the Broadway stage.
But it was his role with Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in the classic 1952 MGM musical "Singin' in the Rain" — widely considered the best musical Hollywood ever produced — that will live as his greatest screen accomplishment.
"No one ever thought it would be this big or make this kind of splash," he said of the film in 2002 when it celebrated its 50th anniversary and was issued on DVD.
In the film, O'Connor as Kelly's best friend Cosmo Brown, performs a remarkable self-choreographed dance routine in which he runs up a wall and does a back flip, makes crazy faces and dazzles audiences with acrobatic antics surrounding a couch and other props.
"That piece . . .," A.C. Lyles, Paramount producer and executive for 75 years and a close friend of O'Connor's, said Saturday, "is as good a piece of entertainment as ever existed."
O'Connor became a teen idol in the 1940s when, paired with such starlets as Peggy Ryan, Gloria Jean and Ann Blyth, he performed in a string of lucrative, low-budget musicals for Universal Pictures.
Then segueing into an adult career in the early 1950s, he played straight man to a talking mule named Francis in such silly but popular comedies as "Francis Goes to the Races" and "Francis Goes to West Point." In all, he made six Francis movies.
"I have worked with a lot of jackasses!" O'Connor quipped in a 1997 interview with the Los Angeles Times. "We were very dear friends until he started getting more fan mail and that was the end of that! That broke up our relationship. Ego clashed with ego."
The Francis comedies were big moneymakers.
"The first one grossed $8 million domestic on a 40-cent ticket," O'Connor noted. "So, that would be like $100 million in this day."
The son of circus trapeze artists turned vaudevillians, O'Connor was born on Aug. 28, 1925, in Chicago and was carried onstage for applause when he was three days old. By the age of 13 months, he was already participating in the family vaudeville act.
O'Connor said performing was so much a part of his childhood that he thought it strange that other children didn't work.
He was 11 years old when he made his film debut with two of his brothers in "Melody for Two" in 1937 and was signed a year later by Paramount Pictures. A studio representative plucked him off the stage when he was performing in a benefit for the Motion Picture Relief Fund, prompting O'Connor to recall for the rest of his life, "Some talent scout pointed to me and said, 'Get that kid.' "
Lyles, the veteran Paramount executive, said Saturday it was he who recommended that assistant director Arthur Jacobson hire "that kid" to sing the number "Small Fry" with Bing Crosby in the 1938 film "Sing You Sinners," and to put him under contract.
"Donald O'Connor was one of the most talented, gifted, personable people in our business," Lyles said Saturday, adding that O'Connor appeared in 11 films that first year.
O'Connor played adolescent roles in several films including Huckleberry Finn in "Tom Sawyer — Detective" (1938) and Beau as a child in "Beau Geste" (1939).
In World War II, his career took off with the popularity of the Universal musicals.
"We did 14 pictures in one year," he recalled in 1997. "I was going into the service and the pictures were making so much money, they tried to get in as many as they could so they could release them once every three months while I was in the service. So, when I was in the service, my career was going up all the time. They all made a fortune for the studio."
By the early 1950s, O'Connor struck paydirt again with the Francis comedies, which gave him a chance to veer from the song-and-dance characters he had played so successfully up until then.
As for "Singin' in the Rain," O'Connor recalled decades later that he hadn't been given a solo routine at the beginning until, by chance, composer-arranger Roger Edens came to him with a number called "Make 'Em Laugh."
"Kelly said, 'Why don't you take the girls' — his assistants — 'and a piano player and see what you can come up with,' " O'Connor recalled. "I started doing pratfalls and whatever they laughed at, I said, 'Write it down.' That's how the number came to be."
O'Connor also noted that the entire number had to be reshot because they overexposed the film.
"So, I went back and did it again," he said. "It was no sweat. I felt I did it better the second time."
In 1954-55, O'Connor starred in "The Donald O'Connor Texaco Show" and in 1957 he portrayed the silent screen comedian in a film biography called "The Buster Keaton Story."
O'Connor did not confine his talents to film or TV. In 1956, he conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the premiere performance of his first symphony, "Reflections d'un Comique." In later years, he was on the Broadway stage in 1981 in "Bring Back Birdie." Other theatrical credits included a 1982 revival of "Showboat."
In later years, O'Connor appeared in such films as "Ragtime," "Toys" and, more recently, in 1997 in "Out To Sea" starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.
Survivors include his wife, Gloria; four children, Alicia, Donna, Fred and Kevin, a special niece, Patty O'Connor Norton, and four grandchildren.
Contributing: Susan King and Myrna Oliver.