Donald O'Connor was a 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 the lovable straight man to a talking mule named Francis.
With an athletic spring in his step and a charming, boy-next-door persona, O'Connor devoted his life to show business, working in the circus, vaudeville, movies, television, nightclubs, symphony halls and Broadway.
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.
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 performs acrobatic antics around a couch and other props.
The actor 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. They included such hits as "Chip Off the Old Block," "Get Hep to Love" and "Strictly in the Groove."
Then, segueing into his career as an adult in the early 1950s, he played straight man to Francis the talking mule 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.
In later years, he was on the Broadway stage, appearing in 1981 in "Bring Back Birdie." Other theatrical credits included a revival of "Showboat," which played at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1982. More recently, O'Connor appeared in such films as "Ragtime," "Toys" and, in 1997, in "Out to Sea," starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.
Years before, when one of his two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was dedicated, O'Connor alluded to his famous motion picture number, commenting, "Cement is better than the sands of time. Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, what more is there?"
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