12/03/20: Actor, Singer Dancer And He Can Talk to Mules

By Fred Muenz

Donald David Dixon Ronald O’Connor, son of a vaudeville and circus strongman and acrobat father and a bareback rider mother was born in Chicago in August, 1925. At thirteen months old, he was already dancing on stage while being held by his parents. When Donald was two years old, the family was involved in a car crash outside of a theater in Hartford, Connecticut, in which his seven-year-old sister, Arlene, was killed. A few weeks later, his father suffered a fatal heart attack while dancing on stage in Brockton, Massachusetts. His mother, never getting over the grief of losing her daughter and husband, became over-protective of her remaining children as the family travelled from city to city, at times performing for food. She was particularly over-protective of Donald, her youngest, not even allowing him to cross a street by himself until he was 13. Growing up, Donald enjoyed being on stage as it served as a temporary escape from his domineering mother. Years later, he would simply say “she did her best”. In 1937, 12-year-old Donald was spotted by a Paramount Pictures talent scout and was signed to play Bing Crosby’s brother in SING YOU SINNERS (1938). The musical was a hit and, between 1938 and 1939, Paramount’s newest child star appeared in eleven more films, including MEN WITH WINGS (1938) and BEAU GESTE (1939). Toward the end of 1939, he abruptly put his film career on hold to rejoin the family vaudeville act to take the place of his brother, Billy, who had died of Scarlet Fever. In 1941, he returned to Hollywood and was signed by Universal Studios and paired with dancer Peggy Ryan (with whom he would appear in seven films) in a series of “B” movies. With World War II raging, the studio assumed that O’Connor would eventually be drafted, and rushed his schedule to finish as many films as possible. As expected, he received his draft notice in February, 1943, on his 18th birthday. While he was assigned to entertaining his fellow soldiers as part of Special Services, the studio continued to release the popular and profitable O’Connor/Ryan films. Upon his return from the army, he was given roles in a number of minor musicals before finally being cast in FRANCIS THE TALKING MULE (1949). The film was a great success, and he was to appear in five more Francis films between 1949 and 1955. While the series was being filmed, the studio allowed him to make pictures for other studios. In 1952, he appeared in his most famous role, as Don Lockwood’s buddy, Cosmo Brown, in MGM’s SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952). After his “Make Em Laugh” number, the four pack a day smoker was forced to take three days of bed rest to recover, only to learn that the camera was improperly set, and he would have to repeat his performance. In 1954, he was part of an all-star cast in THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS (1954), while also starring in his own radio show. One of his biggest show business regrets came in 1954, when he was cast to co-star with Bing Crosby in WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954), but he was forced to withdraw due to an illness he had contracted from the mule he was working with on one of the Francis movie. His replacement was Danny Kaye. By 1955, he was tired of being type-cast and made the decision to leave Universal after thirteen years with the studio. Sadly, his departure marked the end of his major film career, with only small cameo parts in a few minor films left to him. The 1960’s marked his return to the stage, while making a series of guest appearances on various TV shows. After suffering a heart attack in 1971, he began to drink heavily. Finally, in 1978, he was hospitalized to combat his growing alcoholism after collapsing on stage during a performance. After three months in the hospital, he claimed to have overcome his alcoholism and depression, and returned to the stage and TV guest appearances, without incident, for the rest of his career. In 1994, while he and his wife slept, an earthquake slid their house off of its foundation and wedged it against a tree, keeping it from falling into a canyon. After a lifetime in show business, Donald O’Connor died of heart failure in September, 2003. He was 78.

LOOK FOR ANOTHER SILVER SCREEN MEMORY NEXT WEEK.

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