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Donald David Dixon Ronald O’Connor was born on August 28, 1925 in Chicago, Illinois and died on September 27, 2003 in Los Angeles, California. He was an American actor, singer and dancer who became famous in a series of movies in which he costarred 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.
O’Connor was the seventh son of circus performers who went into vaudeville. His Irish-born father, John “Chuck” O’Connor, who died when his son was six months old, was a circus strongman and acrobat; his mother a bareback rider. Donald, who never went to school, joined the family act as soon as he could walk, though he admitted not having sung until he was two years old.
He made his screen debut at 11, in a speciality routine in Melody For Two (1937) with two of his older brother and, the following year, signed up with Paramount, for whom he made a dozen films in two years, playing cocky youngsters. He was Bing Crosby’s jockey kid brother in Sing You Sinners (1938), Huckleberry Finn in Tom Sawyer: Detective (1938), Fred MacMurray as a child in William Wellman’s Men With Wings (1938) and Gary Cooper as a child in Beau Geste (1939).
His boyish elan kept him mostly in pubescent roles until Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby (1949), when his character was married to Gloria de Haven. Then he found a new partner in Francis, the talking mule. This puerile, but highly successful series, in which the super-intelligent animal refused to speak to anyone but O’Connor, began with Francis (1950) and continued with Francis Goes To The Races (1951), Francis Goes To West Point (1952), Francis Covers The Big Town (1953), Francis Joins The Wacs (1954) and Francis In The Navy (1955). O’Connor finally left the series because “the mule was getting more fan mail than I was.”
In 1953, he caught a rare fever transmitted by animals – for which he blamed the mule. The illness prevented him taking a role opposite Crosby in White Christmas, though he later starred with him in Anything Goes (1956).
After Singin’ in the Rain, O’Connor appeared, also for MGM, opposite Debbie Reynolds in the charming I Love Melvin (1953), in which he danced and sang “Life Has Its Funny Little Ups And Downs” on rollerskates. He was then in two of Fox’s huge Irving Berlin musicals, Call Me Madam (1953), delightfully singing It’s A Lovely Day Today, and There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954), in which he was driven to drink by Marilyn Monroe.
O’Connor was a regular host of NBC’s Colgate Comedy Hour. He hosted a color television special on NBC in 1957, one of the earliest color programs to be preserved on a cooler kinescope; an excerpt of the telecast was included in NBC’s 50th anniversary special in 1976.
In 1954, he starred in his own television series, The Donald O’Connor Show on NBC. He suffered a heart attack in 1971.
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.
He appeared in the short-lived Brink 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. In 1998, he received a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California.
O’Connor’s last feature film was the Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau comedy Out to Sea, in which he played a dance host on a cruise ship. O’Connor was still making public appearances well into 2003.
He was married twice and had four children. 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.
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