Legacy

Light Fantastic

DONALD O'CONNOR, 1925-2003

Donald O'Connor is usually remembered as part of the crowd, specifically the let's-put-on-a-show! crowd from the classic musical, 1952's Singin' in the Rain. But O'Connor, who died of heart failure Sept. 27 at age 78, had a singular talent and humor. ''[He] was almost leprechaunish,'' says friend Chita Rivera. ''[He] was so light and so funny.... It was no mistake that he would do a number like 'Make 'Em Laugh.'''

That signature celluloid moment from Rain is as much about O'Connor's art as it is about the suffering he endured to make it, mugging and pratfalling on concrete for two days just to nail the scene. ''Cyd Charisse, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds -- we were all in bed after every number for at least two days,'' recalls costar Reynolds. ''So I'm sure he was black and blue.''

But O'Connor, the son of vaudevillians, gave everything for his audiences. He once kept singing even when a stage accident left him bleeding. He performed acrobatic stunts on a freshly broken arm. He starred in five sequels to Francis the Talking Mule. But whether it was headlining as a hoofer or playing second fiddle to a jackass, O'Connor handled it all with grace, dignity, and humor. ''To be on the same marquee [with him],'' says Rivera, who costarred with him in Bring Back Birdie, the short-lived Broadway sequel to Bye Bye Birdie, ''means I was keeping extremely good company.'' -- Alynda Wheat

HIGHLIGHTS

BEAU GESTE (1939) Already on his tenth film, a teen O'Connor played the young Beau; Gary Cooper played the adult.

RAGTIME (1981) The hoofer played to his strengths as nouveau society wife Evelyn's (Elizabeth McGovern) dance teacher.

OUT TO SEA (1997) The cruise-ship comedy, with fellow screen legends Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, was O'Connor's last film.

Originally posted Oct 10, 2003 Published in issue #732 Oct 10, 2003 Order article reprints
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