Donald O'Connor became famous for his performance of "Make 'Em Laugh" in Singin' in the Rain, but his life behind the scenes was far from funny. From the disturbing reasons for his divorce to the horrors he endured on set, Donald O'Connor lived a secret tragedy.
Fate decided O’Connor’s profession before he was born. O’Connor’s parents were Vaudevillians—his mother was a horse rider and his father was an acrobat—and worked as traveling entertainers. There was a dark side to this, though. The O'Connors traveled so much that neither could remember where or even when Donald was born.
With this kind of background, maybe it's not surprising that Donald took to the stage at a disturbingly young age. He joined the family’s act when he was only 13 months old. But that was just the start of the dysfunction.
O’Connor encountered tragedy incredibly early in his life. When he was two, a car struck Donald and his seven-year-old sister Arlene while they were trying to cross the street. While Donald survived, Arlene didn’t make it. The news devastated the family, but they had no idea that something even worse was in store.
With the O'Connors still reeling from the loss of their little girl, even darker news came to them. Just weeks after the car accident, Donald's father was performing on stage when he had a fatal heart attack and collapsed. And, as if that weren't enough, three of Donald's siblings never made it past infancy.
It was as traumatizing childhood as they come, and the consequences for Donald were severe.
The cavalcade of harrowing losses drove Donald's mother to the brink. Soon, she was terrifyingly protective of him, sometimes in bizarre ways. Sure, she understandably didn't let him cross the street alone again until he was 13, but she also refused to let him take part in any inherently dangerous performances. But this didn't stop him...
In the 1940s, Donald O'Connor's life changed forever. After moving to Los Angeles, he became a teen idol when Universal hired him to star in a plethora of low-budget musicals with fellow up-and-coming starlets Peggy Ryan and Gloria Jean. People immediately loved the way O'Connor looked moving on the screen. Only, they didn't know his secret.
After earning his work with Universal, O'Connor came to a chilling realization. Sure, he looked great leaping across a film, but looks were all he had. As a self-taught Vaudevillian, he was hopelessly behind on Hollywood dance routines, which studio executives expected him to memorize in an instant.
He also had to completely change his style of dancing, moving from the Vaudeville "waist down" kind of dancing to the more upright, core-controlled posture Universal wanted for their musicals. It was a rude awakening, and O'Connor was growing up in other ways, too.
In 1944, WWII was raging, and the moment O'Connor turned 18, he got drafted into the US Army. Although he would end up avoiding combat and serving instead in the Special Services entertainment branch, there was no doubt O'Connor was putting himself in danger. That prospect pushed him to make a very rash decision.
Right before the teenaged O'Connor deployed off to entertain the troops, he collected the first scandal of his career: He married a woman named Gwen Carter. You see, the young lovebirds were so desperate to make it official before time ran out, they hot-footed it down to Tijuana to say their "I dos". As we'll see, it would turn out to be one of the worst ideas of O'Connor's life.
O'Connor was young and dumb when he married Carter, but at least on the surface it didn't seem like such a bad idea. Like O'Connor, Carter was an aspiring actor, and together they soon had a daughter, Donna. In other words, it almost looked like they had a chance to settle into domestic bliss. But by then, things were already shifting.
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O'Connor's star was very much on the rise when he received his draft notice, and Universal Studios wanted to make sure they kept their cash cow going. Before he left, they filmed a huge backlog of movies with him, then staggered their releases over the course of his two-year service. That way, audiences wouldn't even notice his hiatus.
In one way, it worked. In another, it backfired.
Although O'Connor had technically continued working through his service, his actual return to Hollywood was more than a little awkward. Universal wasn't quite sure what to do with him after all this time. So they landed on a bizarre idea. In 1950, O'Connor starred in Francis as a soldier who becomes friends with...a talking mule.
Incredibly, the film became a huge hit and spawned multiple sequels starring O'Connor. But there was a scary side effect.
O'Connor would eventually quit the Francis franchise because "the mule was getting more fan mail than I was," but he didn't escape unscathed. In 1953, while working on one of the Francis sequels, O'Connor contracted a rare illness. More than that, it was a rare illness that only animals tended to transmit—leading O'Connor to put the blame on his mule co-star. That wasn't the only plot twist.
O'Connor was so ill at this time, he missed a huge opportunity. When Paramount studios wanted him to star alongside Bing Crosby in the now-classic White Christmas, O'Connor had to turn them down in order to get more bed rest. Thanks for nothing, Francis. Of course by then, O'Connor had already become very, very famous, and it was all because of one role.
Fresh off his first Francis film, O'Connor got the offer of a lifetime. The legendary dancer and actor Gene Kelly approached him and asked if he'd like to co-star as the sidekick Cosmo in a little film called Singin' in the Rain. As we now know, O'Connor said yes, and the film became one of the best and most popular musicals of all time. But behind the scenes, it was utterly brutal.
O'Connor still had trouble memorizing dance steps, making his days on the Singin' set extremely grueling. But that wasn't all. On top of that, O'Connor smoked four packs a day at the time he filmed Singin' in the Rain, which certainly couldn't have helped his physical fitness. And then Kelly came to him with an offer he couldn't refuse...but probably should have.
O'Connor's character Cosmo really gets to show off in the number "Make 'Em Laugh," and Kelly wanted O'Connor to revive some of his old Vaudeville tricks for the performance. In particular, O'Connor used to be able to run up a wall and do a somersault, and Kelly knew that was what he wanted for the climax of the scene. Actually, he wanted two backflips.
O'Connor swallowed his fears and said yes. He bit off way more than he could chew.
The Singin' in the Rain production had O'Connor do his whole performance for "Make 'Em Laugh" in one day—on a concrete floor no less. Although the backflips were the centerpiece of the performance, he also had to leap, dance, and perform pratfalls in the manic jig. As O'Connor put it, "My body just had to absorb this tremendous shock". It was one he almost never got over.
After wrapping that day on set, it hit a terrifying breaking point. O'Connor was so exhausted from his performance, both in mind and body, he reportedly fell into bed for three days, and may have even ended up in the hospital for a full week afterward. Either way, when O'Connor returned to the studio lot, the whole cast and crew applauded him. But he was in for another shock.
Rested up from the extreme pain of "Make 'Em Laugh," O'Connor was ready to face down Gene Kelly and his incessant demands once more after the applause calmed down. Instead, Kelly asked him, "Do you think you could do that number again?" O'Connor, perhaps sensing a joke, said, "Sure, any time". That's when Kelly made a gut-wrenching revelation.
Apparently during O'Connor's first horrific day filming "Make 'Em Laugh," no one had remembered to properly set the camera's aperture. As a result, all of his beautiful work was now, as O'Connor put it, "fogged out". That's not even the worst part. Determined to stay on schedule, Kelly only gave O'Connor one more day to heal before he had to do the dance all over again. And the hits kept coming.
Incredibly enough, the titular "Singin' in the Rain" number was originally intended to be a showcase for all three leads, with Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor getting a piece of that iconic pie. Except, Gene Kelly decided last-minute that a solo act would better showcase his talents. Was he wrong? Probably not, but still a raw deal for our Donald.
At home, however, O'Connor was getting the rawest deal of all.
Though people only considered Singin' in the Rain a moderate success when it first came out, it did nonetheless cement O'Connor's legacy. Yet just as his professional life began to rise, his personal life took a nosedive. In 1954, he and his wife Gwen Carter filed for divorce. As for why—well, as we'll get to later, it was a doozy. But soon, the split was affecting his work.
The mid 1950s were a truly horrible time for Donald O'Connor. He began to show disturbing tendencies. In the later instalments of the Francis talking mule films, O'Connor's director Arthur Lubin noticed a dark shift in the actor. According to Lubin, he "got very difficult" and would "sit in his dressing room and stare into space".
Soon enough, this all caught up with O'Connor.
In 1955, just after O'Connor wrapped the latest Francis film, another seismic shift occurred in his life. He realized at that point that Universal was never going to stop casting him as the "super-polite boy" in films. So, gathering up his courage, he finally made the decision to leave the studio. Except this turned out to be an enormous mistake.
When Donald O'Connor left Universal, he likely expected his career to evolve and grow. Something much worse happened. As it turned out, his move away from the studio tanked his career, and although he continued to work steadily, he never achieved the same heights. Thankfully, he did have one consolation.
Love really can come again, and it certainly did for O’Connor. After getting over his first marriage, O'Connor tied the knot again in 1956, this time with Gloria Noble. Although Noble was also a fellow actor like his first wife, this union was far more successful. They were together for the rest of his life and had three children together.
Before long, though, O'Connor needed all the good news he could get.
Tragedy continued to come for O'Connor no matter what he did. The next blow was the worst yet. In 1959, he lost his eldest sibling Jack in a very ugly way. Donald's Vaudevillian co-performer succumbed to alcoholism, leaving waves of pain in his wake. O'Connor didn't know it then, but this was all the beginning of a precipitous downfall.
With his screen career floundering, O'Connor tried to make it as a talk show host, starring in The Donald O'Connor Show in 1968. It ended in total disaster. He was done being a studio stooge and spoke his mind, leading the executives to dub him as "too political" and reprimand him. Then, they quickly canceled the show. Ouch.
Ever since entering Hollywood, O'Connor always had to work twice as hard to learn his routines. As the 1970s dawned, though, he realized he had an entirely new problem. He was growing old, and those dance routines weren't getting any easier. Besides that, he was still struggling to keep his career afloat post-Universal.
Feeling like he was lagging behind, O'Connor came up with a terrifying "solution".
In order to keep his stamina up for his performances, O'Connor began taking nitroglycerin pills just before going on stage. After all, who was "Donald O'Connor" if he wasn't bouncing off the walls with boundless energy? Now in his 40s, O'Connor's pill-popping worked, for a little while at least. Then it all suddenly fell apart.
In 1971, after building up this pill habit, O'Connor suffered a chilling consequence. He experienced a heart attack—and while he survived, he knew he had to change his lifestyle if he wanted to keep on breathing. He quit the pills cold turkey and accepted that his routines might go a little slower. The trouble was, he was hiding other bad habits too.
In spite of his beaming portrayals on screen and on the stage, O’Connor had extremely dark demons. In truth, it wasn't just the nitroglycerin pills that wrought havoc on his life. Starting with his service in WWII, O'Connor began drinking, and as the years wore on his tipples only increased. It reached a disturbing climax.
As O'Connor aged out of his spritely roles, he began suffering from depression. And how did he deal with these blues? More drinking. Eventually, O'Connor confessed, “instead of coming home and having one or two drinks, I'd have one or two bottles”. Just like his brother Jack, alcoholism had a hold on him. This time, it ended with something even worse than a heart attack.
O’Connor’s increasing excess in drinking finally caught up to him in 1978. That year, the actor actually fully collapsed thanks to his habits with the bottle. But that was far from all. According to O'Connor, he found he was completely paralyzed from the waist down. It truly his rock bottom. However, he was about to experience a miracle.
After this incident, O'Connor went into a hospital for three months to put himself on the difficult path to recovery, both from his addiction and his paralysis. His transformation was nothing short of incredible. He managed to gain back his mobility as well as remedy his drinking and manage his depression.
Even so, the rest of his life wasn't smooth sailing.
There were other health issues at play beyond O'Connor's drinking problems, and another manifested years later. In 1990, when O'Connor was well into his 60s, he began to suffer heart problems and had to undergo quadruple-bypass surgery. Luckily, the procedure was a complete success. The rest of the decade did not give him the same comfort.
By 1994, O'Connor was fully recovered from his surgery—but danger still found its way to him. In the wee hours of the morning, O'Connor was still up, when he suddenly felt a strange sensation. His whole house began to shake from an earthquake, and he and his wife Gloria scrambled to stay safe. They soon found this was no run-of-the-mill disaster.
Earthquakes aren't uncommon in California, but this particular incident was nearly fatal to O'Connor. The quake actually forced his entire house off its foundation, almost sending it careening into a nearby canyon and certain death for the actor. Luckily, the structure nudged up against a large tree before that happened, but the incident still shook O'Connor to his core.
After the heart surgeries and the earthquakes, the 1990s gave O'Connor one last parting insult. In 1999, a now-elderly O'Connor fell ill from pleural pneumonia, which is pneumonia and an infection of the pleural cavity. In other words, it’s pneumonia but worse. But this is where O'Connor really showed what a fighter he was.
O'Connor had spent his entire life fighting tooth and nail for himself, and he didn't stop now. He managed to pull through and survive the illness. Not only that, he continued making various appearances and doing various shows well into his old age. As he said, "I don't dance much any more, but I do enough to show people I can still move my legs".
Still, the show had to end some time.
In the end, O'Connor's old demons caught up with him. In 2003, when he was 78 years old, he finally succumbed to heart failure, passing in a hospital in California. Although he pre-deceased his wife, his last will and testament was extremely humble, requesting that officials auction off his excess belongings and donate the proceeds to charity.
O’Connor’s passing marked the end of his natural life, but the world continued to celebrate him long after the funeral. They posthumously inducted the multi-talented legend into the International Tap Dance Hall of Fame. In fact, some of his best performances were in tap, including one brilliant one from his younger years.
Tap dancing is already an impressive skill to master, but in 1953 O’Connor took things to the next level. In a scene from the film I Love Melvin, O’Connor wowed audiences when he performed a tap dancing routine while wearing roller skates. He even incorporated them into the role with spins, twirls and more. O’Connor was simply that good.
We already know O'Connor had a horrible time on the set of Singin' in the Rain, but there are even darker secrets from the legendary film. Although Gene Kelly plays the rather suave Don Lockwood in Singin' in the Rain, the actor was legendarily petulant and irascible on set.
Acting as both performer and director, Kelly insisted on perfection, and was already infamous on the studio lot for roughly handling his dancing partners and being very physically demanding of them. To be fair, Kelly was also hard on himself, even performing the famous rain dancing scene in Singin' with a 103-degree fever. But when it came to his co-stars O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds, Kelly was unspeakably cruel.
As O'Connor looked on, Kelly constantly belittled Reynolds and demanded more and more of her. After all, Reynolds was only 19 years old at the time of filming, and had hardly any experience dancing. At one point, fellow studio star Fred Astaire found the poor girl crying under a piano after one of Kelly's outbursts. Sadly, that wasn't the worst of it.
After Kelly realized that Reynolds would usually have (very justified) crying jags every time he screamed at her, he came up with a more diabolical plan. He used O'Connor instead as his "whipping boy," displacing his anger towards Reynolds by giving O'Connor a boatload of rage instead.
Some time after his divorce from his first wife Gwen Carter, O'Connor's private nightmare finally came to light. According to reports, Carter had become extremely jealous over the uptick in O'Connor's career while hers went nowhere, to the point that she would fly into rages and physical harm her husband. If only it stopped there.
During this time, O'Connor's ex took him for all he was worth, even demanding and winning complete custody over their daughter Donna. Then, to rub salt in the wound, Gwen Carter also took the family home. Now, a broken O'Connor only had his dog to comfort him, and sought out therapists to work through the rubble. There was more where that came from, though.
When O'Connor left Universal, he didn't just ruin his career—he got a mortal insult to boot. After years raking in money for the Universal executives, O'Connor thought he would get a hero's send-off. Not so at all. The studio, obviously angry at his departure, held him only a modest farewell party. They also decided to give him a gift at the end of it. When O'Connor opened it, his blood boiled.
Despite all his sacrifices for them, the studio executives still obviously didn't think much of Donald O'Connor. As a parting gift, they saw fit to give him only a camera and 14 rolls of film. Furious about how measly this kiss-off was, O'Connor later commented bitterly, "What can I say about these people?"
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