Surely most of you remember this scene : “What’s the first thing an actor learns? The show must go on!”. We’re at the beginning of what became instantly a Hollywood myth, that incredible Make ‘em laugh scene, and we can’t think of any other sentence to describe the life of its maker : Donal O’Connor.


Born in 1925 in Chicago Illinois in a vaudeville family, little Donald discovers the thrill of the applause and laughter by the time he’s… 3 days old. 13 months later, he’s working with his family. When he’s two years old, he meets the first someone that will accompany him for the rest of his life: death. Involved in a car crash with his sister, he will be the only survivor. Weeks later, while dancing on stage, his father dies from a stroke. We’re in 1927 and Donald will have to wait ten years until he is able to work for the big screen. He’s first role is in Melody For Two, where he plays with his two brothers, Jack and Billy though their scene ends cut out of the movie. The year after, Bing Crosby meets Donald, or the other way around. That’s on the production for Sing You Sinners. Crosby is so impressed with the kid that he decides to be his mentor. Alas, in 1939 death strikes again, this time taking Donald’s brother, Billy, with scarlet fever. Donald reunites with his family and goes on tour to Australia.


When he comes back in 1942 Universal Studios signs him, probably under the Crosby influence (though the story does not tell). Two years and some 14 (FOURTEEN!) movies later, Donald is drafted and has to go overseas. Universal is ok, as long as Donald ends the production for three movies, simultaneously. That gives us a pretty good idea of how Hollywood was working back then. Nearly all of those movies will be released while he’s abroad. During his time in the army, he appears on more than 3.000 shows made for the entertainment of American troopers. That same 1944 year, he marries Gwen Carter. They will have one child together and a divorce ten years later. In 1949, he reappears for the first time in Francis, the story of a soldier befriended by a mule. The movie is a major hit and will lead to the production of 6 more movies under the “Francis franchise” so to say. Until 1955 he’ll have to suspend the production of whatever he’s doing at the moment so as to do the Francis movies. This obligation drives him pretty mad, the worst being him having to decline a role with Bing Crosby because of an illness he contracted to the contact of the mule…


In 1952 he gets really famous by appearing in Singing in the Rain. We all know the Make ‘em laugh scene where Donald makes a mess of a production set and himself in the process. But there are things we don’t know. For instance, Donald allegedly didn’t like working with genius Gene Kelly he found out to be a tyrant on set. Allegedly because 7 years later, here they are both of them on a TV set talking and dancing as if they were best buddies in the world…

The show must go on? Well, not exactly. After the famous Make ‘em laugh scene, Donald had to take a 3 days bed rest from how exhausted he was. Once again, actors in those days were working hard and didn’t get the treatment some of them deserved. For the role of Cosmo the piano player, O’Connor will win a the Golden Globe in 1953.

That same year, he works with Vera Ellen on Call Me Madam. Years later, Donald will not hesitate to chose this scene as his favorite of all time. In 1954, O’Connor goes to NBC and works there on his own TV Show: The Donald O’Connor Show. He’ll come back to TV a lot, on various shows and apparitions. In 1955, he decides it’s time to put an end to his Universal contract. He’s not happy with the image of an always-polite guy they’ve made him and would like to play other roles, with more depth. It’s a bittersweet goodbye for Donald, the kid that made the studio win so much money. On his last day, a little party is organized by the studio. They offer him a Minox camera and 14 film rolls… Sweet irony.


In 1956, he reunites at last with Bing Crosby for Anything Goes. It’s his only movie this year and his last musical of all time. That same year, he gets married to Gloria Noble – with whom he’ll have 3 children. Contracts are few, propositions are less, and if he’s thrilled to be able to play Buster Keaton for The Man That Never Laughed, he will rapidly become bitter about the experience as he himself claims that 60% of what is told in the movie about Keaton is wrong. It’s a slippery slope for O’Connor, the sixties bring him nothing but failure and he becomes an alcoholic. His wife, the second one he married in 1953, leaves him with his 3 children. He’s persona non grata on set, misses the few rehearsal he gets… Fortunately, the seventies will change that. The beginning of the decade is grim as Donald has a stroke in 71, but he works occasionally on TV and in 1974 he participates to Once upon a time, Hollywood, a documentary. In 1978, he begins a rehab and cures from alcoholism. His wife comes back, and so do their children. The eighties are not so bright, but then again, what has been of Donald’s career since he left Universal? His pilot for NBC The Music Mart failed, as well as Bring Back Birdie on Broadway and Say Hello to Harvey in Toronto.

The nineties are marked with various meetings with his old pal, Death. In 1994 he and his wife escape miraculously from an earthquake as their house is about to dive into a canyon when retained by a tree. In 1998, when stroked by pneumonia, he’s nearly declared dead, but will only die 5 years later, at the age of 78, of respiratory complications. We’re in 2003 and he declares “I want to thank the Academy Awards for the Life Achievement Award they will give me”. Show must go on…