This obituary was updated at 8:57 p.m.
HOLLYWOOD — Even on his deathbed, Donald O’Connor was still tryin to make ’em laugh.
The legendary song-and-dance man — who literally climbed the walls to fame in the showstopping “Make ’em Laugh” number in “Singin’ in the Rain” and cracked up auds in the “Francis the Talking Mule” laffers — died Saturday in the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital in Calabasas, Calif., of heart failure. He was 78.
Winner of a Golden Globe and an Emmy, O’Connor never nabbed an Oscar but was able to crack wise about the omission on his deathbed: “I’d like to thank the Academy for my lifetime achievement award that I will eventually get,” he said, according to his family.
New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff spoke for many in 1997 when she wrote that “To call Donald O’Connor a song-and-dance man is like calling Shakespeare a strolling player.”
Over his long career, O’Connor starred in vaudeville, films and television, headlined in Las Vegas, appeared on the Broadway stage and even conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the preem of a symphony he wrote himself. He was famous for his versatility, knack for physical comedy and acrobatic dancing style.
Donald David Dixon Ronald O’Connor was born in Chicago to parents who were circus performers-turned-vaudevillians. The entire family was in the act, billed as “The O’Connor Family: The Royal Family of Vaudeville.” Donald made his stage bow on his mother Effie’s lap at the age of just three days. His father died onstage the following year, but the family act stayed together and as a boy, Donald played many of the top vaudeville houses in the country.
He was still a kid hoofer when he made his screen bow with his brother Jack in 1937’s “Melody for Two.” His movie career started in earnest the following year, when Paramount signed him as a solo act and put him in Bing Crosby vehicle “Sing, You Sinners,” where he impressed performing “Small Fry.” He fol-lowed up playing Huck Finn in “Tom Sawyer — Detective” and played Gary Cooper as a child in 1939’s “Beau Geste.”
He returned to vaudeville in the early ’40s, but a Universal contract brought him back to Hollywood. The youthful-looking thesp often starred for U as teenag-ers in low-budget musicals.
In 1950 he starred in U’s hit laffer “Francis the Talking Mule,” which spawned five sequels, four with O’Connor. He hated the pics, complaining that the mule got more fan mail than he did, but between “Francis” films he did some of his best work, as U loaned him out to other studios for big-budget tuners.
One of those turned out to be his most memorable role, as Cosmo Brown in 1952’s “Singin’ in the Rain.” In “Make ’em Laugh,” the 27-year-old O’Connor de-livered a dazzling display of acrobatic dancing, climbing walls, doing pratfalls and at one point crashing through a flat — only to bounce back in a flash to finish the number. O’Connor choreographed the number himself, making up his moves shot by shot.
Concerned about the toll the number would take on O’Connor’s body, helmer Stanley Donen shot the routine in a single day, only to discover the film had been overexposed. The whole number had to be reshot and O’Connor needed three days of bed rest to recover.
It became one of the best-loved perfs in Hollywood history, winning him a Golden Globe. It also earned him a starring vehicle, “I Love Melvin,” and co-starring roles in tuners such as 1953’s “Call Me Madam,” with Ethel Merman, and 1954’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” with Merman and Marilyn Monroe.
His film career faded with the decline of musicals based on legit shows, but he segued into television, establishing himself as a star in the early days of the small screen. He was one of the hosts of “The Colgate Comedy Hour” from 1950-55 and won an Emmy in ’54 as best male star of a regular series. He was nom-med twice more in the ’50s and hosted several incarnations of his own show. He was so popular in those years that he was tapped to emcee the 1954 Oscarcast.
He tried a dramatic turn in 1957’s “The Buster Keaton” story but the pic was a flop, and he rarely appeared in films after that.
As his movie career dwindled, he also devoted himself to composing orchestral music. He conducted the L.A. Philharmonic in the 1956 preem of his first symphony, “Reflections d’un Comique.” The Brussels Symphony Orchestra later recorded an album of his compositions.
He was mostly absent from the screen in the 1960s but hosted TV’s “The Hollywood Palace” in 1964 and yakker “The Donald O’Connor Show” in 1968. He moved into directing commercials and episodics, including “Petticoat Junction.”
In 1979, he was hospitalized for a drinking problem that had derailed his career. He bounced back with a memorable appearance on the 1980 Oscarcast that earned him another Emmy nom.
He returned to movies with a small but notable role that included a dance number in Milos Forman’s 1981 film “Ragtime.” That same year, he made his Broadway bow in “Bring Back Birdie.” The show flopped, but he returned to the Great White Way two years later as Cap’n Andy in “Show Boat” when the Houston Grand Opera moved its production to Gotham.
Still a capable song-and-dance man, he headlined in Las Vegas and stayed busy with TV guest spots, logging appearances on shows ranging from “Hunter” and “The Bionic Woman” to “Frasier” and “The Nanny.”
He gave his last screen perf as a dance instructor in 1997 laffer “Out to Sea.”
By the early ’90s, though, his health was failing. He had developed heart trouble and underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 1990. His health improved for a few years, but he had been in ill health for some time before his death and was often confined to a wheelchair.
He is survived by a daughter by his first wife Gwen Carter, whom he divorced in 1954 after ten years of marriage; and a daughter and two sons by his second wife Gloria Noble, whom he married in 1956.