The man who performed the most sensational solo number in the history of musical comedy is dead. Donald O'Connor, whose "Make 'em Laugh" number in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952) was a show-stopper that delighted and astonished generations of audiences, died at 78 on Saturday.
"Make 'em Laugh" was like an expression of Mr. O'Connor's showbiz philosophy. Using a movie set as a backdrop, he danced, did acrobatics, tumbled to the floor, engaged in a one-sided fight with a dummy, and ran up awall to do a backflip -- singing most of the time."How did you run up that wall?" a young girl asked Mr. O'Connor last April at my Overlooked Film Festival at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign."Experience," he deadpanned.
The festival had just shown a new 35mm print of "Singin' in the Rain," often said to be the greatest movie musical of all. Every number was greeted with applause, and Mr. O'Connor, sitting next to his wife, nodded happily. He was in frail health at the screening and used a wheelchair -- but only when he was out of sight of the audience. He walked onstage to a standing ovation, and then used the old vaudevillian's trick of suddenly seeming to notice the balcony, inspiring a second ovation. He sparkled during a 45-minute question session, and then sat in a car outside the theater and happily signed autographs for almost an hour.
Mr. O'Connor was one of the top Hollywood stars of the 1940s and 1950s, not only in musicals ("Anything Goes," "Call Me Madam," "There's No Business Like Show Business," "Walking My Baby Back Home") but also in a wildly popular series featuring Francis the Talking Mule -- which eventually morphed into the TV series "Mr. Ed.""I quit working with Francis," he told the Illinois audience, "when he started getting more fan mail than I did."
Mr. O'Connor was born in Chicago to a vaudeville family, and recalled that he was sometimes left for a time with relatives in Downstate Danville. He started in movies as a child, playing Huckleberry Finn in "Tom Sawyer -- Detective" (1938). He worked steadily through the 1950s, usually in comedies, and he had his own TV comedy series in the 1950s. One of his few flops was his autobiography of another great physical comedian, "The Buster Keaton Story" (1957), which nobody liked, including Mr. O'Connor. Asked how a number like "Make 'em Laugh" could possibly be choreographed, Mr. O'Connor told the audience he made it up in bits and pieces.
"Gene Kelly had injured himself, as I recall, and we had a couple of free days to make up something. We started with the set and the song.
"There was a sofa, so that went in. Somebody handed me the dummy, and that was in. Whatever worked, we kept."
Mr. O'Connor died of heart failure at a retirement home in Calabasas, Calif., according to his daughter, Alicia. The family told the Associated Press that among his last words were: "I'd like to thank the Academy for my lifetime achievement award that I will eventually get."
Contributing: Reuters, AP