A great while ago the world began
With a hey ho, the wind and the rain
But that’s all one, and our play is done
And we’ll strive to please you every day.
— Twelfth Night, Act 5, Scene 1
In 1975, the BBC asked Donald O’Connor if the musical was dead. His succinct answer: “No. It is dead the way we used to make ’em.” He spoke without resentment. It was just a fact.
Donald O’Connor was the last of the song and dance men. Known as “the youngest old-timer in show business,” it was his misfortune to reach the height of his powers precisely when the song-and-dance musical was dying. Rising to take its place were the spontaneous musicals, the Sounds of Music and Oklahomas and West Side Stories. Characters were ordinary people expressing their feelings, not entertainers putting on a show. There was no longer a place for O’Connor’s particular skill set on the big screen. So it was back to his first love: the stage.
Shifting base of operations to Las Vegas gave the restless performer a steady audience and the ability to nurture fresh talent. One young lad joined him for a special performance to commemorate his 30th anniversary in the business, which nearly doubled as a 31st birthday party. (Candid footage of the reception shows O’Connor surreptitiously piling an extra slice of cake on the boy’s plate.) With a happy second marriage and a growing new family, it seemed that he had landed on his feet. His son Fred later recalled, “I was very blessed to have my dad as my dad… We were never without anything, and the things we really wanted, he told us ‘These are things that you have to work for.’ And I’m glad he did.” Daughter Alicia fondly remembered how he would delight the children with quicksilver impressions, saying that “You never knew who was coming to dinner.” But as O’Connor danced closer to the line between “drinker” and “alcoholic,” he fought a rising fear that like his father and brother, he would not live to the age of 50.
The effect of alcohol on his work was not felt immediately. He maintained his high standards of excellence through the 60s, as evidenced in some rare clips that have surfaced on Youtube. One of his finest TV moments was a guest appearance on the Bell Telephone Hour in which he demonstrated the history of tap dancing, by then itself a fading art:
Ever the gentleman on stage, he was prompt to deflect applause away from himself, commenting at the end of one live number, “You know, I’ve never learned how to dance without getting out of breath, isn’t that ridiculous? It doesn’t seem to affect the girls though, aren’t they wonderful?”
He guest-starred on the first episode of the Judy Garland show in 1962, where the two old friends reminisced and affectionately skewered their vaudeville roots together. (O’Connor: “They don’t write songs like that anymore!” Garland: “I think they passed a law against it.”) But you can sense that O’Connor is slightly on edge throughout. In one number, he strives to conceal his frustration with the live band when the intro isn’t gelling, but there’s a hint of steel in his mild-mannered rebuke: “Wait for me, will you please?”
O’Connor’s TV career would fizzle in parallel with his film career. His own variety show was canceled, and two other attempts to launch a TV series died on the shelves. This included an awkward stab at syndicated talk-show hosting in 1968, where he managed to offend Joan Baez by bluntly asking about her prison sentence for war protests: “How did you like it up river?”
That year marked the beginning of his accelerated descent into full-blown alcoholism. It would exact heavy professional and personal costs. On tour, he made a beeline for the bar in every new town. At home, his wife Gloria recalled him as “an absolute terror to live with at that time,” his personality changing “in seconds” under the influence. But all was kept so private that interviewers would later exclaim that Donald must have “escaped it” for them not to hear any of the usual choice details. O’Connor’s terse retort: “Many people who love me protected me. I went through the booze bit. I didn’t escape it.” At age 47, he got his first warning in 1972, suffering a heart attack while entertaining troops in Vietnam. Amazingly, he continued to work into the 70s, to increasingly shrinking audiences. He also turned in an impressive bit of serious acting on the cop show Police Story. Ironically, his character was fighting drug addiction. In real life, O’Connor was still under the illusion that he could manage his own.
The illusion was brutally shattered in 1978. Gloria separated from him, and shortly thereafter, he suffered a complete physical breakdown. When they brought him into the rehab hospital, Donald O’Connor was paralyzed from the waist down.
He didn’t plan to stay at first. He’d made a science of playing the system for a week or two, only to escape back into his old habits. But as weeks turned to months, he realized that he had finally found the security he sought for so long. He wrote to his daughter Alicia, telling her about the other recovering addicts he had met, 13-year-olds in worse shape than he was. “I hope you can forgive me.” Where did the power come from? His family had the answer. Gloria said simply, “God gave him a gift, and that gift was sobriety.” His son Fred said, “Thank God there’s a higher power that healed him.” He rebuilt his wife’s trust and reunited with his family after eight months clean. He would never look back again.
Business wasn’t just waiting to pick up when he got out of rehab. He painfully disappointed a full house in March of 1979 when he was given only 7 days to rehearse for “The Music Man.” After desperately skipping and improvising his way through “We’ve Got Trouble,” he stopped the conductor: “This is such a lovely song, I hate to louse it up.” Two Broadway flops followed in quick succession. But O’Connor marched on undaunted. He was sober, and he was happy. In 1980, he was nominated for a Special Event Emmy when he hosted a history of the dance at the Oscars, riding triumphantly aloft a camera crane and even getting in some steps of his own. He takes his final bow with a look of sheer gratitude on his face. He finally struck Broadway gold again in 1983, and it put the wind back in the sails of his stage career. He also connected with a new generation of fans in a 1987 presentation to the student body of California Polytechnic University. It was standing-room only, and the kids were eating out of his hand in minutes.
While he couldn’t escape the “playing priests in bad movies” curse that year, he made this memorable scene stand out from the Christmas TV trifle A Time to Remember. A young boy who aspires to become a singer has followed his father into a bar to try to talk to him. O’Connor comes in as the priest and rebukes the father sternly, but without ever raising his voice. The flicker of danger behind those kindly blue eyes says it all.
He also briefly crossed paths with Robin Williams in 1992, when Williams invited Donald to play his father in the off-beat experiment Toys. The father dies before Williams enters the film as his son, so the two geniuses never actually got to work together. But O’Connor recalled that Williams was “very sweet” and sent him a small leather-bound copy of the script, with a note saying how much he enjoyed having Donald play his father. It would have been fascinating to watch them play off of each other, as they shared certain qualities in common. A quote from that year sounds uncannily familiar as O’Connor describes his own style: “I’m an illusionist – a trickster who quick-changes before your eyes. I capture your attention without giving you time to think about it. I move fast, I keep changing my hats. And the more pleased an audience is, the more energy I get from it and give back to the audience.”
O’Connor savored the 90s like a long, loving goodbye. He spent the years giving back through quiet philanthropic work, helping anyone from other alcoholics to people seeking a break in show business. Through it all, he never stopped working. In 1992, he released an instructional tap dance video where he swapped stories and steps with the old, old masters. Here he is unfolding the secrets of the clog step with the great Buddy Ebsen. “That’s beautiful. Beautiful… You should be so happy that this man came over.”
He teamed up with fellow veteran Mickey Rooney for an especially memorable tour. One fan had a front-row seat and later recalled, “There were so many curtain calls, it was unbelievable. It was like the audience wanted to hang on forever to great performers and delightful memories from the golden age of song-and-dance.” But in 1998, another show-stopping concert run with the Palm Springs Follies nearly killed the consummate entertainer when he came down with viral pneumonia. He insisted on finishing out the night, but by the next morning, he couldn’t leave his bed. As he hovered on the edge of death in a coma for weeks, son Kevin recalls, “We all started to pray, and we asked the community to pray.” O’Connor miraculously pulled through. Unable to speak and barely able to breathe upon awaking, he immediately scribbled down a question: “How long am I going to be here? This is my most popular month. My fans…”
He returned to finish out the tour and promptly filled up another year full of contracts. Like an old show-horse breaking out of his stall to get back to work, he couldn’t stop performing. He was filled with the wonderment of life, and he would share it to his dying breath. Though his body was aging, his eyes still had the same fire, the same knowing sparkle that said, “I’m about to make a complete and utter fool of myself. Watch, it’ll be marvelous.”
One of his last public appearances was a press conference in 2002, held in conjunction with the 50th anniversary release of Singin’ in the Rain. Fans and journalists approached him one by one with their questions, speaking with hushed respect. “Thank you sir. It’s a tremendous honor.” “God bless you,” O’Connor replied. “God bless you.”
Donald O’Connor died in 2003, with his family surrounding him. Even in pain, he was pulling funny faces and regaling them with jokes, with stories. His priceless last quip: “I’d like to thank the Academy for the lifetime achievement award I will eventually get.”
His children quietly auctioned off his belongings to the public. Fans filed through the estate sale by the thousands. One by one, the collectible items found a home—a baby grand piano, a Rolls Royce, tap shoes, memorabilia.
But one couple discovered a different kind of treasure. They took it home with them for $1.50. The item was O’Connor’s personal Bible. Through its pages, they could trace his handwriting, claiming the promises as his own.
Thanks for reading! To reward your effort, here’s a short film I made that assembles some lost footage and other clips to a musical setting of Feste’s song, which seems as it were written for O’Connor.