Can You Tap This?

updated 12/21/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/21/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

THE OFF-WHITE WALLS OF DONALD O'CONNOR's sleekly modern, three-bedroom house in Sherman Oaks, Calif., are all business—show business. They are covered with photos of friends, from Buster Keaton to Marilyn Monroe, and with posters of his movies, including his best-remembered, 1952's Singin'in the Rain. The memorabilia span five decades, during which O'Connor personified the role of second banana, the irrepressible wise guy who slips on the peel—but lands on his feet, dancing. His "Make 'Em Laugh" routine in Singin' remains a comedy-dance classic.

At 67, he is something of a classic himself, a lively survivor of heart problems and well-concealed alcoholism. The crinkled face has an extra jowl, but the waistline is trim, the swept-back mane still reddish brown, and as he examines the latest addition to his memories, the smile retains its toothy wattage. "Thank you so much for being in Toys," reads a note from Robin Williams. "You were a great stiff."

Playing Williams's father, who dies early on in Barry Levinson comedy out this week, was no stretch. "He had a twinkle in his blue eyes—just Like Robin's," says Levinson. Rut O'Connor's professional renaissance presence does not slop there. He also has a song, dance and palter stage show and is coming out this month with Let's Tap!—an instructional dance video—and with a new album, Donald and Debbie's Christmas, recorded with Singin' costar Debbie Reynolds. He may be busy, but O'Connor has his priorities straight: "I'm just grateful to be alive," he says.

He means it. Until two years ago, when he had quadruple-bypass surgery, O'Connor experienced chest pain when doing anything energetic and look nitroglycerin to open his arteries before performing. (He now watches his diet by eating half portions and works out three times a week.)

His other life-threatening problem had emotional dimensions. "I never drank when I was on the set," says O'Connor, who started using alcohol in 1944, after he had interrupted his career to serve in the Army. Later on, "instead of coming home and having one or two drinks, I'd have one or two bottles."

Although O'Connor's friends and wife Gloria, 59, pleaded with him to stop, O'Connor didn't quit. "I'd go into the hospital for a few days to appease them," he says, "not feeling I had a problem myself." His condition never made the press, and people covered for him—at first. Eventually he became a round-the-clock drinker, singing off-key and repeating the same jokes during his stage appearances in the '70s.

By then, too, the O'Connors' three children—Alicia, now 35 and a financial services manager. Freddie. 32, a set builder, and Kevin, 30, a video technician—were embarrassed by his behavior. "I couldn't bring my friends home," remembers Kevin, "because of the way he might be." In 1978, strengthened by support groups like Alanon, Gloria and the children left Donald for a while. "I saw death coming," says Gloria, now his wife of 36 years. "I believed he never would get well."

Two weeks later, O'Connor collapsed from drinking while at a friend's house on New York's Long Island and subsequently went through detox and spent three months in alcohol treatment at South Oaks Hospital in Amityville, N.Y. Gloria had no thought of going back to him. she says, but Donald eventually won her trust, and they reunited later that year. "I could only do it by example," he says. The new Donald was a revelation to the children too. "It's kind of neat to be talking to him and not be afraid," says Kevin. "We're a family again."

For that to happen, though, O'Connor had to learn some painful truths. "I never grew as a person," he says. "It look me many years, like any other child actor who has had problems, to learn who Donald O'Connor was."

As a child he never had that chance. The youngest of seven, O'Connor grew up in the O'Connor family touring vaudeville act, performing for the first time when he was just 13 months old. He nearly died the same month when a car struck and killed his 7-year-old sister, Arlene, as she pushed him in a baby buggy outside a Hartford, Conn., theater. His father, Chuck, died onstage of a heart attack 13 weeks later. "For a long time I thought I was responsible for all this dying," he says. "It was another reason to drink. I never looked at a problem head-on."

O'Connor's mother, Effie, eventually settled with the kids in Chicago during the Depression, where the family appeared in vaudeville and took on other jobs to make ends meet. When he was 6, Donald worked the roulette wheel at Chez Paris, a club owned by Al Capone. By 1938, at age 13, he was spotted by a Hollywood scout and signed to a $250-per-week contract with Paramount. He worked in 12 films that year, including Beau Geste (with Gary Cooper) and On Your Toes (with Eddie Albert). Just before he enlisted in the Army, at 18, he married 17-year-old high school student Gwen Carter. Two years later they had a daughter, Donna (now 46 and a stand-in on Doogie Howser, M.D.). But the incompatible couple divorced in 1954. Separated from Gwen, he began dating actress Gloria Noble, whom he first saw walking with Elizabeth Taylor on the MGM lot, in 1953.

When he wed Gloria in 1956, his career was at its peak, thanks to the four Francis the Talking Mule comedies and Singin' in the Rain. He succeeded on TV, too, winning a 1953 Emmy as one of the hosts of NBC's Colgate Comedy Hour.

Aside from the hiatus caused by drinking problems, he has never really slackened his pace. These days, in addition to the occasional movie part, he spends about 40 weeks performing around the country, with regular stops in Las Vegas as well as doing charity work for alcoholism groups and facilities. When home, he sees pals like Kelly, 80, who recently had Donald and Gloria over for dinner with third wife Patricia. "He's good company," says Kelly. "We talk a lot about the old days, which we both miss."

Still, O'Connor keeps working, adding new pictures to his walls. "I'm no longer a superstar," he says. Now I'm working on being a quasar, because stars wear out. Quasars go on forever."

TOM CUNNEFF in Los Angeles

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