'Rain' Man Donald O'Connor Dies at 78

09/28/2003 at 11:44 AM EDT

Song and dance man Donald O'Connor, whose show-stopping number "Make 'Em Laugh" in the 1952 movie musical Singin' in the Rain is considered a classic moments in American cinema, died of heart failure on Saturday, his daughter, Alicia O'Connor, told the Associated Press.

O'Connor, 78, had been in declining health in recent years and lived at a retirement home in Southern California's San Fernando Valley, his daughter said.

In a brief statement, the family said that among the last words from O'Connor -- who had won an Emmy for one of his numerous TV appearances, but never an Oscar -- included: "I'd like to thank the Academy for my lifetime achievement award that I will eventually get."

Ironically, Singin' in the Rain producer Arthur Freed didn't want to cast O'Connor for the MGM movie, preferring instead the neurotic classical musician and wit Oscar Levant in the role of musician Cosmo Brown.

But director Stanley Donen said that he and the movie's star, Gene Kelly, fought for O'Connor because they wanted to make it a dancing role -- even though at the time, O'Connor was only known for playing the skinny straight-man to a talking mule in the low-budget Francis series at Universal.

The "Make 'Em Laugh" number (with its back-flips and O'Connor's crashing into a wall) developed after "someone handed me a dummy that was on the stage," O'Connor recalled in a 1995 AP interview. "That was the only prop I used. I did a pratfall and we wrote that down. Every time I did something that got a laugh, we wrote it down to keep in the number."

His other musicals in the 1950s included Call Me Madam and There's No Business Like Show Business, both with Ethel Merman. He quit the Francis series (which was later spun into the Mr. Ed TV series) in 1955, humorously complaining that the mule got more fan mail than he did.

Born in Chicago in 1925 as David Dixon O'Connor, he was the son of circus performers who went into vaudeville. He joined the act while still an infant, and made his movie debut at age 12, in a dancing scene with two of his brothers in the long-forgotten Melody for Two. In 1938, at age 13, he was signed by Paramount and made, among a handful of films, Tom Sawyer: Detective (in which he played Huck Finn), Sing You Sinners (as Bing Crosby's kid brother) and Beau Geste (playing Gary Cooper's character as a boy).

When he outgrew being a child actor in movies he returned to vaudeville, but quickly returned to Hollywood. His last movie was 1997's Out to Sea, in which he played a dancer aboard a ship with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.

Besides his widow, Gloria (whom he married in 1956), and daughter Alicia (born in 1957), O'Connor is survived by another daughter, Donna (born in 1945 to O'Connor and his first wife, Gwen Carter, to whom he was married from 1944-54), and two sons, Donald (born in 1960) and Kevin (born in 1961).

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