Donald O'Connor living as a legend and loving it

November 21, 1991|By Lou Cedrone | Lou Cedrone,Evening Sun Staff

Donald O'Connor is 66 and happy to be there.

''I'm having a great time,'' he said. ''I'm not a super star, I'm a legend, and it's a lot more fun.''

Saturday the legend will perform at "Sister Kathleen's Gala" at 7:30 p.m. at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. The event, which marks the retirement of Sister Kathleen Feeley as president of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, will benefit the College Endowment Fund. The gala will also feature singer and Broadway performer Barbara Cook.

Younger film buffs may not know O'Connor as a Hollywood legend. Many only know him for his supporting role in the classic ''Singin' in the Rain.'' But he's done much more than that, far more.

''I started when I was 12,'' he said. ''Actually, I started when I was 13 months old in vaudeville with my parents. When I was 12, someone saw me and recommended me to Paramount Pictures. I did 12 pictures with them. I worked for them for over two years, and then I went back to vaudeville.''

At Paramount, he worked with such stars as Bing Crosby, Fred MacMurray (''Sing You Sinners'') and Ray Milland (''Beau Geste'').

Back in vaudeville he was ''discovered'' once again. This time he signed a contract with Universal Studios. ''I was with them for 16 years,'' he said. ''I did 12 pictures with Peggy Ryan. She was a regular on 'Hawaii Five-O' [as secretary Jenny Sherman]. She lives in Las Vegas now. She has a dance school there.''

In the early '40s, Ryan and O'Connor were Universal's answer to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

After a stint in the service, O'Connor returned to Universal where he did movies like "The Milkman'' and the ''Francis'' films featuring Francis, the Talking Mule. Then came "Singin' in the Rain," in which he and Gene Kelly were hoofer-singers along with Debbie Reynolds.

Unlike some actors, who don't want to talk about ''the film'' of their careers, O'Connor loves to talk about ''Singin' in the Rain.''

''Mitzi and I just had dinner at Gene's house. We just got together and had a great time talking about our films, particularly 'Singin' in the Rain.'

''At the time, we had no idea it would live on as a classic,'' he said. ''We knew we were doing something good but never guessed it would take off the way it did.''

So how does he feel when he sees that 121-pound young man on the screen? ''I feel like its someone else,'' he said. ''I mean, who is that skinny kid up there?''

Five years ago, he and Reynolds put an act together. They did it for three years. He still dances. ''I don't kick as high as I did, but I always did comedic dancing,'' he said.

After "Singin in the Rain," he did another film with Reynolds ("I Love Melvin"), two with Mitzi Gaynor ("There's No Business Like Show Business" and "Anything Goes"), and then he played Buster Keaton in the film biography of the comic.

O'Connor's last film, ''Ragtime,'' was released in 1981.

''I had a great part in that one,'' O'Connor said. ''They combined two roles into one, then most of it was cut out.''

When he did ''Ragtime,'' he weighed 220 pounds. Today, he weighs 160. ''That's far from what I weighed in 'Singin' in the Rain,' but it's a lot better than it was,'' he said.

He lost the weight, he said, ''by taking the word 'food' out of my vocabulary. I went down to 1,000 calories a day. . . . I go to the gym three times a week."

Today, he gets few film offers. ''Once in a while, I'm asked to do a cameo, but I have done television,'' he said. ''I did a 'Highway to Heaven' that I really liked.''

He enjoys watching his old films on television.

''It's not painful at all,'' he said. ''People are so different. I enjoy reliving the experience.''

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