The O'Connor Style
Donald O'Connor admitted that as a child, his role models for acting style were Frederick March and John Barrymore. But when he made his first film, Bing Crosby became his defacto acting coach. O'Connor stated in an interview with Mary Kunz of the Buffalo News in 2001: "I learned to act from him, to act nonchalant. He was probably one of the first to be called a method actor. You see him in movies, that was not Bing's persona. He looks like a nice, easygoing guy. He was more of a brooding person." Whatever Crosby's personality, he spent time and effort working with a respectful and eager O'Connor. For a first effort, O'Connor's range of emotion and line readings would have done credit to an older actor. There's nothing stagy about his performance in the bribery scene in which the bad guy uses persuasion and coercion to get young Mike to take "the sure thing."
A year later, he saunters down a hotel hallway gnawing thoughtfully on a toothpick in Death of a Champion. With little bits of business like the walk, the toothpick and the confident tilt of the hat he gave this juvenile role substance. The story starts off with a bang at a dog show where Lynn Overman as "the human encyclopedia" and O'Connor as Small Fry are plying their wares. This odd couple of Mr. Wizard (Overman) and Miss Marple (O'Connor) team up to rib each other affectionately while solving the murder and getting the girl. O'Connor and Overman played off each other like a seasoned comedy team.
As a senior citizen, O'Connor chose his acting roles for the fun of it. In Season 4, Episode 11 of "Tales from the Crypt" he plays a forgotten television puppeteer ala Howdy Doody. He and his favorite marionette Koko (a sinister version of Francis) converse regularly. His very young wife has predictably strayed. O'Connor contemplates divorce, Koko advises something more...final. O'Connor's eyes are eloquent in the following scenes from "Strung Along."
O'Connor played the guileless Peter Stirling completely straight. No mugging for comedic effect, just an ultra-sincere straight-arrow taking advice from a mule. Treating the mule as a full fledged co-star gave legitimacy to the premise that Chill Wills' gravelly voiced mule was smarter than Allied Command. O'Connor made Peter Stirling the perfect foil by investing him with an integrity that compelled him to fess up about the mule despite the consequences. The first Francis has the freshest dialogue, the funniest plot and some satirical send-ups of army life that were richly appreciated by ex-GIs in the audience. The nutty psychiatrists, G2 Intelligence ("What does intelligence want with me?") and clueless officers...it struck just the right chord with post-war America.
O'Connor's natural poise in front of a camera was challenged by kissing scenes. Like Fred Astaire, O'Connor's most convincing romantic roles had a light and airy script with lots of self-deprecating humor. And like Astaire, he felt his looks did not support a romantic lead, which made him self-conscious when the script called for him to be overtly passionate. His romantic moments flowed most naturally with women who were also good friends - Gloria DeHaven, Mitzi Gaynor, Debbie Reynolds, Janet Leigh. The high regard he held for Vera-Ellen passed for love between "an ordinary guy" and a princess in Call Me Madam. His least successful pairing was with Marilyn Monroe in There's No Business Like Show Business. On a set awash with suppressed tension, Dan Dailey was dating O'Connor's newly divorced wife, while Joe DiMaggio sulked in the shadows as Marilyn flashed her charms in "Heat Wave." Below, Donald takes one on the chin from Dan Dailey. According to Mitzi Gaynor, they went out for a beer together afterwards (A&E Make 'Em Laugh).
The day Donald and Marilyn filmed their big kiss, the soundstage overflowed with gawkers from all over the lot. All that voyeurism certainly put a damper on any enthusiasm he might have felt for the project; he turned his back to the camera to keep the embarrassing moment between themselves. There were other problems. Monroe (5' 5 1/2") thought O'Connor (5' 8") was not only too short for her, but looked much younger than she (they were both 29), and that her preferred heavy make-up and sexy couture compared unfavorably with his boy-next-door looks and youthful charm. She was probably right about that last bit. Below is Donald's supposedly ecstatic post-kiss dance.
O'Connor remembered, with characterisic generosity and perhaps wearing rose-colored glasses, working with Marilyn Monroe:
In one scene, the director came over, and we were talking, and he took me aside and said, 'Marilyn looked a little taller than you do.' He wanted me to stand on an apple box. It was emasculating as hell. Alan Ladd went through that his whole life. I said, 'Why don't you ask her to take off her heels?' [The director, embarrassed, resisted. O'Connor took matters into his own hands.] I said, 'Marilyn, this idiot's afraid to ask you to take off your heels.' So she kicked off her shoes. She was fine. She was a wonderful girl.
- - Donald O'Connor, interview with Mary Kunz, 2001
Although O'Connor's acting career started with straight drama, he spent most of his career bringing credibility and panache to comedic roles. He often chose comedic roles in plays and television, perhaps because that's how people expected to see him. His guest spots on television series gave him a slightly greater freedom to perform in dramas, but he will always be remembered for his more for his light comedic roles.