O'Connor a hit with crowd at Ebertfest

CHAMPAIGN - In what Roger Ebert called the greatest moment in the history of his Overlooked Film Festival, actor/singer/dancer Donald O'Connor took the stage Sunday, making the critic his straight man and making 'em laugh in the sold-out theater.

O'Connor, 77, appeared after the screening of a beautifully restored 35 mm print of the great Hollywood musical, "Singin' in the Rain," which on Sunday closed the 14-film, five-day festival at the Virginia Theatre.

In the movie, O'Connor shared top billing with stars Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds. O'Connor said Reynolds was only 17 when she worked with the two box-office stars. Intimidated, the teen sought counsel from O'Connor.

"She came to me and said, 'Donald, it's been very difficult for me to do this picture because it's overwhelming,'" he related. "I have to kiss Gene. I don't know how to handle this, but he's been sticking his tongue down my throat."

"What advice did you give her?" Ebert asked.

"I didn't have to give her any advice. I said, 'Just like it.'"

Despite his age, O'Connor displayed impeccable timing Sunday, cracking jokes and blowing kisses to the appreciative audience. Still looking dapper, he wore a bright yellow jacket over a leopard-skin shirt. He received a number of ovations, and a group of people waited for him afterward to sign photographs, videos and other items.

"It's always a thrill when you get that kind of ovation and that kind of laughter," O'Connor later told The News-Gazette. "That was really something today."

Soon after taking the stage, O'Connor dispelled the myth that he had landed in the hospital for three days after he filmed "Singin' in the Rain's" memorable song-and-dance scene, "Make 'Em Laugh," in which he adroitly bangs into a wall and hits his head on a plank at least twice.

"They made it up," he said of the story. O'Connor said Kelly actually needed some time off, as he was working on another film. "It was nothing," O'Connor said when asked about all the strenuous scenes in the film.

He said he and Kelly did many of their own stunts, and when producers thought the maneuvers might be too dangerous, they would call in a stuntman. "Ninety times out of 100, he would get hurt, and we would have to do it," O'Connor said.

O'Connor said that making "Singin' in the Rain" was much fun. "We had nothing but laughs when we first got on the set. It was such a great pleasure and thrill to be associated with this musical because it's great."

He said he and Kelly, who died in 1996, collaborated on the choreography.

"Gene was wonderful," he said. "He was amenable. He was known up until that time as temperamental. In this picture, he was wonderful. I think he enjoyed it. He was working with two pros who could keep up with him."

O'Connor, an all-round entertainer, made his vaudeville stage debut at the age of 3 days, appearing on his mother's lap as she played piano. On Sunday, he said he was born onstage. "That was quite a sight," he joked.

He said he had no formal training in song or dance; he learned everything with his family in vaudeville and the circus.

Before Donald was born, O'Connor's father, Jack, died of a heart attack while backstage. After Donald's mother, Effie, quit performing, the family act was pared down to Donald and his two older brothers, Jack and Billy, and a niece, Patsy.

Donald had been born in Chicago, but most of his relatives, among them Aunt Josie O'Connor, lived in Danville. She had 11 children, including Lois Shouse and Margaret Cline, who sat Sunday in a theater section reserved for the O'Connor family.

"When we got laid off," O'Connor related, "sometimes we had no place to go. We'd go straight to Danville. It was great for me because I had all these kids to play with."

Shouse told The News-Gazette that when O'Connor was in Danville, he would often accompany her to school. He took lessons by correspondence and never did attend Danville High School, where the legendary drama teacher Mary Miller counted among her students Dick Van Dyke, Jerry Van Dyke, Gene Hackman and Bobby Short.

While perhaps not as well-known in recent years as the Van Dykes and Hackman, O'Connor appeared in close to 100 films, portraying Tom Sawyer, Gary Cooper as a child and the legendary silent-film star Buster Keaton in a biographical film.

O'Connor told Sunday of how he once visited Keaton at his home so he could learn more about the star's background to prepare for the movie. Keaton's wife told O'Connor that her husband was out back and not to smoke because Keaton had quit smoking.

But inside Keaton's garage, O'Connor said, Keaton was playing with a toy train on which he had placed a cigarette. Every time it passed, he would take a puff.

O'Connor also appeared in the "Frances the Talking Mule" films. A biography says he called it quits after six movies with Frances, saying, "When you make six pictures and the mule still gets more mail than you do ..."

An audience member at the Virginia asked O'Connor how he had felt acting as a straight man to a mule.

"Well, I've had a lot of practice with jackasses," he said.

You can reach Melissa Merli at (217) 351-5367 or via e-mail at mmerli@news-gazette.com.

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