Stanley Donen, who directed or co-directed some of Hollywood’s best-known movie musicals, including “On the Town,” “Royal Wedding” and what many consider the greatest movie musical of all time, “Singin’ in the Rain,” has died. He was 94.
Donen, a master of filming dance with imagination and style and a director whose nonmusical credits include “Charade,” “Indiscreet” and “Two for the Road,” died of an apparent heart attack Thursday, his sons Joshua and Mark Donen confirmed Saturday.
A onetime Broadway chorus boy whose film career was launched in the 1940s, Donen name was inextricably linked with MGM and its athletic dancing star Gene Kelly.
At age 19, he assisted Kelly on the dance numbers for the 1944 movie musical “Cover Girl,” for which Donen conceived and directed (uncredited) the “Alter Ego” double-exposure number in which Kelly danced with his window reflection after it leapt off the windowpane.
A year later, Donen came up with the equally innovative idea of having Kelly dance with Jerry, MGM’s cartoon mouse, in director George Sidney’s 1945 musical “Anchors Aweigh.”
“I get all the credit for this, but it would have been impossible for me to do without Stanley,” Kelly told Donen biographer Stephen M. Silverman. Donen, Kelly said, “worked with the cameramen and called the shots in all these intricate timings and movements.”
Former New York Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton’s tell-all book “Ball Four,” which detailed Mickey Mantle’s carousing and the use of stimulants in the major leagues, shocked and angered the baseball world. The right-hander was an All-Star in 1963, going 21-8 with six shutouts, but he finished his 10-year career with a 62-63 record and 3.57 ERA. He was 80.(AP)
Billionaire Ross Perot blazed across America in the 1990s as a third-party presidential candidate and won nearly 19% of the popular vote in the 1992 election, finishing third behind Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican President George H.W. Bush. The diminutive Texan was an early tech entrepreneur who founded Electronic Data Systems, a computer services company, in 1962 with $1,000 in savings. He was 89.(Peter Muhly / AFP/Getty Images)
Lee A. Iacocca’s swaggering persona dominated the automobile industry like nobody since Henry Ford. The salesman extraordinaire had a spectacular career, punctuated by his role as father of the wildly popular Ford Mustang in 1964, his epic 1978 firing at the hands of Henry Ford II and his dramatic rescue of Chrysler in the early 1980s. He was 94.(Associated Press)
Pitcher Tyler Skaggs grew up an Angels fan in Santa Monica and joined the organization as a first-round draft pick. He battled injuries throughout his career but started 24 games last season and showed signs of dominance this year. He was 27.(Charlie Riedel / AP)
Judith Krantz wrote blockbuster romance novels including “Scruples” and “Princess Daisy” that sold more than 80 million copies worldwide. Her books have been translated into more than 50 languages, and seven have been adapted as TV miniseries, with her late husband, Steve Krantz, serving as executive producer for most. She was 91.(Aaron Rapoport / Getty Images)
Gloria Vanderbilt transcended her famously disjointed childhood and later upheavals to become an actress, artist, author and fashion and merchandising icon. The “poor little rich girl,” as newspapers tagged the heiress, ultimately created a fortune that exceeded the immense one left by her great-great-grandfather, 19th-century shipping and railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt. She was 95.()
Italian director Franco Zeffirelli was best-known for his films, including the 1968 critical and box office hit “Romeo and Juliet” and a 1990 “Hamlet” with Mel Gibson. His massive opera productions included a version of Puccini’s “La Boheme” that became the most-often presented production in the Metropolitan Opera’s history. He was 96.(Paolo Cocco / AFP/Getty Images)
Danish-born socialite Claus von Bulow, left, shown with attorney Alan Dershowitz in April 1985, was convicted in 1982 and then acquitted three years later on two counts of attempting to murder his American heiress wife, Sunny, with injections of insulin. The high-profile case has been called one of the most sensational courtroom dramas in modern U.S. history. He was 92.(Charles Krupa / AP)
Bill Buckner’s 22-year Major League Baseball career started with the Dodgers and included seasons with the Cubs and Red Sox. He had more than 2,700 career hits and won the National League batting title in 1980, but he was best known for an error in the 1986 World Series that allowed the Mets to win Game 6 and extend Boston’s championship drought. He was 69.(AP)
Herman Wouk explored the moral fallout of World War II in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Caine Mutiny” (1951) and other widely read books. Determined to produce a “great war book,” Wouk wrote “The Winds of War” and its sequel, “War and Remembrance,” in the 1970s, and the two sweeping novels became the basis for a pair of television miniseries. He was 103.(Douglas L Benc Jr / AP)
Architect I.M. Pei had a client list that included French President Francois Mitterrand for the Louvre and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in Boston. Among several Pei projects in the Los Angeles area are the former Creative Artists Agency headquarters in Beverly Hills and the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. He was 102.(Pierre Gleizes / AP Photo)
Tim Conway came to prominence on television as a bumbling ensign in “McHale’s Navy” opposite Ernest Borgnine from 1962 to 1966, then became a regular on “The Carol Burnett Show,” where he famously developed a knack for making costar Harvey Korman crack up. He also starred in the “Apple Dumpling Gang” movies in the 1970s and gained fame with a new generation as the voice of Barnacle Boy on “SpongeBob SquarePants.” He was 85.(George Brich / AP)
Doris Day was a big-band singer who became a Hollywood star in such lighthearted movies as “Pillow Talk” (1959) and “Lover Come Back” (1961), two of the three films she made with Rock Hudson. From 1948 to 1968, Day appeared in 39 films, but in the early 1970s she walked away from Hollywood and spent most of her time in Carmel, where she was an animal rights activist. She was 97.(AP)
Actress Peggy Lipton rose to stardom in the late 1960s on the counterculture police series “The Mod Squad” and later starred on TV’s “Twin Peaks.” Over five seasons, “Mod Squad” earned Lipton four Emmy nominations and a 1971 Golden Globe award for best actress in a TV drama. The wife of music producer Quincy Jones and mother of Kidada and Rashida Jones, Lipton was 72.(ABC)
Peter Mayhew played the Wookiee warrior Chewbacca in the original “Star Wars” trilogy. Standing at 7 feet 3, the British actor brought the character to life physically, whether battling Stormtroopers alongside Han Solo or playing chess against R2-D2. He was 74.(AP)
John Singleton’s 1991 debut, “Boyz n the Hood,” was an inner-city coming-of-age story that earned two Oscar nominations and put the young filmmaker in the company of emerging black moviemakers such as Spike Lee and Mario Van Peebles. Singleton went on to direct “Poetic Justice” (1993), “Higher Learning” (1995) and “Baby Boy” (2001), which featured Taraji P. Henson at the start of her career. He was 51.(Christopher Polk / AFP/Getty Images)
John Havlicek, shown above dribbling against Bill Bradley of the New York Knicks, was the all-time leading scorer in Boston Celtics history. Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1984, Havlicek played all 16 of his professional seasons in Boston from 1962-1978, winning NBA titles in each of his eight Finals appearances, including five over the Lakers. He was 79.
Charles Van Doren was one of the first intellectual stars of the television era as a contestant on the NBC show “Twenty One,” but quickly became the country’s leading villain after admitting that his winning streak had been rigged. After he and nine other game show contestants pleaded guilty to perjury and were given suspended sentences, Van Doren slipped into obscurity and became an editor at Encyclopaedia Britannica. He was 93.(Hulton Archive / TNS)
Grammy-nominated rapper Nipsey Hussle was gunned down outside his Marathon Clothing store in the same South L.A. neighborhood where he was known as much for his civic work as he was for his hip-hop music. He was 33.(Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty Images for Warner Music)
Luke Perry played bad-boy heartthrob Dylan McKay in the 1990s TV drama “Beverly Hills, 90210.” The series put the affluent ZIP Code on the map as it became a pop-cultural phenomenon with Perry as the disaffected, ever-mysterious love interest of the romantic leads. He was 52.()
Sidney Sheinberg, right, with Steven Spielberg and Lea Adler, Spielberg’s mother, at a 1994 Beverly Hilton gala.
(Shepler, Lori / Los Angeles Times)
Jan-Michael Vincent was a golden boy of 1970s Hollywood action films and went on to star in the mid-1980s TV adventure series “Airwolf.” But his erratic behavior and cocaine consumption was a major reason “Airwolf” was canceled. He was 74 by most accounts, but the death certificate listed him as 73.(Alex Garcia / Los Angeles Times)
Sitcom star Katherine Helmond had memorable roles as ditzy matriarchs in “Soap,” “Who’s the Boss?” and “Coach.” Her work as Jessica Tate on the 1970s parody “Soap” earned her seven Emmy nominations, and she was nominated again in 2002 for her guest role in “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Helmond also starred in director Terry Gilliam’s films “Brazil” and “Time Bandits.” She was 89.(Chuck Burton / AP)
André Previn conquered L.A. with his artistic genius twice: first as an Academy Award winning composer of Hollywood movie music, then as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. A conductor and pianist who toggled between classical, pop and jazz, Previn won Oscars for “My Fair Lady” (1964), “Irma la Douce” (1963), “Gigi” (1958) and “Porgy and Bess” (1959). He was 89.(Patrick Downs/ Los Angeles Times)
Guitarist Peter Tork, far right, became an overnight star in 1966 as one of the Monkees. Critics derided the made-for-television rock band as the “Prefab Four,” but their slapstick NBC comedy series helped make them a phenomenon and foreshadowed the craze for music television that emerged in the early 1980s. He was 77.(Michael Ochs Archives)
Dodgers right-hander Don Newcombe was the first outstanding African American pitcher in the major leagues and in 1949 became the first to start a World Series game. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound hurler was also the first player in major league history to have won the rookie of the year, Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards. He was 92.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Michigan Democrat John Dingell Jr. used his considerable power in the House of Representatives to uncover government fraud and defend the interests of the automobile industry. Known as “Big John” and “The Truck” for his forceful nature and 6-foot-3-inch frame, Dingell was the longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history. He was 92.(Win McNamee / Getty Images)
Albert Finney starred in films as diverse as “Tom Jones,” “Annie” and “Skyfall.” One of the most versatile actors of his generation, he played an array of roles, including Winston Churchill, Pope John Paul II, a southern American lawyer and an Irish gangster. He was 82.(Graham Barclay / For The Times)
Hall of Fame outfielder Frank Robinson was the only major leaguer to be named most valuable player in both the National and American leagues. One of baseball’s most feared sluggers, he became the first African American to manage in the big leagues in 1975, when he filled that position for the Cleveland Indians. He was 83.(Richard Stacks / TNS)
Michelle King was the first African American woman to lead Los Angeles Unified School District. Her major accomplishment was pushing the graduation rate to record levels by allowing students to quickly make up credits for failed classes. She was 57.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Grammy-winning singer and songwriter James Ingram topped the charts in the ‘80s with hits like “Baby, Come to Me” and “Somewhere Out There.” He also co-wrote the Michael Jackson hit “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing).” He was 66.(Stefano Paltera / AP)
Emmy Award-winning writer Bob Einstein was best known as stuntman Super Dave Osborne, whose feats always went wrong. The comedy veteran got his start writing for 1970s variety shows such as “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” and he later played Larry David’s devout friend Marty Funkhouser on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” He was 76.(Archive Photos / Getty Images)
Carol Channing was a Broadway star best known for her enduring portrayal of the title character in the musical “Hello, Dolly!” A winner of three Tony Awards, including one for lifetime achievement, she appeared in the play at least 5,000 times. She was 97.(Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images / Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Mary Oliver, one of the country’s most popular poets, focused on spirituality, nature and New England. Her poems won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 and the National Book Award in 1992. She was 83.(Josh Reynolds / For the Times)
Herb Kelleher built Southwest Airlines into the biggest discount carrier and set the standard for budget air travel for more than three decades. He and co-founder Rollin King used a formula of short, no-frills trips that spawned dozens of imitators. He was 87.(Ed Betz / AP)
At just 25, Donen made his directorial debut with “On the Town.”
Co-directed by Kelly, the 1949 musical memorably left the confines of the studio for its spectacular opening number, “New York, New York.” It was shot on location in New York City as three sailors — Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin — set out on a 24-hour leave in the Big Apple.
In general, Donen once explained, Kelly “was responsible for most of the dance movements [in the film]. I was behind the camera in the dramatic and musical sequences.”
Donen made his solo directing debut with “Royal Wedding,” a 1951 musical in which Fred Astaire famously danced up the walls and across the ceiling — a breathtaking effect created by attaching the camera to the base of a large revolving steel-reinforced cylindrical chamber containing the hotel-room set.
More than three decades later, Donen directed a similar gravity-defying number for the music video of Lionel Richie’s hit “Dancing on the Ceiling.”
Among Donen’s other movie musicals: “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” (1954), “Funny Face” (1957), “The Pajama Game” (1957, co-directed by George Abbott) and “Damn Yankees” (1958, co-directed by Abbott).
But it is “Singin’ in the Rain,” the exuberant 1952 classic co-directed by Donen and Kelly that is, in the words of the late New Yorker magazine film critic Pauline Kael, “perhaps the most enjoyable of all movie musicals — just about the best Hollywood musical of all time.”
A satirical tale about Hollywood’s transition from silent films to talkies, “Singin’ in the Rain” co-starred Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds.
The film featured many memorable song and dance numbers, including O’Connor’s stand-out pratfall routine “Make `Em Laugh,” and, of course, Kelly’s joyous expression of being in love by singing — and dancing — in the rain.
In “Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and His Movies,” Silverman’s 1996 biography, Donen said that neither he nor Kelly “knew it was going to be such a great number.”
“It only took a day and a half to shoot,” he recalled. “We covered the entire East Side Street on [MGM’s] Lot Two with a black tarpaulin [to simulate nighttime] and designed, to the music, the puddles in the pavement for where Gene would splash around. The rehearsal took place without the rain, which was piped in with sprinklers. We had to finish at a certain time of day because of a water-pressure problem in Culver City.”
Indeed, as Donen explained on another occasion, “The only problem came when the downpour suddenly turned into a drizzle in the late afternoon. It was because Culver City people were watering their lawns.”
In his book, Silverman credits Donen with “changing the face and form of the American movie musical. With the arrival of Donen, musicals snapped to and noticeably came of age, integrating in a naturalistic fashion the elements of song, plot and realistic character motives.”
“Stanley Donen is one of the great builders of the film musical,” Drew Casper, author of “Stanley Donen,” a 1983 critical study of Donen’s films, told The Times in 2004.
“What Stanley did was he created this phenomenon of cine-dance: He explored the possibilities of dance in film and made dance cinematic,” said Casper, the Alma and Alfred Hitchcock professor of American film at the USC School of Cinema-Television. “His dance musicals made a quantum leap from what Astaire had done with the musical at RKO in the `30s.”
Beginning in the late 1950s, Donen made the transition to nonmusical films, directing “Indiscreet,” a 1958 romantic comedy starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman; “Charade,” a witty 1963 romantic thriller starring Grant and Audrey Hepburn; “Arabesque,” a 1966 thriller starring Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren; and “Two for the Road,” a 1967 romantic drama starring Hepburn and Albert Finney.
Among his other credits as director are “Staircase” (1969), “Lucky Lady” (1975), “Movie Movie” (1978) and “Blame It On Rio” (1984), his last feature film. “Love Letters,” the only TV movie he directed, aired in 1999.
A year earlier and only weeks before his 74th birthday, Donen received an honorary Oscar “in appreciation of a body of work marked by grace, elegance, wit and visual innovation.”
His acceptance speech was equally graceful and elegant.
“Tonight, words seem inadequate,” Donen said after briefly thanking the academy’s board of governor’s. “In musicals, that’s when we do a song, so ...”
As the orchestra launched into Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek” from the Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical classic “Top Hat,” Donen held his golden Oscar to his beaming face, and sang, “Heaven, I’m in heaven.”
He further charmed the audience with a brief tap dance before concluding his speech.
For Donen, a movie-struck Southern boy whose life changed after he first saw Astaire dance on the screen, his Donen’s Oscar moment was heavenly indeed.
Donen (pronounced Dah-nen), was born in Columbia, S.C., on April 13, 1924. The son of a dress shop manager, he was a solitary child.
“It was difficult being a Jew in South Carolina,” he told Newsday in 1998. “You got a lot of negative things said about you; you were not really accepted as one of the guys, or one of the children.”
He found escape at the movies. A major turning point in his life came at age 9 when he saw “Flying Down to Rio,” a 1933 musical featuring Astaire and Rogers in their first on-screen pairing.
Watching the elegant Astaire physically respond to the rhythm of a band and then tap dance in a solo number mesmerized the young Donen, and he returned to the theater for repeated showings of the musical.
“I didn’t have a lot of friends,” he told Newsday. “Maybe because I was a Jew. I didn’t mix with a lot of people. That may be one of the reasons I wanted to dance. It was one of the things I could do without them. Who knows what drives you? But I was interior and removed, and I saw this movie and said I’ve got to learn to do that.”
Donen began taking dance lessons in Columbia, which he supplemented with further training in New York City when he would accompany his father on summer business trips, which included seeing all the Broadway musicals.
After graduating from high school in 1940 at age 16, Donen headed straight to New York. Answering an open cattle call that fall, he was hired for the chorus of “Pal Joey,” the Rodgers and Hart Broadway musical that made Kelly a star.
A year later, when Kelly became the choreographer for the Broadway musical “Best Foot Forward,” he hired Donen as his assistant. Donen also appeared in the chorus of “Best Foot Forward.”
Moving to Hollywood in 1942, he auditioned for the MGM movie version of “Best Foot Forward.” Placed under contract as a studio dancer, he also became assistant to MGM choreographer Charles Walters.
Donen, whose high blood pressure reportedly kept him out of the wartime draft, worked on numerous musicals. And when Kelly, who had become an MGM star, was lent to Columbia studios to costar in the 1944 musical “Cover Girl,” he asked Donen to be his assistant on his dance numbers.
In addition to “On the Town” and “Singin’ in the Rain,” Donen and Kelly co-directed the 1955 musical “It’s Always Fair Weather,” starring Kelly.
“I’ve been asked for years how one co-directs,” Donen told his biographer, “and I have two standard replies. The first is ‘With great difficulty.’ And the second, which I used to joke about, is, ‘If you substitute the word “fight” for ‘co-direct,’ then you have it.’
“It wasn’t always like that with Gene, but it gradually came to be that, and, eventually, it came to be impossible. As for the actual process of ‘co-directing,’ if you both agree, then one of you is redundant. And if you disagree, there’s going to be a battle.”
In his Donen biography, Silverman wrote that Kelly has invariably been credited with staging and choreographing the performers, while Donen was left to the camera.
“No one kept track of exactly into whose domain fell what particular responsibility, but clearly there was not consistently a fifty-fifty collaboration,” Silverman wrote. “Early on, it was Kelly who carried the clout to demand the inclusion of Donen in his studio projects, yet the young overachiever always came through, for Kelly and the studio.”
In his later years, Donen was not known to dwell on his Hollywood past, and he reportedly was a bit surprised whenever he was struck by nostalgic feelings.
“A few years ago, I made a tape of dozens of scenes from my old dance movies for a seminar at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute,” he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1990.
But as he watched those scenes, he said, he was so overcome with emotion that he couldn’t go on.
“It hit me,” he said, “that something wonderful had been lost — something gentle, naïve and sweet in our lives: simple, plain, everyday feelings; a kind of innocence, I guess. Now, your average movie has 50 guys being killed in it. Car chases and explosions. I get tired of all the violence. The aliens and ghosts and things that couldn’t possibly happen in real life. But who do you blame? That’s the world today.”
If he were filming “Singin’ in the Rain” today, he said, “I’d probably have Gene Kelly constantly looking over his shoulder as he danced down the street. He’d have to worry about being mugged.”
Donen was married and divorced five times — to dancer Jeanne Coyne; actress Marion Marshall, with whom he had two sons, Peter and Joshua; Lady Adelle Beatty, with whom he had a son, Mark; actress Yvette Mimieux; and Pamela Braden.
Dennis McLellan is a former Times staff writer.