It’s high time that you learned a thing or two about Robert Emmett O’Connor (1885-1962). I’ll cut to the chase for some of you and reveal that he’s the guy who played Henderson (“Now I know I’m crazy!”) in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera (1935). But that’s the tip of the iceberg. Normally cast as cops, detectives, bartenders and other thick-necked (and often thick-skulled) types, O’Connor amassed over 200 screen credits in a 40 year film career.
This unmistakably irish-American character actor came from Milwaukee and started out performing in circuses and vaudeville. His first Broadway show, rather pricelessly, was Fritz in Tammany Hall (1905). In total he was to appear on Broadway 20 times through 1931, in shows like Mamzelle Champagne (1906), The Old Soak (1922), and Blossom Time (1931), his last.
Meanwhile O’Connor had also broken into motion pictures. Between 1919 and 1922 he appeared in two dozen silent comedies for Hal Roach, most notably supporting Harold Lloyd in comedies like Pay Your Dues (1919), His Royal Slyness (1920) and Never Weaken (1921). After a four year gap for stage work, he returned in 1926 to appear in three comedies for Al Christie and Snub Pollard. He was also in a few silent features, such as The Noose (1928).
Of O’Connor’s scores of great credits in talkies, some notable ones: The Singing Fool (1928) with Al Jolson; Alias French Gertie (1930) with Bebe Daniels; The Public Enemy (1931) with James Cagney; Frank Capra’s American Madness (1932) and Lady for a Day (1933); Blonde Venus (1932) with Dietrich; The Kid from Spain (1932) with Eddie Cantor; Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933); The Trial of Vince Barnett (1933); Gabriel Over the White House (1933); the aforementioned A Night at the Opera (1935); and the original A Star is Born (1937).
By the end of the ’30s, O’Connor went from being a supporting player with a few lines and a couple of good scenes in a picture…to being a mere extra, often uncredited. In this capacity he’s in dozens and dozens of movies, including several of the Maisie pictures, a few Red Skelton movies, musicals like Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Til the Clouds Roll By (1946), The Harvey Girls (1946), and Easter Parade (1948). His last credit was an episode of the tv show Man Without a Gun (1958).
To learn more about vaudeville, please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent and classic comedy film, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.
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