Inspired by Astaire, Donen took dance lessons in his hometown and performed at the local Town Theater. He moved to New York City at the age of 16 to pursue dancing. After a couple of auditions, he was finally cast as a chorus dancer in George Abbott’s Broadway production. Abbott then asked Donen to appear in the chorus of his next Broadway show, Best Foot Forward. He quickly rose to become the show's assistant stage manager.
Donen’s career in Hollywood began in 1943 when Arthur Freed, the producer of musicals at Metro Goldwyn Mayer, bought the film rights to Best Foot Forward and made a film version of it. Donen subsequently signed a one-year contract with the production giant. In 1944, Donen and Gene Kelly choreographed the musical Anchors Aweigh, starring Kelly and Frank Sinatra.
On the Town, a 1949 musical in which Kelly and Donen collaborated again, became a success, both financially and critically. It won the Academy Award for Best Music and its screenwriters won the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Written American Musical.
But Donen and Kelly’s greatest movie came three years later. Directed and choreographed by the duo, Singin' in the Rain, the 1952 American musical-romantic comedy film, made him one of the leading directors of his time.
Firmly established in the movie industry, Donen solidified his career with the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The musical was one of the highest-grossing films of 1954. It even got nominated for five Academy Awards, including best picture and best music categories, which it won.
1957 saw the beginning of Donen’s career as an independent producer and director. He formed Grandon Productions with Cary Grant and signed a distribution deal with Warner Brothers. Donen and Grant started their venture in 1958 with Indiscreet, starring Grant and Ingrid Bergman.
Grandon Productions was also behind Donen's next movie, The Grass Is Greener, starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. But it was in 1963 that Donen made one of his most-loved movies. Charade, starring Grant and Audrey Hepburn was not only one of his highest-grossing movies but went on to inspire numerous movies released after it.
Despite a slew of critically acclaimed movies, Singin' in the Rain still remains Donen's most-loved film, featuring on Sight and Sound's prestigious list of Top Ten Films not just once but twice. Billy Wilder called the film "one of the five greatest pictures ever made."
Donen has been married and divorced five times. His first marriage, with dancer, choreographer, and actress Jeanne Coyne, took place on April 14, 1948. They divorced in May 1951. Donen's second wife was Marion Marshall, an actress. They had two children together.
Donen's third marriage, which took place in 1960, bore him a third son before the pair separated in 1969. Their divorce was finalized in 1971. Donen's fourth marriage, with actress Yvette Mimieux, laster 13 years, from 1972 to 1985, while Donen's fifth marriage lasted from 1990 to 1994.
Donen’s net worth is estimated at $82 million.