Mickey Rooney, the pint-sized actor who was one of MGM’s giant box office attractions in the late ’30s and early ’40s, died on Sunday at his home in North Hollywood. He was 93.
As adept at comedy as drama and an excellent singer and dancer, Rooney was regarded as the consummate entertainer. During a prolific career on stage and screen that spanned eight decades (“I’ve been working all my life, but it seems longer,” he once said), he was nominated for four Academy Awards and received two special Oscars, the Juvenile Award in 1939 (shared with Deanna Durbin) and one in 1983 for his body of work.
He also appeared on series and TV and in made for television movies, one of which, “Bill,” the touching story of a mentally challenged man, won him an Emmy. He was Emmy nominated three other times. And for “Sugar Babies,” a musical revue in which he starred with Ann Miller, he was nominated for a Tony in 1980.
Both in his professional and personal life Rooney withstood many peaks and valleys. He was married eight times — first and most famously to his MGM co-star Ava Gardner — and filed for bankruptcy in 1962, having gone through the $12 million he had earned. And until middle age, he was never able to quite cast off his popularity as a juvenile. Nonetheless, Rooney’s highs more than compensated for his lows. Via his “Andy Hardy” series of films, the five-foot-three Rooney came to embody the virtues of small-town American boyhood. Those films and a series of musicals in which he co-starred with Judy Garland made him the nation’s biggest box office attraction for three years running.
Margaret O’Brien said she was recently working on a film with him, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” despite reports that he had been in ill health for some time. “Mickey was the only one at the studio that was ever allowed to call me Maggie. He was undoubtedly the most talented actor that ever lived. There was nothing he couldn’t do. Singing, dancing, performing … all with great expertise. Mickey made it look so easy. He seemed fine through the filming and was as great as ever,” said O’Brien in a statement. He was also set to appear in “Fragments From Olympus – The Vision of Nikola Tesla” and possibly in “Old Soldiers.”
Born Joseph Yule Jr. in Brooklyn, Rooney made his stage debut at age 15 months in his family’s vaudeville act, Yule and Carter, as a midget in a tuxedo. His first film role in the silent “Not to Be Trusted” also found him playing a midget. Even as a child he demonstrated the ability to be a consummate clown and to move audiences with his sentimental renditions of songs like “Pal of My Cradle Days.” After his parent’s divorce, his mother Nell answered an ad placed by cartoonist Fontaine Fox, who was looking for a child actor to play the comicstrip character Mickey McGuire in a series of silent comedy shorts. Rooney appeared in almost 80 episodes of the popular serial, which continued to be churned out by Standard Film Corp. until 1932. His mother wanted to legally change his name to McGuire, but when Fox objected, she chose Rooney instead.
As a teenager, Rooney appeared in many popular films including Tom Mix Western “My Pal the King” and, memorably, as Puck in Max Reinhardt’s 1935 adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In 1934, MGM signed him to a week-to-week contract; his first success was playing Clark Gable as a boy in “Manhattan Melodrama.” He slowly climbed up the star ladder, appearing in an adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah Wilderness” and in “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” “Captains Courageous” and “Boy’s Town,” the latter two alongside Spencer Tracy.
But it was “A Family Affair,” a B-movie adaptation of the minor Broadway play “Skidding,” that first brought the world the Hardy family and its irrepressible son Andy, “the perfect composite of everybody’s kid brother,” according to critic Frank S. Nugent. With the surprise success of “A Family Affair,” the Hardy family, which included Lewis Stone (replacing Lionel Barrymore) as Judge Hardy and Spring Byington as his wife, embarked on a 15-film series of adventures in Americana. As star of one of the most successful series in film history, Rooney was earning $150,000 a year before his 20th birthday. In 1939, he was voted a special Oscar by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences.
The following year he was nominated for best actor in the film musical version of “Babes in Arms” with Judy Garland. “Mickey Rooney can act the legs off a centipede,” wrote the critic for the Sunday Times in London. It was the first of several memorable pairings with Garland including “Strike Up the Band,” “Babes on Broadway” and “Girl Crazy.”
His performance in the 1943 version of William Saroyan’s “The Human Comedy” brought a second nomination, and he played his first adult role opposite Elizabeth Taylor in “National Velvet.”
From 1944-46, Rooney served in the U.S. Army in the Jeep Theater, traveling 150,000 miles entertaining the troops and acting as a radio personality on the American Forces Network.
But after the war, Rooney’s attempt to make the transition from over-aged teenager to full-fledged adult was rocky at best. MGM tried to give him a new image, casting him as a boxer in “Killer McCoy”; the musical version of “Ah Wilderness,” called “Summer Holiday,” also failed to please. The very qualities that had made him an appealing child star now began to grate. His energetic cockiness seemed forced and egotistical in an adult. The vaudeville-style humor and sentimentality were deemed annoying and precious by post-war audiences.
After settling his contract with MGM in a dispute over not being cast in the all-star war drama “Battleground,” Rooney made nightclub appearances as he rebuilt his career. His freelance movie assignments, such as “Quicksand,” sank without a trace. Only “The Bold and the Brave,” a WWII drama that brought him a third Oscar nomination, met with any success. The final Andy Hardy drama, 1958’s “Andy Hardy Comes Home,” found him as a successful lawyer and new head of the family. It was the final and least successful film in the series.
Rooney also tried directing, helming 1951’s “My True Story,” with Helen Walker as a jewel thief, and 1960’s “The Private Lives of Adam and Eve,” a complex comedy in which he also starred.
He experienced somewhat more success in television: He was nominated for Emmys for dramatic work on “Playhouse 90” effort “The Comedian,” considered a classic of golden-era television, and “Eddie” on “Alcoa Theatre.” He also appeared, less felicitously, in the mid-’50s series “The Mickey Rooney Show: Hey, Mulligan” on NBC and “Mickey,” which ran for a few months on ABC in 1964-65.
But in 1962, after filing for bankruptcy (the money had dwindled through his many divorces and because of his fondness for betting on “the ponies”), he embarked on a career as a character actor in films including “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Requiem for a Heavyweight” and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” His controversial “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” role as Mr. Yunioshi, a buck-toothed broadly comic caricature of a Japanese man, did not draw much ire when the film was first released but has since been condemned as racist.
Off the bigscreen, he toured the country on a double bill with singer Bobby Van and in summer stock.
In 1963, he appeared as the very first guest on “The Judy Garland Show” upon Garland’s insistence. And he appeared occasionally during the ’60s on comedy/variety shows such as “The Dean Martin Comedy Hour,” “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and “The Carol Burnett Show.” He guested on “Hollywood Squares” in 13 episodes between 1969 and 1976, and made 15 appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” from 1970-73.
Norman Lear considered him for role of Archie Bunker, but Rooney rejected the project just as Jackie Gleason had. Perhaps he felt the role of Santa Claus fit him better: Rooney did the voices for four Christmas TV animated/stop action specials over the years. He played Santa in “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” (1970), “The Year Without a Santa Claus” (1974), “Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July” (1979) and “A Miser Brothers’ Christmas” (2008) and also played St. Nick in a 1982 episode of “The Love Boat.”
In later years, Rooney continued to work hard and sometimes found notable success. He received an Oscar nomination for supporting actor in 1980 for “The Black Stallion.” He won an Emmy for “Bill” in 1982 and drew an Emmy nom for reprising the role in another CBS telepic two years later.
In addition to his success in the musical “Sugar Babies,” he made popular stage appearances in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and on Broadway in “The Will Rogers Follies.”
In 1982 he starred in a short-lived sitcom, “One of the Boys,” with Dana Carvey and Nathan Lane. He guested on “The Golden Girls” in 1988, on “Murder, She Wrote” in 1993 and on “ER” in 1998; he starred in “The New Adventures of the Black Stallion,” based on the film, for 57 episodes from 1990-93.
As he approached and then surpassed his 90th birthday, he labored on, appearing in 2006 in “Night at the Museum” and in 2011 in “The Muppets” feature, among several other films.
In 1993 he published autobiography “Life Is Too Short”; the next year he came out with a novel, Hollywood murder mystery “The Search for Sonny Skies.”
Rooney had battled the major studios and the Screen Actors Guild seeking TV residuals for his screen appearances before 1960 without success. In 2011 he revealed he had suffered another form of victimization. He was granted a temporary restraining order against his stepson, who was accused of withholding food and medicine and interfering in Rooney’s personal finances, which was subsequently replaced by a confidential agreement.
In March 2011 he testified before a special Senate committee considering legislation to curb abuses of senior citizens.
Rooney voyaged, as a special guest, as part of the TCM Classic Cruise in January 2013.
He is survived by wife Jan Chamberlin, a singer he married in 1978; son Mickey Rooney Jr. from his marriage to singer Betty Jane Rase; son Theodore Michael Rooney from his marriage to actress Martha Vickers; daughters Kelly Ann Rooney, Kerry Rooney and Kimmy Sue Rooney and son Michael Joseph Rooney from his marriage to Barbara Ann Thomason; and daughter Jonelle Rooney and adopted son Jimmy Rooney from his marriage to Carolyn Hockett. A son, Tim Rooney, died in 2006.