Mickey Rooney, Hollywood legend, dead at 93
Rooney began acting at 17 months old, first appearing in film in 1926
Mickey Rooney, the pint-size, precocious actor and all-around talent whose more than 80-year career spanned silent comedies, Shakespeare, Judy Garland musicals, Andy Hardy stardom, television and the Broadway theatre, died Sunday at age 93.
Los Angeles Police Commander Andrew Smith said that Rooney was with his family when he died at his North Hollywood home.
Smith said police took a death report but indicated that there was nothing suspicious and it was not a police case. He said he had no additional details on the circumstances of his passing.
'Don't retire — inspire'
Rooney started his career in his parents' vaudeville act while still a toddler, and broke into movies before age 10. He was still racking up film and TV credits more than 80 years later — a tenure likely unmatched in the history of show business.
I've been coming back like a rubber ball for years.- Actor Mickey Rooney
"I always say, `Don't retire — inspire,"' he told The Associated Press in March 2008. "There's a lot to be done."
Among his roles in recent years was a part as a guard in the smash 2006 comedy A Night at the Museum.
Rooney won two special Academy Awards for his film achievements, and reigned from 1939 to 1942 as the No. 1 moneymaking star in movies, his run only broken when he joined the army. At his peak, he was the incarnation of the show biz lifer, a shameless ham and hoofer whom one could imagine singing, dancing and wisecracking in his crib, his blond hair, big grin and constant motion a draw for millions. He later won an Emmy and was nominated for a Tony.
"Mickey Rooney, to me, is the closest thing to a genius I ever worked with," Clarence Brown, who directed his Oscar-nominated performance in The Human Comedy, once said.
Married 8 times, had 11 children
Rooney's personal life matched his film roles for colour. His first wife was the glamorous — and taller — Ava Gardner, and he married seven more times, fathering seven sons and four daughters.
Through divorces, money problems and career droughts, he kept returning with customary vigour.
"I've been coming back like a rubber ball for years," he commented in 1979, the year he returned with a character role in The Black Stallion, drawing an Oscar nomination as supporting actor, one of four nominations he earned over the years.
That same year he starred with Ann Miller in a revue called Sugar Babies, a hokey mixture of vaudeville and burlesque. It opened in New York in October 1979, and immediately became Broadway's hottest ticket. Rooney received a Tony nomination (as did Miller) and earned millions during his years with the show.
To the end, he was a non-stop talker continually proposing enterprises, some accomplished, some just talk:
- A chain of barbecue stands.
- Training schools for talented youngsters.
- A Broadway show he wrote about himself and Judy Garland.
Big break came with A Family Affair
Rooney was among the last survivors of Hollywood's studio era, which his career predated. Rooney signed a contract with MGM in 1934 and landed his first big role as Clark Gable as a boy in Manhattan Melodrama. A loanout to Warner Bros. brought him praise as an exuberant Puck in Max Reinhardt's 1935 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which also featured James Cagney and a young Olivia de Havilland.
Rooney was soon earning $300 US a week with featured roles in such films as Riff Raff, Little Lord Fauntleroy, Captains Courageous, The Devil Is a Sissy, and most notably, as a brat humbled by Spencer Tracy's Father Flanagan in Boys Town.
The big break came with the wildly popular Andy Hardy series, beginning with A Family Affair.
"I knew A Family Affair was a B picture, but that didn't stop me from putting my all in it," Rooney wrote. "A funny thing happened to this little programmer: released in April 1937, it ended up grossing more than half a million dollars nationwide."
The critics grimaced at the depiction of a kindly small-town judge (Lionel Barrymore) with his character-building homilies to his obstreperous son. But MGM saw the film as a good template for a series and studio head Louis B. Mayer saw the series as a template for a model American home. With Barrymore replaced by Lewis Stone in subsequent films and Rooney's part built up, Andy Hardy became a national hero and the 15 Hardy movies became a gold mine.
But Rooney became a cautionary tale for early fame. He earned a reputation for drunken escapades and quickie romances and was unlucky in both money and love. In 1942 he married for the first time, to Gardner, the statuesque MGM beauty. He was 21, she was 19.
"I'm 5 feet 3, but I was 6 feet 4 when I married Ava," he said in later years. The marriage ended in a year, and Rooney joined the army in 1943, spending most of his World War II service entertaining troops.
Rooney returned to Hollywood and disillusionment. His savings had been stolen by a manager and his career was in a nose dive. He made two films at MGM, then his contract was dropped.
"I began to realize how few friends everyone has," he wrote in his second autobiography. "All those Hollywood friends I had in 1938, 1939, 1940 and 1941, when I was the toast of the world, weren't friends at all."
His movie career never regained its prewar eminence.
But his later career proved his resilience: The Oscar nomination for Black Stallion. The Sugar Babies hit that captivated New York, London, Las Vegas and major U.S. cities. Voicing animated features like The Fox and the Hound, The Care Bears Movie and Little Nemo. An Emmy for his portrayal of a disturbed man in the 1981 TV movie Bill. Teaming with his eighth wife, Jan, off-Broadway in 2004 for a musical look back at his career called, fittingly, Let's Put On a Show.
Over the years, Rooney also made hundreds of appearances on TV talk and game shows, dramas and variety programs. He starred in three series: The Mickey Rooney Show (1954), Mickey (1964) and One of the Boys (1982). All lasted one season.
Started acting with parents
In 1983, the Motion Picture Academy presented Rooney with an honorary Oscar for his "60 years of versatility in a variety of memorable film performances." That matched the 1938 special award he shared with Deanna Durbin for "bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth."
A lifelong storyteller, Rooney wrote two memoirs: i.e., an Autobiography published in 1965; Life Is Too Short, 1991. He also produced a novel about a child movie star, The Search for Sonny Skies, in 1994.
In the autobiographies, Rooney gave two versions of his debut in show business. First he told of being 1½ and climbing into the orchestra pit of the burlesque theatre where his parents were appearing. He sat on a kettle drum and pretended to be playing his whistle, vastly amusing the audience. The theatre owner kept him in the show.
The second autobiography told a different story: He was hiding under the scenery when he sneezed. Dragged out by an actor, the toddler was ordered to play his harmonica. He did, and the crowd loved it.
Whatever the introduction, Joe Yule Jr., born in 1920, was the star of his parents' act by the age of two, singing Sweet Rosie O'Grady in a tiny tuxedo. His father was a baggy-pants comic, Joe Yule, his mother a dancer, Nell Carter. Yule was a boozing Scotsman with a wandering eye, and the couple soon parted.
While his mother danced in the chorus, young Joe was wowing audiences with his heartfelt rendition of Pal o' My Cradle Days. During a tour to California, the boy made his film debut as a midget in a 1926 Fox short, Not to Be Trusted.
Young Joe Yule played another midget in a Warner Bros. feature, Orchids and Ermine, starring Colleen Moore. Then he tried out for the lead in a series of Mickey McGuire comedies, meant to rival Hal Roach's Our Gang.
"I was ready to be Mickey McGuire," Rooney wrote in his memoirs, "except for one thing: his hair was black, mine was blonde."
His mother dyed his hair black the night before the audition, and her son won the role. He also acquired a new name: Mickey McGuire. He starred in 21 of the silent comedies, 42 with sound.
The boy was also playing kid parts in features, and his name seemed inappropriate. His mother suggested Rooney, after the vaudeville dancer, Pat Rooney.
Spoke out against elder abuse
After splitting with Gardner, Rooney married Betty Jane Rase, Miss Birmingham of 1944, whom he had met during military training in Alabama. They had two sons and divorced after four years. Their son Timothy died in September 2006 at age 59 after a battle with a muscle disease called dermatomyositis.
His third and fourth marriages were to actress Martha Vickers (one son) and model Elaine Mahnken.
But above all, when a man feels helpless, it's terrible.- Actor Mickey Rooney
The fifth Mrs. Rooney, model Barbara Thomason, gave birth to four children. While the couple were estranged in 1966, she was found shot to death in her Brentwood home; beside her was the body of her alleged lover, a Yugoslavian actor. It was an apparent murder and suicide.
A year later, Rooney began a three-month marriage to Margaret Lane. She was followed by a secretary, Caroline Hockett — another divorce after five years and one daughter.
In 1978, Rooney, 57, married for the eighth — and apparently last — time. His bride was singer Janice Darlene Chamberlain, 39. Their marriage lasted longer than the first seven combined.
After a lifetime of carrying on, he became a devoted Christian and member of the Church of Religious Science. He settled in suburban Thousand Oaks, about 64 kilometres west of Los Angeles. In 2011, Rooney was in the news again when he testified before Congress about abuse of the elderly, alleging that he was left powerless by a family member who took and misused his money.
"I felt trapped, scared, used and frustrated," Rooney told a special Senate committee considering legislation to curb abuses of senior citizens. "But above all, when a man feels helpless, it's terrible."