Actor Mickey Rooney, who made a mark in Hollywood as a brash teenager in 1930 and went on to become United States biggest movie star in a career that spanned 10 decades, passed away on April 6. He was 93. The eight time married, Rooney, who had developed a reputation as a man who partied hard and as an off-screen brat in his heydays breathed his last at his home in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles County coroner’s office said, citing information from the Los Angeles Police Department.
“He was undoubtedly the most talented actor that ever lived. There was nothing he couldn’t do,” said actress Margaret O’Brien, who recently worked with Rooney on a film adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Actress Rose Marie, a long-time friend of Rooney, said he was one of the greatest talents show business had ever had. “I shall miss him and the world shall miss him,” she said in a statement. Other stars took to Twitter to express their sadness about Rooney’s death.
“RIP Mickey Rooney. We can only be awed and grateful for so many great performances,” actress Mia Farrow said. Actor William Shatner described him as, “one of the greats,” and author Anne Rice said he was not only an actor but a legend. “Sad to think of him gone. But what an amazing life he lived,” Rice added on Twitter.
Rooney was an entertainer almost from the day he was born in New York on September 23, 1920. His parents, Joe Yule Sr. and Nell, had a vaudeville act and Joe Jr., as he was known then, was not yet two when he became a part of it, appearing in a miniature tuxedo. As he grew older, Rooney added dancing and joke-telling to his stage repertoire before landing his first film role as a cigar-smoking little person in the silent short Not To Be Trusted. After his parents split, Rooney and his mother moved to California where she steered him into a movie career. He was about seven when he was cast as the title character in the Mickey McGuire series of film shorts that ran from 1927 to 1934. Nell even had his name changed to Mickey McGuire before changing the last name back to Rooney when he began getting other roles. As a teenager, Rooney was cute, diminutive —he topped out at 5 feet 2 inches — and bursting with hammy energy. Those attributes served him well when he was cast as the wide-eyed, wise-cracking Andy Hardy in a series of films that would give movie-goers a brief opportunity to forget the lingering woes of the Great Depression in the late 1930s.
The first Andy Hardy film, A Family Affair in 1937, became a surprise hit and led to a series of 16, with Rooney’s character becoming the main focus and helping make him the biggest box-office attraction of 1939 and 1940. The Hardy films were wholesome, sentimental comedies in which Andy would often learn a valuable lesson from his wise father, Judge Hardy.
It was in Love Finds Andy Hardy that he first worked with Judy Garland, who was on the verge of superstardom herself with The Wizard of Oz.
They made two more Hardy movies together and in 1939 were cast together in Babes in Arms, a Busby Berkeley musical about two struggling young entertainers that earned Rooney, then 19, an Academy Award nomination. Movie-goers loved the lively “let’s put on a show!” chemistry that Rooney and Garland brought to the screen. They were paired again in Girl Crazy in 1943. “We weren’t just a team, we were magic,” Rooney had said in a stage show about his life.
The studio, MGM assigned a full-time staffer to keep Rooney out of trouble, but his antics still frequently ended up in gossip columns. MGM was greatly upset when Rooney, 21, married Ava Gardner, then a 19-year-old aspiring actress in 1942. The marriage lasted barely a year.
From 1939 to 1941 Rooney had ranked as the top U.S. male box-office attraction. After he returned from serving the military as an entertainer during World War Two, the public had grown weary of seeing him play roles as a teenager. He had to seriously think about how to revamp his career. “I was a 14-year-old boy for 30 years,” he had once said.
After the rush of stardom, Rooney was battered by a stalled career, drug and gambling addictions, bad marriages, a failed production company and deep financial problems that followed. He lost his hair and grew paunchy, but he persevered. “I’m a ham who wants to be a small part of anything,” he had told in an interview to the Times.
He took small parts, worked in lesser movies and tried a couple of television shows. He picked up two more Oscar nominations for The Bold And The Brave (1956) and The Black Stallion (1979).
In 1979 he also broke through on Broadway, harking back to his vaudeville beginnings with Sugar Babies, a burlesque-style revue with MGM tap dancer Ann Miller in which he sang, danced and dressed in drag. He said the role saved him from being “a famous has-been.”
“The American public is my family,” Rooney said. “I’ve had fun with them all my life.” Rooney won an Emmy and a Golden Globe in 1982 for the telefilm Bill, playing a mentally handicapped man trying to live on his own. He was given a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1983.
In 1978 he found his soulmate in country singer Jan Chamberlin. In his late 80s they toured the country with a song-and-dance act. Rooney, who had five sons and five daughters, told a U.S. Senate committee on aging that he had been emotionally and financially abused by family members. He later said Christopher Aber, Chamberlin’s son, had deprived him of food and medicine, prevented him from leaving the house and meddled in his financial affairs.