Actor Mickey Rooney dies at 93
LOS ANGELES — 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, TV and the Broadway theater, died Sunday at 93.
Los Angeles Police Commander Andrew Smith said Rooney was with his family when he died at his North Hollywood home.
Smith said police took a death report but indicated there was nothing suspicious and it was not a police case. He said he had no additional details on the circumstances of his passing.
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 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.
Rooney’s personal life matched his film roles for color. 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 vigor.
“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 nonstop 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; screenplays, novels and plays.
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.
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.
Rooney’s peppy, all-American charm was never better matched than when he appeared opposite his friend and fellow child star Garland in such films as “Babes on Broadway” and “Strike up the Band,” musicals built around a plot of “Let’s put on a show!” One of them, the 1939 “Babes in Arms,” brought him his first Oscar nomination. He was also in such dramas as “The Human Comedy” (1943) which gained Rooney his second Oscar nomination as best actor, and “National Velvet” (1944) with Elizabeth Taylor.
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. “The Bold and the Brave,” a 1956 World War II drama, brought him an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor. But mostly, he played second leads in such films as “Off Limits” with Bob Hope, “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” with William Holden, and “Requiem for a Heavyweight” with Anthony Quinn. In the early 1960s, he had a wild turn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” as Audrey Hepburn’s bucktoothed Japanese neighbor and was among the fortune seekers in the all-star comedy “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.”
Rooney’s starring roles came in low-budget films such as “Drive a Crooked Road,” “The Atomic Kid,” “Platinum High School,” “The Twinkle in God’s Eye” and “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.”
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.
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.” Joe Yule Jr., born in 1920, was the star of his parents’ act by age 2, 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.
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.”
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 40 miles 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.”