Mickey Rooney: remembering 90 years of peerless pluck and outsized talent

Mickey Rooney, the iconic Depression-era golden boy, sustained a long acting career through dizzying highs and lows – and a family life often as eventful. But his showmanship was a constant.

Benoit Photo/AP/File
Entertainment icons Dick Van Patten (l.) and Mel Brooks (r.) flank Mickey Rooney at Santa Anita Park, in Arcadia, Calif. Rooney, a Hollywood legend whose career spanned more than 90 years, has died at his North Hollywood home.

Mickey Rooney, the diminutive but bold actor who charmed more than nine decades of audiences with his shameless, energetic hamming and a light-up-the-room presence, died on Sunday, entertainment news media reported.

In a career that spanned some 90 years between his first and last role, Mr. Rooney accumulated more than 200 acting credits, including parts that made him a golden boy to Depression-era audiences badly in need of his characters’ wise-cracking humor and boyish pluck, as well as won him fame that never fully dimmed, even during the low points that pot-holed his long ride at the top.

Born Sept. 23, 1920, in Brooklyn, N.Y., as Joe Yule Jr., Rooney began his acting career before he was 2 years old, appearing in a toddler-sized tuxedo and a camera-mugging grin in his actor parents’ vaudeville acts.

When his parents split, his mother, Nell Yule, took him with her to California and shuttled him into an acting career of his own. Throughout the 1920s, Rooney appeared in a series of silent films, perhaps the most famous of which was “Mickey McGuire,” a 1927-34 low-budget comic serial in which Rooney appeared as an Irish kid with a street-smart frown and oversized clothes that matched his all-grown-up attitude.

He later took his first name from that role, and added Rooney after the vaudeville dancer Pat Rooney, at the suggestion of his mother.

Rooney never got all that much taller than he was as a child star – he reached just 5 feet, 2 inches as an adult – but his talent was big, and his career grew and grew.

In 1937, Rooney was cast as teenager Andy Hardy in a movie series set in the kind of small-town where soda shops and school dances are the backdrops to PG-romance – the kind of town that did not look much like the Depression-era cities in which the movies played.

Rooney's part was “the typical American boy,” as one New York Times critic put it in 1939. Or, at least, the role was a romantic version of what it meant to be young, male, and American: a blond boy who was spunky, scrappy, and often up-to-no-good, but who was boyishly winsome enough to get of out trouble and, of course, get the girl.

In 1938, in recognition of his work in the series, Rooney was awarded a miniature-sized Academy Award for juveniles “for bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth.” More than dozen “Hardy” films, the last of which screened in 1944, would make him a teen girls’ dream prom date, a cute teenager who was just rough enough on the edges to be appealing, but also just sincere and baby-faced enough to be safe to love.

In 1939, Rooney was cast with “Hardy” series co-star Judy Garland, America’s girl-next-door of the moment, in "Babes in Arms," a musical about two plucky youngsters with show business dreams. The part landed Rooney another Academy Award nomination. From 1939 to 1942, he was voted the No. 1 star in the movie business.

Rooney and Ms. Garland appeared again together in a number of musicals, including "Girl Crazy” (1943), and Rooney later called their chemistry “magic” in a stage show he wrote about their long friendship. He also appeared as a horse trainer opposite Elizabeth Taylor, then a violet-eyed up-and-comer, in “National Velvet” in 1944, as well as in numerous other films that earned him a reputation as not just a dreamboat but a true talent.

Rooney’s personal life, as his website puts it, was “just as epic as his on-screen performances.” He was married eight times – first to Ava Gardner, the tall, brunette starlet, and last to singer Jan Chamberlin, from whom he was divorced in June 2012.

Not all of it was epic, though – some of it was just hard. As a young star, Rooney was known as an arrogant, feckless hard-partyer, a tempestuous talent who spent money as fast, or faster, than he made it. He was not as wholesome as Andy Hardy, nor was he the all-American, cute-as-pie image that his management, MGM, sought in vain to market.

After a stint with the Army in 1943, he returned to the US to break ties with MGM and open his own production company. His career stalled. He took smaller roles, including a cringe-worthy turn as Holly Golightly’s cartoonish, no fun Japanese neighbor in "Breakfast at Tiffany’s." He bounced back with an acclaimed role as a boxing trainer in "Requiem for a Heavyweight" (1962).

The freewheeling caught up to him. The money ran out, but the court orders for alimony and child support payments did not. He struggled with alcoholism and prescription pill abuse and his career settled into a long slump that marked him a has-been.

But he didn’t remain so.

In 1979, “Sugar Babies,” a wacky, vaudeville-style musical with Ann Miller, another veteran of MGM musicals of the '40s, was a major, if unlikely, hit, winning Rooney a Tony nomination and another shot at the limelight. Yet another acclaimed role as a horse trainer in "The Black Stallion" (1979) won him a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Voice parts in animated features, including “The Fox and the Hound” and “The Care Bears Movie,” were lucrative, and his part in the TV movie “Bill” (1981) won him an Emmy and a Golden Globe. In 1983, he was presented with an honorary Academy Award that recognized “his 60 years of versatility in a variety of film performances.”

His lifelong career as a showman stretched well into his later years, with roles in “Night at the Museum” (2006) and “The Muppets” (2011), and he continued to be an exuberant, spirited performer who never missed a chance to please, and often awe, a crowd.

"The American public is my family," Rooney once said. "I've had fun with them all my life."

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