Mickey Rooney, the irrepressible actor of seemingly limitless skills who personified the all-American teenager in movie musicals with Judy Garland and dozens of other comedies and dramas, has died at 93.
Rooney, once among the world’s top box-office stars, could sing, dance, play drums and do pratfalls and impersonations. He began his career at 15 months in his parents' vaudeville act and never really retired.
He was often paired with Garland — considered his equal in charisma and ability — in top-quality musicals such as “Babes in Arms” (1939) and “Girl Crazy” (1943). In addition, he was powerful in dramas including “Boys Town” (1938), portraying a juvenile delinquent, and “The Human Comedy” (1943), as a small-town telegraph messenger who delivers news of war casualties to parents back home.
He also starred as Andy Hardy in the popular “Hardy Family” film series about an Ohio teenager growing up. The Hardy films often featured Garland as his long-suffering friend.
Rooney won a special Academy Award in 1939 for “bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth, and . . . setting a high standard of ability and achievement.”
In approaching roles, he rarely mastered more than the outline of a script, even one based on Shakespeare, saying the spontaneity would dry up otherwise. His method enchanted many critics, including James Agee, who called Rooney “magical.”
On television, Rooney received an Emmy Award nomination for playing a rotten-to-the-core entertainer in Rod Serling's “The Comedian” (1957). He also won an Emmy for outstanding lead actor in a limited series or a special for “Bill” (1981), about a mentally disabled man struggling with life outside an institution.
John J. O'Connor, a New York Times television critic, underscored Rooney's power as an actor in his review of “Bill”: “As a superb clown, he can look profoundly sad in repose, his eyes going darkly blank. Then, on the slightest pretext, he can switch to a smile that embodies something approaching an all-trusting delight.”
As a young actor, Rooney wowed critics and audiences with realistic impersonations of everyone from actor Lionel Barrymore, who specialized in crotchety roles, to Carmen Miranda, the flamboyant entertainer known for her fruit-topped hats.
Rooney appeared in more than 300 films and TV programs, in addition to his work in radio, recording, nightclubs and commercials. Although he stayed busy, his career suffered many reversals.
He was just over 5 feet tall, and his physical stature seemed to limit his film roles as he aged. After World War II — he was a decorated Army veteran — he no longer looked like a child star, and movie audiences had a hard time accepting him as anything else.
He also tended toward erratic behavior off-screen. His gambling and drug addictions and eight marriages — including one to then-starlet Ava Gardner — left him with debts he struggled to pay.
“Mr. Rooney had talent to burn, and he burned it,” film historian Jeanine D. Basinger wrote in “The Star Machine,” a 2007 book about the studio system that made Rooney famous. “He has done everything there is to do in show business, all with equal success, and it might be said, equal failure.”
Rooney was born Joe Yule Jr. on Sept. 23, 1920, at a boardinghouse in Brooklyn, N.Y. His parents, struggling vaudevillians Joe and Nell Carter Yule, could not afford the fee at the local hospital.
At 15 months, the future Mickey Rooney got his start onstage in his parents’ act. He sang “Pal o' My Cradle Days” while sporting a tuxedo and holding a rubber cigar.
Wherever they went, his parents avoided the attention of child welfare services by convincing the authorities their son was a midget.
Rooney later wrote that his father was “a philanderer and a drunk.” After his parents divorced, Rooney’s mother took him to Hollywood hoping to win a part for her son in Hal Roach's “Our Gang” comedies.
Instead, his precociousness won him unusual adult roles. In one of his earliest films, “Orchids and Ermine” (1927), he plays a midget who propositions screen beauty Colleen Moore between puffs on a cigar. The constant rubbing of the cigar caused one of his baby teeth to fall out.
That same year, he legally changed his name to Mickey McGuire when he was cast in a series of comedy shorts of the same name, based on a popular comic strip by Fontaine Fox.
He starred in nearly 50 of the Mickey McGuire shorts spanning the silent and early sound era. A financial dispute between the film’s producer and the cartoonist led the young actor again to change his name, to Mickey Rooney.
He remained busy, appearing in 11 non-Mickey McGuire films in 1934 alone. That same year, MGM producer David O. Selznick spotted Rooney goofing off at a Los Angeles ping-pong tournament and told his boss, Louis B. Mayer, that the actor would be a “gold mine” for the studio.
While Mayer hesitated, Selznick cast Rooney in “Manhattan Melodrama,” playing screen gangster Clark Gable as a child. The film did not attract much notice until real-life public enemy John Dillinger was gunned down after seeing it at a Chicago movie theater.
The killing brought a publicity boost to all the actors, and Rooney was signed to a long-term MGM contract.
During the next several years, Rooney appeared in screen adaptations of Eugene O'Neill's comedy “Ah, Wilderness!” and Shakespeare's “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” in which his portrayal of Puck stole the picture from James Cagney's role as Bottom.
Film historian David Thomson said Rooney’s Puck was “one of cinema's most arresting pieces of magic.” Rooney emphasized how easy the part was for him, writing in a memoir, “I'd never read Shakespeare before or since.”
The minor 1937 production “A Family Affair” — the first of the Hardy series — became an unexpected box-office sensation, and MGM elevated Rooney to full star treatment. The Hardy films earned more than $75 million for MGM (when movie tickets cost about 25 cents) and made Rooney the world's biggest movie star for three years.
The appeal of the pictures, most of which were clustered in the late 1930s — was credited by Basinger to the relentless optimism of the characters and its idealized setting during the Great Depression.
His portrayal of the average teenager contrasted in its easy-going naturalness with how youths were being played by contemporaries such as Freddie Bartholomew, a well-mannered British rival whom Rooney had played opposite in several earlier films.
“Because he looked like a real kid — short, kinda ordinary, a little bit cute, a little bit homely — he was perfect,” Basinger wrote of Rooney.
She added, “Offscreen, Mr. Rooney was 19, but he might as well have been 50. He had his own bookie.”
Rooney portrayed brash American youth in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1939), “Young Tom Edison” (1940), “A Yank at Eton” (1942) and his handful of musicals with Garland that featured sophisticated choreography and the songs of the Gershwin brothers and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.
He also managed a more subdued performance as a likeably raffish horse trainer in “National Velvet” (1944), which made a star of 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor.
Also in 1944, he joined the Army entertaining troops in Europe during World War II after first being classified as 4-F. He received the Bronze Star.
Upon returning, his career fell apart. He rebelled against Mayer by betraying his carefully made image. He was reckless in his love life and he oozed movie-star arrogance, he later acknowledged.
“I became as cocky a kid as ever cruised Sunset Strip in his own convertible, exploding with sheer, selfish energy — and [irritating] almost everyone around me,” he wrote in his 1991 memoir, “Life is Short.”
The undisciplined behavior continued for decades. He reportedly was drunk on a “Tonight Show” segment hosted by Jack Paar in the mid-1950s and 30 years later had a combative exchange with David Letterman on his nighttime talk show.
Meanwhile, he was unable to stay married for long because of an admittedly wandering eye.
His marriages to Ava Gardner (1941-43), Alabama beauty queen Betty Jane Rase (1944-48), actress Martha Vickers (1949-51), model Elaine Mahnken (1952-59), Margie Lane(1966-67) and Carolyn Hockett (1969-74) ended in divorce.
His estranged fifth wife, Barbara Thomason, an actress known professionally as Caroline Mitchell, was killed in a murder-suicide with her lover in 1966.
Survivors include his eighth wife, singer Jan Chamberlin. A complete list of survivors could not be immediately confirmed.
Rooney angrily parted with MGM in the late 1940s, and leaving his contract two years early cost him a large pension. He worked against the advice of a manager who wanted him to take fewer roles and demand a higher salary. He spent years entertaining in casinos and, at one point, was in a dinner-theater circuit comedy called “Three Goats and a Blanket.”
Amid a drought of parts for an aging child star, he won occasional character roles that showcased his range and allowed him to remind viewers how compelling he could be.
Critics found him exceptional as a doomed helicopter pilot in “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” (1954); a soldier who runs a floating card game in “The Bold and the Brave” (1956); the title gangster in “Baby Face Nelson” (1957); Anthony Quinn’s boxing trainer in “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1962); and a has-been horse trainer in “The Black Stallion” (1979), a role that brought him his last of four Oscar nominations.
The popular 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany's” allowed Rooney to ham it up as the bucktoothed Asian neighbor of Audrey Hepburn. Rooney's performance was called “broadly exotic” by a New York Times critic at the time but is regarded as an embarrassing caricature today.
Starting in 1979, Rooney starred with former movie dancer Ann Miller in the long-running vaudeville and burlesque tribute “Sugar Babies.” The show ran 1,208 performances on Broadway despite middling reviews for what critics called stale jokes and brought Tony Award nominations to Rooney and Miller.
In 1983, he received his second honorary Oscar, for “50 years of versatility in a variety of memorable film performances.”
Afterward, he was occasionally imported to stage shows such as the musical “The Will Rogers Follies” to rejuvenate ticket sales. His film appearances dwindled to small roles; he was a security guard in the Ben Stiller comedy “Night at the Museum” (2006).
In the 1970s, Rooney began speaking about his religious conversion to evangelical Christianity. The circumstances were unusual, he said. An angel, in the form of a busboy, visited him in the coffee shop at a Lake Tahoe casino and whispered, “Mr. Rooney, Jesus Christ loves you very much.”
Rooney was fond of lewd jokes about his sexual prowess and spoke of his many supposedly unproduced screenplays and books. One text was allegedly called “Mickey Rooney's Guide to a Happy Marriage.”
He also wrote in “Life is Short”: “I've been short all my life. And if anyone wonders what my dying wish will be, they can stop wondering. That will be easy. I'll just tell them, ‘I’ll have a short bier.’ ”