Celebrated child actor of the 1930s and ‘40s
Mickey Rooney, a celebrated child actor who embodied the All-American boy in the “Andy Hardy” films of the 1930s and ‘40s and became one of the era’s top box-office draws, has died. He was 93.
Rooney, whose roller-coaster show-business career was marked by an often-turbulent personal life, died Sunday at his home in Los Angeles. Cmdr. Andrew Smith of the LAPD and the L.A. County coroner’s office confirmed his death. The cause was not disclosed.
One of the most enduring performers in show business, he made his debut on the vaudeville stage in 1922 as a toddler and toured into his late ‘80s in a two-person stage show with Jan Chamberlin, his eighth wife. They had been married since 1978 and later separated.
Jokes about his propensity to walk down the aisle were once a staple of pop culture. Even Rooney told them. “My marriage license reads, ‘To whom it may concern,’ ” he told The Times in 1981. The first and most famous of his wives was actress Ava Gardner, whom he married in 1942.
When the 90-year-old Rooney testified before Congress in 2011 about elder abuse, the actor said he spoke from personal experience. A family member who took and misused Rooney’s money had left him powerless, he said.
“I felt trapped, scared, used and frustrated,” Rooney told a Senate committee. “When a man feels helpless, it’s terrible.”
Rooney did not identify the person during his testimony, but the previous month he had obtained a restraining order against his stepson Chris Aber. He accused him of withholding food and medicine and trying to gain control of his assets. A settlement was reached when Aber and his wife, who both denied wrongdoing, agreed to abide by the stay-away order without it being enforced by a judge.
“If elder abuse happened to me, Mickey Rooney,” the actor testified, “it can happen to anyone.”
In 1982, Rooney earned an Emmy Award for playing the title character in a drama, “Bill,” about a mentally challenged man living on his own for the first time. Many critics considered it his best performance.
During his initial burst of fame, Rooney broke through as a dramatic actor playing the young tough in the 1938 film “Boys Town” and starring with Judy Garland in a series of popular musicals that included 1939’s “Babes in Arms,” which brought him the first of four Oscar nominations.
Between 1937 and 1946, Rooney portrayed the relentlessly positive Andy Hardy in 15 MGM feature films that presented an idealized portrait of American family life. They were among the most popular movie series of all time, according to film critic Leonard Maltin.
A story the late director Billy Wilder often told illustrates how important Rooney was to MGM. Wilder witnessed studio chief Louis B. Mayer -- who was unhappy with Rooney’s off-screen antics -- grab the teenage star by the lapels and yell, “You’re Andy Hardy! You’re America!”
In the early 1940s, Rooney earned a second Academy Award nomination as a teenager who comes of age during wartime in “The Human Comedy” and appeared opposite an adolescent Elizabeth Taylor in “National Velvet,” now considered a classic.
When such leading actors of his generation as Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn were asked who was the best actor in Hollywood, they both immediately named Rooney, Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne recalled while interviewing author Gore Vidal, who said the same.
“Tennessee Williams, who knew more about actors than anybody in our time ... said, ‘There’s only one great actor in the United States and that is Mickey Rooney.... He can do anything. He sings, he dances, he can make you weep. He can play tragedy, he can play comedy,’” Vidal said in 2007 while introducing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the 1935 film with a teenage Rooney as Puck.
Decades later, Rooney received an Oscar nomination for his subtly drawn performance as a horse trainer in the 1979 film “The Black Stallion.” The next year, Rooney was nominated for a Tony Award for his Broadway debut in “Sugar Babies,” a musical tribute to burlesque that he called “the resurrection of my career.”
“I was a famous has-been before it,” he told The Times in 1981.
Through the long-running hit musical, Rooney once again found popular success and took the show on the road for years. A New York Times review of a 1985 touring “Sugar Babies” production called Rooney “one of those rare performers who gives his entire being to the audience in an attempt to please.”
One interviewer encapsulated a repeated criticism of Rooney -- that he was always acting -- by describing a conversation with him as “one long monologue punctuated by pauses for applause.”
When he was in his early 70s, Rooney joked about the fallout from a life lived in the spotlight: “When I open a refrigerator door and the light goes on, I want to perform.”
Mickey Rooney was born Joseph Yule Jr. on Sept. 23, 1920, in New York City. His parents were the vaudeville entertainers Joe and Nell Yule. When he was about 18 months old, he joined their act, singing the sentimental “Pal of My Cradle Days” while wearing a tiny tuxedo.
His parents split up when he was 4, and mother and son soon headed to Hollywood. By 1926, Rooney had his first film role, as a midget, in “Not to be Trusted.”
Soon he was cast in the Mickey McGuire movie shorts, made first as silent films and then talkies. More than 60 were produced between 1927 and 1934, “when the Depression flattened everything,” the 5-foot, 3-inch Rooney wrote in his 1991 autobiography “Life Is Too Short.”
Rooney was so closely identified with the little tough guy he played in the series, he began using the name Mickey McGuire but eventually dropped the last name because of legal issues. A studio publicist and his mother suggested “Rooney.”
In 1939, he starred in five films, including “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and three Andy Hardy movies.
After entertaining the troops overseas for two years while serving in the Army during World War II, Rooney was unable to recapture his early stardom. Part of the problem stemmed from his personal troubles, which eroded his studio-polished Andy Hardy image -- especially the quick failure of his marriage to the 19-year-old Gardner.
Gardner later wrote that she didn’t fit in with Rooney’s lifestyle of “boozing, broads, golfing, and hangers-on.”
Within two years of returning from the war, he found that acting work was drying up and his relationship with MGM ended. Struggling, he reinvented himself as a character actor and increasingly turned to TV. Yet he received another Oscar nomination during this period for his intense performance as a doomed G.I. in the 1956 war movie “The Bold and the Brave.”
Portraying a Japanese fashion photographer in the 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “he made Hollywood ... notice that if he was no longer exactly a leading man, he was at least a very fine character actor,” biographer Arthur Marx wrote in “The Nine Lives of Mickey Rooney” (1986).
Rooney would eventually have roles in more than 300 films and television projects and make dozens of TV appearances as himself.
In 1962, he declared the first of two bankruptcies, blaming gambling -- he had a penchant for racetrack betting -- and alimony for the loss of $12 million in career earnings. By then he was married for the fifth time, to Barbara Ann Thomason, later killed in a murder-suicide by her lover in 1966. Two more marriages followed before he turned 50, helping to turn his personal life into a well-worn punch line that fueled the perception that he was finished in Hollywood.
He continued to work, making about three dozen movies during the 1960s and ‘70s. Rooney once said that his films were so forgettable, even he needed a movie guide to remember them.
In the mid-1970s, Rooney claimed that he found Christianity after a mysterious busboy leaned over in a Lake Tahoe coffee shop and whispered, “Jesus loves you.”
At one point, Rooney made $500 a night circulating at private parties pretending to be a friend of the host. He turned to alcohol and played the horses, The Times reported in 1999. He filed for bankruptcy again in 1996.
Rooney proudly declared that he followed W.H. Auden’s counsel: “Thou shalt not live within thy means.”
Eventually, Rooney kept busy on the dinner-theater circuit, performing in the comedy “Three Goats and a Blanket” for nearly a decade.
He credited his eighth wife for his rebirth as a contemporary performer, saying she had pushed him to get back out there. At her urging, he accepted the role in “Sugar Babies,” a musical that eulogized his show-business roots.
For years, the couple toured in “Let’s Put on a Show!” -- named in honor of the catchphrase from the backyard musicals Rooney made with Garland. His wife sang classic standards while Rooney recounted anecdotes from his career and showed film clips. Together, they performed duets.
He received two honorary Oscars, in 1938 and 1982. The first was for his achievement as a juvenile actor, while the last acknowledged “60 years of versatility in a variety of memorable performances.”
In his acceptance speech, Rooney voiced a truth of stardom that resonated inside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion: “When I was 19 years old, I was the No. 1 star of the world for two years. When I was 40, nobody wanted me. I couldn’t get a job.”
Nelson is a former Times staff writer.