Few actors had as diverse a career as Mickey Rooney, a film star who literally did a bit of everything during a showbiz run that spanned 10 decades. But the actor, who died Sunday at the age of 93, found his greatest fame as Hollywood's first A-list teenage star.
A gifted comic and dramatic actor who could also sing, dance, and play several instruments, Rooney first won over audiences as irrepressible youngster Andy Hardy, and later struck gold with a handful of musicals in which he co-starred with Judy Garland. Between the Rooney/Garland musicals and the Hardy pictures, Rooney was Hollywood's top box office draw between 1939 and 1941.
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But Rooney was also the first teen star who had to transition into adulthood in the public eye. In time, he matured into a gifted character actor, but he also suffered more than his share of growing pains in a stormy private life that saw him marry eight times and fight addiction to alcohol and gambling as well as dealing with a number of failed business ventures, before he found happiness and stability in the 1970s.
Born Into Show Business
Mickey Rooney was born Joe Yule Jr. on Sept. 23, 1920, in Brooklyn, New York. He was a performer almost from birth, joining his parents' vaudeville act when he was just 17 months old. When Rooney was only four, his parents split up, and his mother struggled to keep her children housed and fed before Mickey was cast in a comedy short called "Not to Be Trusted" in 1926. In 1927, he became a minor star, appearing in a series of short comedies bases on the comic strip "Mickey McGuire," but his real break came after he signed a contract with MGM in 1934.
Three years later, in 1937, Rooney's career really took off. He appeared in "A Family Affair," the movie that introduced the Andy Hardy character, and co-starred in "Thoroughbreds Don't Cry," an energetic musical featuring Judy Garland. Both were hits and pointed to the future for Rooney: Andy Hardy would become the dominant character in the many sequels to "A Family Affair" (15 in all), and Rooney and Garland became one of Hollywood's best loved star pairings. MGM also cast Rooney in glossy dramatic vehicles like "Young Thomas Edison" and "National Velvet," and audiences seemingly couldn't get enough of the young star.
Rooney Grows Up
While Rooney played a clean cut, well-mannered teenager on screen, off screen it didn’t take long for him to develop a taste for the wild life. Rooney was a notorious ladies' man who was romantically linked with many women, some of them married (among them Norma Shearer, whose husband was MGM production chief Irving Thalberg). Rooney wed sex symbol Ava Gardner in 1942; they divorced just a year later, and it was the first of eight trips to the altar for him. Rooney also developed a strong taste for alcohol and enjoyed betting on the horses, though he rarely won.
Rooney's appetites were growing more mature and so was he, and in 1944, he was drafted into the Army. When Rooney returned, the diminutive actor seemed too old to be playing Andy Hardy, and 1946's "Love Laughs at Andy Hardy," in which the character returns home after a hitch in the service, turned out to be the last in the series. (Rooney would unsuccessfully attempt to revive the franchise with "Andy Hardy Comes Home" in 1958.) MGM seemed unsure what to do with the more adult Mickey Rooney, and in 1949, they dropped his contract.
Movie Star Turned Character Actor
By the spring of 1950, Rooney was supporting a wife and three children as well as two ex-wives, and with starring roles in A-list productions becoming increasingly rare, the actor began taking any work he could get – movies, television projects, theater, even a song and dance act that played in Las Vegas. In a throwback to his childhood days in vaudeville, Rooney became a journeyman performer, with occasional prestige projects sandwiched in between sitcom appearances and low-budget movies. His drinking and gambling habits grew, and he continued to struggle with marriage and divorce.
While Rooney worked steadily through the 1960s, it was in the late 1970s that his career and life began to find their footing. Mid-decade, Rooney experienced a spiritual rebirth, which he credited with helping him finally conquer his gambling and alcohol abuse. In 1978, he wed vocalist Jan Chamberlin, which became the longest and most satisfying marriage of his life. A year later, Rooney landed a role in the celebrated family adventure "The Black Stallion" that earned him an Oscar nomination. And the same year, he co-starred in a burlesque review called "Sugar Babies." The show was a hit that ran three years on Broadway and scored Rooney a Tony nomination.
Hollywood's Elder Statesman
In 1981, Rooney won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his work in the TV movie "Bill," in which he played a mentally handicapped man learning to live on his own. Two years later, Rooney received a lifetime achievement Academy Award, "in recognition of his 50 years of versatility in a variety of memorable film performances." Though these two triumphs didn't lead to many similarly juicy roles, Rooney maintained a busy schedule in his final decades, working on television and in film projects and making occasional live appearances with Chamberlin.
While Rooney was involved in a potentially embarrassing scandal when his son-in-law was accused of physically and verbally intimidating the actor and interfering with his financial affairs, it led to a moving appearance before a Senate committee investigating elder abuse, in which he encouraged fellow victims to step forward and take action without shame. It proved to be one of Rooney's most powerful public appearances.