Mickey Rooney, one of the last remaining links to the age of vaudeville and classic Hollywood, has died at the age of 93. Few performers have enjoyed such long careers. Rooney, who was still appearing in movies and TV right up to the end of his life, began entertaining professionally before he was 2 years old, making his film debut at the age of six. He endured the full showbiz loop and then some, going from being one of the most popular, highest-paid stars in the industry to a bankrupt has-been, then maturing into a living legend. In his constant search for worthy roles as an adult, Rooney—who never grew beyond 5-foot-2—was hampered by the short frame and cherubic, elfin features that had made him one of the most successful child actors of all time. Nevertheless, Rooney always threw himself into whatever he was doing as though he’d refused to accept that he was under any limits at all—and more than a few times, he convinced the world he was right.
Rooney was born Joseph Yule, Jr. to parents who worked together in vaudeville. Young Joe made his unscheduled theatrical debut when he crawled onstage during their act when he was just 14 months old. Rooney later insisted that he knew even then that this was the place for him; his parents officially incorporated him into their act three months later. He got his big break in pictures when, starting with Mickey’s Circus, he was cast as the streetwise urchin Mickey McGuire in a successful series of shorts based on Fontaine Fox’s Toonerville Trolley comic strip.
Rooney appeared in 78 “Mickey McGuire” films between 1927 and 1934, by which time the series had gone from silent to sound and had proven the only franchise of its kind to challenge the durability and popularity of Hal Roach’s Our Gang. (Rooney’s mother had reportedly tried to get him into the Our Gang series, only to have producer Hal Roach—in one of those decisions that cause men to lie awake at night thinking about what might have been—underbid for his services.) Rooney became so identified with the role, he even billed himself as “Mickey McGuire” for a time, and later even tried to claim it as his legal name—all as part of a harebrained scheme by producers to cut Fontaine Fox out of royalties. The argument didn’t hold up in court, yet Rooney held on to the name “Mickey.”
By the time he left Mickey McGuire behind, Rooney was 13 years old and a seasoned film actor. Among his earliest roles, he played the boy who grows up to be Clark Gable in Manhattan Melodrama (1933), a movie that later gained infamy as the last one John Dillinger watched before being gunned down by the FBI. He also played Puck in an all-star production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which Max Reinhardt staged in 1934 at the Hollywood Bowl and filmed the following year, a performance that critic David Thomson admiringly described as “inhuman” and the earliest proof that Rooney was “not just an actor of genius, but an artist able to maintain a stylized commentary on the demon impulse of the small, belligerent man.” He also starred as Tommy Miller in the 1935 MGM version of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!
It was that last movie that indirectly launched Rooney into his second long-running film franchise, when MGM brought back much of its cast—including Lionel Barrymore as Judge Stone, and Rooney in the supporting role of his son, Andy—for 1937’s A Family Affair. The series really got going with You’re Only Young Once, released later that year, which replaced Barrymore with Lewis Stone and shifted the spotlight to Rooney’s teenage Andy. MGM’s Louis B. Mayer was a notorious bully and bigot, but he had a sentimental side and a streak of insecurity over his Russian-Jewish roots; with the Andy Hardy series, which ran for 15 features (as well as several PSA-style shorts, and one failed attempt to reboot the series 12 years after it ended with 1946’s Love Laughs At Andy Hardy), he set out to create and promote his studio’s version of the perfect American family, with Rooney as the idealized all-American boy. The series hit its zenith when Mayer paired Rooney with his pick for all-American girl, Judy Garland, who co-starred in Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), then returned for Andy Hardy Meet Debutante (1940) and Life Begins For Andy Hardy (1941).
Rooney and Garland had first appeared together in Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry (1937), one of the first of several movies in which Rooney played a jockey, Soon MGM was also pairing them up in musicals, including Babes In Arms (1939), Babes On Broadway (1941), Strike Up The Band (1940), and Girl Crazy (1943)—all directed or co-directed by Busby Berkeley. By turning Rooney loose on the dance floor or a drum kit, or giving him the chance to impersonate Carmen Miranda or Franklin Roosevelt (a sequence cut from Babes In Arms after the president’s death), these musicals suggested the movies had previously only tapped a fraction of Rooney’s manic energy.
In 1938, Rooney delved into his dark side to play the belligerent juvenile delinquent who begs to be admitted into the polite society of Boys Town. Spencer Tracy won the second of his two Oscars playing the authority figure to Rooney’s tough guy, having won his first Oscar a year earlier as the star of Captains Courageous—in which he also co-starred with Rooney. Rooney wasn’t nominated for either, but in 1939, he and Deanna Durbin were give special “Juvenile” Academy Awards in recognition of their “significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth, and as juvenile players setting a high standard of ability and achievement.” More than 40 years later, in 1983, Rooney was given an honorary Oscar “in recognition of his 50 years of versatility in a variety of memorable film performances.” In between, he was nominated for Best Actor three times and Best Supporting Actor once, without winning.
Rooney’s career peak was from 1939 to 1941, when he was named the No. 1 box-office star three years running, landing on the cover of Time magazine as the star of Young Tom Edison. In 1944, after wrapping up Andy Hardy’s Blonde Trouble and playing his best-known jockey role in National Velvet, the 23-year-old Rooney enlisted in the U. S. Army, spending his military service entertaining troops at home, overseas, and on the radio. After the war, he fought a losing struggle to maintain the level of popularity he’d enjoyed in his teens and early 20s.
Among his first comeback roles, Rooney starred in a remake of Ah, Wilderness called Summer Holiday, a film completed in 1946 but not released for two years. He then played the lyricist Lorenz Hart in the commercially disappointing 1948 biopic Words And Music, co-starring Tom Drake as Richard Rodgers. The film—which saw them reprise a performance of Rodgers and Hart’s “I Wish I Were In Love Again,” just like they’d sung in their first movie together—marked the final big-screen partnership between Rooney and Garland.
By the 1950s, Rooney was done at MGM and taking whatever free-agent work he could get, while also making a failed attempt to start his own production company. His public image was increasingly that of a faded joke—one that wasn’t helped by his tumultuous private life, particularly his steady stream of broken marriages. (He was married eight times in all, including brief liaisons with a not-yet-famous Ava Gardner and the actress Martha Vickers.) Stand-up comedians made fun of his love life and his transformation from young multi-millionaire to bankrupt.
Nevertheless, he kept working, piling up hundreds of credits. The standout roles from his post-MGM period include the doomed garage mechanic in the 1950 B-picture Quicksand, his introduction to the world of film noir; 1954’s Drive A Crooked Road, directed by his longtime friend Richard Quine; the 1955 war drama The Bold And The Brave, which won him his third Academy Award nomination; on TV in the 1957 Playhouse 90 production of Rod Serling’s The Comedian, contributing a terrifying portrayal of show business ego and power with the brakes off; as George M. Cohan in the 1957 TV production Mr. Broadway; as a jive-talking sergeant in Quine’s comedy Operation Mad Ball (1957); and opposite Carolyn Jones in the title role of Don Siegel’s grungy true-crime classic Baby Face Nelson (1957). And, of course, there was arguably the most infamous performance of his career: his bucktoothed, pop-eyed caricature of a Japanese photographer in Blake Edwards’ Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961).
By the early ‘60s, Rooney was paunchy, punchy, and, in the words of David Thomson, he “looked like a teenager trying to play the part of middle age.” Yet he’d also been in the business long enough to be discovered by audiences who hadn’t known him any other way. He settled into middle age as the loyal corner man in the movie version of Requiem For A Heavyweight (1956); as part of the all-star cast of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World (1963); in the 1963 Twilight Zone episode, “Last Night Of a Jockey”; in Otto Preminger’s notorious big-screen freakout Skidoo (1968); and John Frankenheimer’s unreleased The Extraordinary Seaman (1969). He also proved, in Carl Reiner’s The Comic (1969), that he could be just as remarkable playing a nice-guy comedian as he’d been playing an utter bastard; starred in the cult folly B. J. Lang Presents (1971); and appeared in Mike Hodges’ Pulp (1972) and the 1977 Disney feature Pete’s Dragon.
Rooney had an unexpected late-career apotheosis, starting with his Broadway debut in the burlesque-revue extravaganza Sugar Babies, and continuing with his role in Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion (1979). For that movie, he was nominated, for the last time, for an Academy Award. (Voters chose to give it instead to Melvyn Douglas for Being There.) In 1981, Rooney won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for playing the mentally challenged title character of the TV film Bill, and two years later reprised the role in Bill: On His Own.
With some 30 years of life and career still left to him, Rooney seemed very happy just to be able to keep busy. For 12 episodes, he co-starred with a young Dana Carvey and Nathan Lane in the TV sitcom One Of The Boys (1982); played Tim Robbins’ grandfather in Terry Jones’ Erik The Viking (1989); reprised his movie role in the 1990-1993 TV series The New Adventures Of The Black Stallion; and appeared in Babe: Pig In The City (1998), Night At The Museum (2006), The Muppets (2011), and episodes of ER, Full House, Murder, She Wrote, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues; Mike Hammer, Private Eye, and Remember WENN. He also made a memorable appearance on The Simpsons as himself, poking fun at his eagerness to work and his short-lived fame as a child star.
In 1997, Rooney sat down for a discussion of his career with Turner Classic Movies’ Robert Osbourne. The TCM 20th-anniversary special 20 Classic Moments excerpts a scene in which Rooney vividly re-enacts an argument he once had on the set with director Roy Rowland—a performance that confirms Baby Face Nelson was always in there somewhere.