Mickey Rooney, the pint-sized actor who was one of MGM’s giant box office attractions in the late ’30s and early ’40s, died on Sunday at his home in North Hollywood. He was 93.
As adept at comedy as drama and an excellent singer and dancer, Rooney was regarded as the consummate entertainer. During a prolific career on stage and screen that spanned eight decades (“I’ve been working all my life, but it seems longer,” he once said), he was nominated for four Academy Awards and received two special Oscars, the Juvenile Award in 1939 (shared with Deanna Durbin) and one in 1983 for his body of work.
He also appeared on series and TV and in made for television movies, one of which, “Bill,” the touching story of a mentally challenged man, won him an Emmy. He was Emmy nominated three other times. And for “Sugar Babies,” a musical revue in which he starred with Ann Miller, he was nominated for a Tony in 1980.
“I loved working with Mickey on ‘Sugar Babies.’ He was very professional, his stories were priceless and I love them all … each and every one. We laughed all the time,” said Carol Channing in a statement.
Both in his professional and personal life Rooney withstood many peaks and valleys. He was married eight times — first and most famously to his MGM co-star Ava Gardner — and filed for bankruptcy in 1962, having gone through the $12 million he had earned. And until middle age, he was never able to quite cast off his popularity as a juvenile. Nonetheless, Rooney’s highs more than compensated for his lows. Via his “Andy Hardy” series of films, the five-foot-three Rooney came to embody the virtues of small-town American boyhood. Those films and a series of musicals in which he co-starred with Judy Garland made him the nation’s biggest box office attraction for three years running.
Margaret O’Brien said she was recently working on a film with him, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” despite reports that he had been in ill health for some time. “Mickey was the only one at the studio that was ever allowed to call me Maggie. He was undoubtedly the most talented actor that ever lived. There was nothing he couldn’t do. Singing, dancing, performing … all with great expertise. Mickey made it look so easy. He seemed fine through the filming and was as great as ever,” said O’Brien in a statement. He was also set to appear in “Fragments From Olympus – The Vision of Nikola Tesla” and possibly in “Old Soldiers.”
Born Joseph Yule Jr. in Brooklyn, Rooney made his stage debut at age 15 months in his family’s vaudeville act, Yule and Carter, as a midget in a tuxedo. His first film role in the silent “Not to Be Trusted” also found him playing a midget. Even as a child he demonstrated the ability to be a consummate clown and to move audiences with his sentimental renditions of songs like “Pal of My Cradle Days.” After his parent’s divorce, his mother Nell answered an ad placed by cartoonist Fontaine Fox, who was looking for a child actor to play the comicstrip character Mickey McGuire in a series of silent comedy shorts. Rooney appeared in almost 80 episodes of the popular serial, which continued to be churned out by Standard Film Corp. until 1932. His mother wanted to legally change his name to McGuire, but when Fox objected, she chose Rooney instead.
As a teenager, Rooney appeared in many popular films including Tom Mix Western “My Pal the King” and, memorably, as Puck in Max Reinhardt’s 1935 adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In 1934, MGM signed him to a week-to-week contract; his first success was playing Clark Gable as a boy in “Manhattan Melodrama.” He slowly climbed up the star ladder, appearing in an adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah Wilderness” and in “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” “Captains Courageous” and “Boy’s Town,” the latter two alongside Spencer Tracy.
But it was “A Family Affair,” a B-movie adaptation of the minor Broadway play “Skidding,” that first brought the world the Hardy family and its irrepressible son Andy, “the perfect composite of everybody’s kid brother,” according to critic Frank S. Nugent. With the surprise success of “A Family Affair,” the Hardy family, which included Lewis Stone (replacing Lionel Barrymore) as Judge Hardy and Spring Byington as his wife, embarked on a 15-film series of adventures in Americana. As star of one of the most successful series in film history, Rooney was earning $150,000 a year before his 20th birthday. In 1939, he was voted a special Oscar by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences.
The following year he was nominated for best actor in the film musical version of “Babes in Arms” with Judy Garland. “Mickey Rooney can act the legs off a centipede,” wrote the critic for the Sunday Times in London. It was the first of several memorable pairings with Garland including “Strike Up the Band,” “Babes on Broadway” and “Girl Crazy.”
His performance in the 1943 version of William Saroyan’s “The Human Comedy” brought a second nomination, and he played his first adult role opposite Elizabeth Taylor in “National Velvet.”
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