Mickey Rooney, versatile actor and master showman, dies at 93

(Reuters) – Actor Mickey Rooney, who became the United States’ biggest movie star while a brash teenager in the 1930s and later a versatile character actor in a career that spanned 10 decades, died on Sunday of natural causes, Los Angeles authorities said. He was 93.

Mickey Rooney
Mickey Rooney

Rooney, who developed a reputation as a hard-partying, off-screen brat in his heyday and married eight times, died at his home in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles County coroner’s office said, citing information from the Los Angeles Police Department.

“He was undoubtedly the most talented actor that ever lived.

There was nothing he couldn’t do,” said actress Margaret O’Brien, who recently worked with Rooney on a film adaption of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Actress Rose Marie, a long-time friend of Rooney, said he was one of the greatest talents show business had ever had. “I shall miss him and the world shall miss him,” she said in a statement.

Other stars took to Twitter to express their sadness about Rooney’s death.

“RIP Mickey Rooney. We can only be awed and grateful for so many great performances,” actress Mia Farrow said.

Actor William Shatner described him as “one of the greats,” and author Anne Rice said he was not only an actor but a legend.

“Sad to think of him gone. But what an amazing life he lived,” Rice added on Twitter.

Rooney was an entertainer almost from the day he was born in New York on September 23, 1920. His parents, Joe Yule Sr. and Nell, had a vaudeville act and Joe Jr., as he was known then, was not yet 2 when he became a part of it, appearing in a miniature tuxedo.

As he grew older, Rooney added dancing and joke-telling to his stage repertoire before landing his first film role as a cigar-smoking little person in the silent short Not to Be Trusted.

After his parents split, Rooney and his mother moved to California where she steered him into a movie career. He was about 7 when he was cast as the title character in the “Mickey McGuire” series of film shorts that ran from 1927 to 1934. Nell even had his name changed to Mickey McGuire before changing the last name back to Rooney when he began getting other roles.

As a teenager, Rooney was cute, diminutive – he topped out at 5 feet 2 inches – and bursting with hammy energy. Those attributes served him well when he was cast as the wide-eyed, wise-cracking Andy Hardy in a series of films that would give movie-goers a brief opportunity to forget the lingering woes of the Great Depression in the late 1930s.

‘KID’ OSCAR

The first “Andy Hardy” film, A Family Affair in 1937, became a surprise hit and led to a series of 16, with Rooney’s character becoming the main focus and helping make him the biggest box-office attraction of 1939 and 1940. The Hardy films were wholesome, sentimental comedies in which Andy would often learn a valuable lesson from his wise father, Judge Hardy.

In 1938, Rooney and Deanna Durbin received miniature Academy Awards for juveniles.

“Call him cocky and brash but he has the sort of exuberant talent that keeps your eyes on the screen,” the New York Times said of Rooney in a 1940 review.

It was in Love Finds Andy Hardy that he first worked with Judy Garland, who was on the verge of superstardom herself with The Wizard of Oz.

They made two more Hardy movies together and in 1939 were cast together in Babes in Arms, a Busby Berkeley musical about two struggling young entertainers that earned Rooney, then 19, an Academy Award nomination.

Movie-goers loved the lively “let’s put on a show!” chemistry that Rooney and Garland brought to the screen. They were paired again in Girl Crazy in 1943.

“We weren’t just a team, we were magic,” Rooney said in a stage show about his life.

Rooney proved he could handle serious roles, too, with a notable performance in 1938 in Boys Town as a troubled kid helped out by a kindly priest played by Spencer Tracy.

He picked up another Oscar nomination for The Human Comedy in 1943 and starred with Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet in 1944.

Off the screen, the young Rooney was the Justin Bieber of his time. His fame, money, gambling, lust and mercurial nature were problems for the MGM studio, which did not like seeing its young star sully his reputation and box-office potential.

RETOOLED CAREER

The studio assigned a full-time staffer to keep Rooney out of trouble, but his antics still frequently ended up in gossip columns. MGM was greatly upset when Rooney, 21, married Ava Gardner, then a 19-year-old aspiring actress, in 1942. The marriage lasted barely a year.

From 1939 to 1941 Rooney had ranked as the top US male box-office attraction. After he returned from serving the military as an entertainer during World War Two, the public was growing weary of seeing him play teenagers and he would have to retool his career.

“I was a 14-year-old boy for 30 years,” he once said.

After the rush of stardom, Rooney was battered by a stalled career, drug and gambling addictions, bad marriages, a failed production company and the deep financial problems they caused. He lost his hair and grew paunchy but he persevered.

“I’m a ham who wants to be a small part of anything,” he told the Times.

He took small parts, worked in lesser movies and tried a couple of television shows. He picked up two more Oscar nominations for 1956’s The Bold and the Brave and The Black Stallion in 1979.

In 1979 he also broke through on Broadway, harking back to his vaudeville beginnings with Sugar Babies, a burlesque-style revue with MGM tap dancer Ann Miller in which he sang, danced and dressed in drag. He said the role saved him from being “a famous has-been.”

“The American public is my family,” Rooney said. “I’ve had fun with them all my life.”

Rooney won an Emmy and a Golden Globe in 1982 for the TV movie Bill, playing a mentally handicapped man trying to live on his own. He was given a lifetime achievement Oscar in 1983.

In 1978 he found a lasting marriage with country singer Jan Chamberlin. In his late 80s they toured the country with a song-and-dance act.

Rooney, who had five sons and five daughters, told a US Senate committee on aging that he had been emotionally and financially abused by family members. He later said Christopher Aber, Chamberlin’s son, had deprived him of food and medicine, prevented him from leaving the house and meddled in his financial affairs.

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