Mickey Rooney obituary
The Guardian, By Ronald Bergan
Hollywood star and entertainer best known for National Velvet, Boys Town and his turbulent private life.
In 1938, the extraordinary, multi-talented 18-year-old Mickey Rooney was America’s No 1 box-office star, earning more than $300,000 annually. In 1939, he was awarded a special Oscar for his “spirit and personification of youth”.
In 1962, Rooney declared himself bankrupt, revealing that he had nothing left of the $12m he had earned over the years. After being an MGM luminary for a decade, he was forced to appear in dozens of B movies to pay off his debts and alimony payments (by then he had been married seven times). But Rooney, who has died aged 93, always lived by the creed of his profession: “the show must go on”.
He was in show business all his life. His father, Joseph Yule (known as "Red" Yule), and mother, Nell Carter, were in vaudeville, and Joe Yule Jr, born in Brooklyn, New York, first appeared on stage as part of the family act at the age of 17 months, playing a mouth organ. When his parents separated in 1924, he and his mother took off, in a Model T Ford, for Hollywood.
There he made his film debut, aged five, as a dwarf pretending to be a child in a short called Not to Be Trusted (1926), in which he had to puff on a cigar. In his first feature, Orchids and Ermine (1927), he played another cigar-smoking dwarf, who makes a pass at Colleen Moore. Soon, he was playing a mischievous child, Mickey McGuire, in a series of two-reel comedies, and legally changed his name to that of the character. In his unreliable memoirs, he claimed that Walt Disney named his mouse after him, and that Al Capone cried every time he heard him singing Pal o’ My Cradle Days at a club in Chicago.
He became Mickey Rooney in 1932 when he started to appear in features at MGM, the studio with which he was to be associated for the next 16 years, beginning by playing a variety of brash kids, including a younger version of Blackie Gallagher (with the adult Blackie played by Clark Gable) in Manhattan Melodrama in 1934, among the 10 pictures he appeared in that year. However, he made his first real impact when loaned out to Warner Brothers, where he was a delightful Puck in Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s all-star A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), although he broke a leg tobogganing during shooting and had to be wheeled around on a bicycle by concealed stagehands.
Previously, Rooney had appeared in the Reinhardt stage production in the Hollywood Bowl for a month. The New York Times declared his Puck had “an elfin quicksilver grace … and revealed a greater comprehension of his role than almost anyone in the cast”.
Back at MGM, he was the kid brother in Ah Wilderness! (1935), based on Eugene O’Neill’s play. (He was to take the lead in the splendid musical version, Summer Holiday, in 1948.) Mostly, however, Rooney played tough, working-class boys, opposed to prissy, patrician Freddie Bartholomew in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936), The Devil is a Sissy (1936) and Captains Courageous (1937).
In 1937, in a modest comedy called A Family Affair, Rooney played Andy Hardy, a small town judge’s son. It was the first of 15 vastly popular Hardy Family films – idealised, over-sentimental views of American life, but wonderfully entertaining. Although the indefatigable Andy was continually getting into scrapes, he respected his father (Lewis Stone), with whom he was always having man-to-man talks.
Off screen, Rooney was busily chasing women, and was seen at nightclubs with them, something Louis B Mayer objected to strenuously. “I don’t care what you do off camera,” he told Rooney, “just don’t do it in public. In public, behave. Your fans expect it. You’re Andy Hardy. You’re the United States. You’re the Stars and Stripes. Behave yourself. You’re a symbol.”
Besides appearing in other examples of warm-hearted Americana such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939), Young Tom Edison (1940) and The Human Comedy (1943), he was allowed to play a juvenile delinquent reformed by a priest (Spencer Tracy) in Boys Town (1938).
Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry in 1937 launched Mickey and Judy Garland as one of Hollywood’s great teams. Their combined youthful exuberance was amply displayed in several lively musicals such as Babes in Arms (1939), Strike Up the Band (1940) and Girl Crazy (1943), in all of which Rooney sang, danced, played musical instruments, did imitations and handled comic and emotional scenes with equal aplomb.
Despite Mayer’s objections, Rooney married Ava Gardner, a new MGM contract player, whom he met when she visited the set of Babes on Broadway (1941). But they soon found out they had little in common. While he was at the track or on the golf course, she sat at home. One day, she exploded. “You know, Mick, I’m goddamned tired of living with a midget,” she said, and left. Gardner was 5ft 6in, while Rooney was said to be 5ft 2in.
“I didn’t ask to be short,” Rooney complained. “I didn’t want to be short. I’ve tried to pretend that being a short guy didn’t matter. I tried to make up for being short by affecting a strut, by adopting the voice of a much bigger man, by spending more money than I made, by tipping double or triple at bars and restaurants, by dating tall, beautiful women.”
In 1944, after completing National Velvet, in which he was suitably dour as a former jockey helping Elizabeth Taylor to win the Grand National, Rooney joined the army. While based in Alabama, he met 17-year-old Betty Jane Rase, a beauty queen, whom he married a few weeks later. On his return from entertaining the troops in Europe, he found his wife, now the mother of his first child, Mickey Rooney Jr, too intellectually narrow for him. After the birth of a second son, they were divorced, and he married the actress Martha Vickers, mainly known for playing Lauren Bacall’s younger sister in The Big Sleep.
In 1948, his last year at MGM, in the fanciful biopic Words and Music, Rooney was well cast as the songwriter Lorenz Hart. At the same time, Rooney made one of his best films at the studio, Rouben Mamoulian’s colourful Summer Holiday, in which he was convincing as the adolescent suffering growing pains (he was then 26).
Having figuratively outgrown his juvenile roles, Rooney decided to go freelance, and his popularity started to wane. Yet he proved himself an able dramatic actor as a cocky racing driver in The Big Wheel (1949), a cocky roller-skating champ in The Fireball (1950) and a garage mechanic driven to crime in Drive a Crooked Road (1954). In the meantime, he had married another beauty queen, Elaine Devry (nee Mahnken), who appeared with him in The Atomic Kid (1954). “Women liked me because I made them laugh,” he explained. "What is an orgasm, after all, except laughter of the loins?"
In 1956, with his career on the slide and his fourth marriage on the rocks, Rooney drank heavily and popped pills. His Oscar nomination in 1957 for his performance as a soldier in The Bold and The Brave gave him a slight lift, as did his title role in Baby Face Nelson (1957), of which he had a percentage, and cabaret shows in Las Vegas. In 1958 he married Barbara Ann Thomason, wife No 5, with whom he had his first daughter.
Two daughters and a son later, Barbara left him for another man, an aspiring actor called Milos Milos. One night, after a jealous row, Milos shot Barbara and then himself, with four of Rooney’s children in the house. Rooney was devastated and took more drugs and drink. However, he still worked hard, appearing (embarrassingly) as Audrey Hepburn’s caricatured Japanese neighbour in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961); as a boxing trainer in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962); and in such trash classics as How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965).
He briefly married Thomason’s friend Marge Lane, then Carolyn Hockett, who worked in public relations. When that marriage fell through, Rooney turned to TV evangelists and the church of Religious Science for help, as well as embarking on various doomed get-rich-quick schemes.
At the time of his eighth marriage, to Jan Chamberlin, a country and western singer, in 1978, his career and morale began to pick up. He made his Broadway debut in 1979 in the wonderfully corny tribute to vaudeville, Sugar Babies, a big hit for which he unwisely waived a percentage of the profits in favour of a salary. He was again nominated for an Oscar for The Black Stallion (1979), in which he played an old-time horse trainer, and won a Golden Globe award for his portrayal of a man with learning disabilities coping with life outside an institution in Bill (1981).
In 1982, Rooney was presented with a special Oscar for lifetime achievement. He continued to work throughout the 1990s and beyond, appearing as a guest star on TV series such as ER, providing his voice for animated features and playing the title role in a stage version of The Wizard of Oz.
He was declared bankrupt again in 1996, owing $1.75m in back taxes. Nevertheless, Mickey Rooney bounced back as always, so that he was never outside the public eye for long.
Although his roles were not much more than cameos, his star presence was still felt in films such as Babe: Pig in the City (1998), in which he was a clown with a monkey act; the Ben Stiller comedy Night at the Museum (2006), still feisty as a retired nightwatchman; and The Muppets (2011). For three years running (2007, 2008, 2009), the still much loved Rooney appeared in British pantomime, playing Baron Hardup in Cinderella at the Sunderland Empire theatre, Bristol Hippodrome and the Milton Keynes theatre respectively.
He was last in the news in 2011, when he accused his stepson Christopher Aber and Aber’s wife, Christina, of "elder abuse" and financial exploitation.
His son Tim died in 2006. He is survived by Jan and eight children.
• Mickey Rooney (Joseph Yule), actor, born 23 September 1920; died 6 April 2014