If there was anyone who could be said to be literally born into show business, it was Mickey Rooney. From his debut in Vaudeville at only 17 months of age, he remained a star until the day he died. It was said of Rooney that he could do it all: act, sing, play piano and drums, and anything else that was needed.
His son, Michael Joseph Rooney, confirmed Mickey’s death on April 6. Mickey was 93.
Rooney was born Ninian Joseph Yule Jr. in Brooklyn on Sept. 23, 1920. His father, Joe Yule Sr., was a headliner on the second-rate Vaudeville circuits, and his mother, Nell Carter, danced in a burlesque chorus line. Known as Sonny Yule, he grew up in boarding houses and practically lived backstage. His parents divorced when he was 4, his mother returning home to Kansas City, Missouri. It looked as though he would get the chance to lead a normal childhood when his mother spotted a notice in Variety that Hal Roach was looking for children for his Our Gang comedies.
Roach’s offer to Sonny’s mother was $5 a day, but she declined, waiting for a better offer. When none was forthcoming, she and Sonny returned to Kansas City for a while, then returned to Hollywood, where Sonny secured a job in a musical revue for $50 a week. A few months later he was in a Fox short titled Not to Be Trusted, under the name of Mickey McBan. His mother then answered an audition call for the role of Mickey McGuire in a series of shorts based on the popular “Toonerville Trolley” comic strip. He won the lead, and as Mickey Yule, appeared in 78 of the shorts from 1927 to 1932. When not acting on the screen, he provided the voice for Walter Lantz’s “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” cartoons, released through Universal Studios. His mother wanted to change his professional to Mickey McGuire, but when “Toonerville Trolley” comic strip creator Fontaine Fox objected, she chose the moniker Mickey Rooney instead.
Rooney signed on with MGM in 1934. His first notable role for the studio was playing Clark Gable as a boy in Manhattan Melodrama. He continued moving up the ladder, with roles in Ah, Wilderness (1935), and reprising his stage role as Puck in Max Reinhardt’s adaptation of A Midsummer’s Night Dream for Warners, where he appeared with James Cagney, Joe E. Brown, and Olivia de Havilland.
However, it was his role in a minor B film that sealed his path to stardom. A Family Affair, based on a 1928 Broadway play by Aurania Rouverol called “Skidding,” told of the trials and tribulations of the Hardy family in Carvel, Idaho. As Andy Hardy, youngest child of Judge James K. Hardy (Lionel Barrymore), Rooney’s part was strictly supporting, but the film took off at the box office and MGM decided to make a series out of it. Lewis Stone would take over the role of Judge Hardy for the rest of the series’ run, and Rooney saw his role as Andy turn from supporting to lead as the public couldn’t get enough of the Hardy family adventures. The series lasted for 15 films and is estimated to have earned over $75 million. He also won plaudits later that year for his role as a young deckhand in Captains Courageous with Spencer Tracy.
Although the public saw Rooney as the squeaky clean Andy Hardy, his off-screen persona was said to be more in line with Whitey Marsh, the delinquent he played in 1938’s Boys Town. Jackie Cooper said it was Joan Crawford who initiated him into the world of adult sex. For the 16-year old Rooney, it was none other than Norma Shearer. They had a hot and heavy affair while Shearer was filming Marie Antoniette, making so much noise in her trailer that the crew on the film complained to Louis Mayer himself. The death of her beloved husband, Irving Thalberg, and the continuing mental problems of her sister, Athole (married at the time to Howard Hawks), were said to have driven Shearer off the rails, and Rooney was but one in a long line of lovers (including Jimmy Stewart and George Raft) she took until she wed for the second, and last, time in 1942. For his part in the scandal, MGM severely reprimanded Rooney, and the studio publicity machine kept it quiet. They weren’t going to lose their cash cow if it could at all be helped. In fact, it wasn’t until Rooney spilled the beans in his autobiography, Life is Too Short, that the general public knew of the affair.
Looking around for other vehicles for Rooney, MGM again hit pay dirt when it decided to team him with their number one ingénue, Judy Garland. Having discovered positive buzz in their first film, Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry (1937), with Mickey playing a jockey tricked into throwing a race and Garland as the young woman who tries to help him, the studio next paired them in an Andy Hardy entry, 1938’s Love Finds Andy Hardy, with Garland playing Betsy Booth, a young lady visiting her relative, who lives next door to the Hardys. Though she has a crush on Andy, he regards her as too young. But she comes through at the end and gets Andy out of a jam with regular girlfriend Polly Benedict (Ann Rutherford). The character of Betsy proved so popular with the movie-going public that Garland reprised it in two later films: Andy Hardy Meets Debutante (1940) and Life Begins For Andy Hardy (1941).
Meanwhile, MGM also teamed the pair in a series of “Hey kids, let’s put on a show” musicals, beginning with Babes in Arms in 1939, where they put on a show to raise money for their out-of-work parents. It was MGM’s biggest money grosser of 1939 and earned Rooney an Oscar nomination as Best Actor. It was followed by Strike Up the Band (1940), where they raised money for a high school band contest; Babes on Broadway (1941), where they put on a show to send orphans on an excursion to the country; and, finally, Girl Crazy (1943), where they staged a rodeo to save their college from financial ruin. But the plots, such as they were, really didn’t matter. What really mattered was Judy’s voice, Mickey’s brashness and pluck, the music by such legends as the Gershwin brothers, and Rogers and Hart, among others, and the direction by veteran Busby Berkeley.
The year 1939 saw Rooney at the top of his game. That year, theater owners voted him the No. 1 box office star, ahead of second-place finisher Tyrone Power. In 1940, Rooney again took the crown, this time over Spencer Tracy. And in 1941, he made it three in a row, beating out Clark Gable. Also, at the 1939 Academy Awards, he and Deanna Durbin were presented with special juvenile Oscars for their contributions to the cinema. Besides the Hardy series and the musicals with Garland, Rooney also kept busy in films like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939), Young Tom Edison (1940), Men of Boys Town (1941), A Yank at Eton(1942), The Human Comedy (1943 and his second Oscar nomination), and National Velvet (1944), with Elizabeth Taylor and his first adult role.
He was drafted into the Army in 1944 and until 1946 served in the Jeep Theater, a traveling troupe entertaining the troops, and acting as a personality on the American Forces Radio Network.
After his wartime service, however, he had a difficult time fitting back into Hollywood. MGM cast him in a new adult image as the lead in Killer McCoy, a remake of Robert Taylor’s 1938 boxing opus, The Crowd Roars. He also starred with Gloria DeHaven in the musical, Summer Holiday (1948), and as Lorenz Hart in Words and Music, a biopic about the songwriting team of Hart and Rodgers. But all three films failed at the box office; audiences now saw the qualities that made Rooney such a fan favorite during his earlier years as dated and annoying. Rooney settled his MGM contract in 1948 after a dispute about not being cast in their prestige 1948 war drama, Battleground, and began freelancing, appearing in nightclubs and in such forgettable fare as The Big Wheel (1949), Quicksand (1950), The Strip (1951), The Atomic Kid (1954), and Francis in the Haunted House (1956), where he took over from the departed Donald O’Connor as the talking mule’s sidekick. There were some gems in the mix, such as The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), The Bold and the Brave (1956, for which he garnered a Supporting Actor nomination), and Baby Face Nelson (1957), but these were few and far between. He tried to rekindle the magic with 1958’s Andy Hardy Comes Home, only to discover that the magic had left long ago.
Rooney fell victim to a series of demons in the ‘40s, including gambling (playing the ponies and craps), sleeping pills, alcohol, and, of course, marriage. Rooney was a serial monogamist, with eight marriages under his belt. He would divorce six times, with the divorce complaints focusing on the same issues: his fiery temper and his propensity to leave home for days and even weeks at a time.
The first of his marriages was to the 19-year old Ava Gardner in 1942 (he was 21). MGM fought against the marriage, and the subsequent divorce one year later. His next wife was Alabama beauty queen Betty Jane Phillips, who gave him sons Mickey Rooney Jr. and Tim Rooney. They would divorce in 1949. Spouse number three was actress Martha Vickers, who made a big splash as Lauren Bacall’s troubled sister in the 1946 noir, The Big Sleep. That union lasted until September 1952 and produced a son, Teddy Rooney. Mickey wasn’t back in circulation for long when he married spouse number four, Elaine Mahnken, who divorced her first husband while he was on probation for armed robbery. She took over the finances and brought Mickey to the cusp of solvency. He repaid her by going to Las Vegas and losing $50,000. That was that and they were granted a divorce in September 1958.
Again, Mickey wasn’t on the market for long when he married wife number five, Barbara Thomason, an aspiring actress. They had four children together: daughters Kimmy Sue Rooney, Kerry Yule Rooney, Kelly Ann Rooney, and son Joseph Kyle Rooney. It was during this marriage that Rooney declared bankruptcy, listing $500 cash in assets and almost $500,000 in debts, including $100,000 in delinquent taxes. In a settlement with the IRS, Rooney was grated an allowance of $200 a month, which forced him to borrow money to play the horses. But at least Barbara didn’t divorce him. A month after they separated in December 1965 and began a custody battle, Barbara Thomason Rooney was shot to death in Rooney’s Brentwood home by jealous lover Milos Milosevic, who then turned the gun on himself. The hit Rooney took in splashy tabloid publicity made him poison to many producers.
Rooney remained at large for a slightly longer period before wedding wife number six, Margaret Lane, in September 1966. That marriage had even less staying power, as the couple divorced in December 1967. It wasn’t until May 1969 that he wed spouse number seven, Carolyn Hockett. They had daughter Jonelle, and Mickey adopted Carolyn’s son, Jimmy, from a previous marriage. This one lasted almost six years, ending in divorce on January 24, 1975.
The multiple marriages and his other addictions, combined with an impulsive, mercurial nature, left Rooney is a state of perpetual need of funds. It was said that he earned $12 million before he was 40, and spent even more. When he was in desperate need of funds, playing Las Vegas was a safety valve – of sorts. As he said in his autobiography, he would often make $17,500 a week, then lose twice that amount at the crap tables.
At one point, in 1950, he was reduced to hawking Hadacol, a tonic with supposed health benefits (ironically, not unlike Vitajex) while touring the South with the “Hadacol Caravan,” an all-star revue extolling the dietary marvels of the product that also included celebrities like Milton Berle, Carmen Miranda, Chico Marx, Bob Hope, Cesar Romero, and Judy Garland, among others. Admission to the show was two Hadacol boxtops for adults and one for children. (Hadacol usually ran from $1.25 for 8-ounces to $3.50 for the 24-ounce “family size.”) Its inventor, Dudley LeBlanc, made over $10 million from sales until the government clamped down when it tested the mixture and discovered the “health” benefit came from it being 24 proof (12% alcohol).
And when films and Vegas proved to be not enough, there was television. He had a short-lived television series (33 episodes) on NBC in 1954-55. In 1957, he accepted a role on Playhouse 90 that a half-dozen other actors refused – that of a vicious, greedy and egomaniacal comedian named Sammy Hogarth in the teleplay, “The Comedian,” with a teleplay by Rod Serling and direction by John Frankenheimer. It was both a critical and commercial triumph, earning Rooney his first Emmy nomination. He followed this the next year with another critical triumph on Alcoa Theater starring in “Eddie,” a teleplay about a bookie who owes a fortune to loan sharks. He has until 6 pm to pay up, or else. It earned him another Emmy nomination.
However, no matter how any televised triumphs Rooney appeared in, his demons always left him broke and scratching for funds. He even tried his hand at directing, but the results were uneven at best. He did get to co-direct one of the all-time laff riots with Albert Zugsmith, The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (1960), in which he also starred, playing the Devil in, of all things, a padded snake suit.
But somehow he managed to revive his acting career by shifting his roles from leading to supporting. In 1961, he made a splash of sorts in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, playing the Japanese landlord, Mr. Yunioshi. His broad, over-the-top, stereotypical performance is condemned today, but in 1961, it was considered hysterical. Rooney followed this with roles in the critically acclaimed Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962) as Army, a boxing trainer who doesn’t want to sell his fighter down the river into a career as a pro wrestler. He also had a small, but lucrative, role in Stanley Kramer’s all-star extravaganza, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World(1963), as Ding Bell, who with buddy Benjy Benjamin (Buddy Hackett) is one of many chasing after a hidden fortune.
But, driven by his need for cash, he would take any role offered, starring with Hackett in Everything’s Ducky (1961) as two sailors who sneak their talking duck aboard their ship. It was a bad as it sounds. Another low budget wonder was AIP’s How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), the last of the popular “Beach Party” series with Frankie and Annette. Rooney was “Peachy Keane,” a scheming ad executive looking for “the boy next door” and “the girl next door” for an advertising campaign. Also during this period he attempted another television series, this one called Mickey, where he played a hapless hotel owner. However, despite winning a Golden Globe Award, it only lasted for 13 episodes.
After the death of wife Barbara in January 1966, the resulting scandalous publicity made work hard to come by for Rooney. He would continue to plug away in mediocre movies such as Otto Preminger’s trainwreck, Skidoo (1968), the numbingly dull The Extraordinary Seaman (1969), and the excruciating The Comic(1969), with Dick Van Dyke. He would also pay the bills by guest starring on shows like “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” “The Dean Martin Show,” and “The Carol Burnett Show.” He also made 13 appearances on “Hollywood Squares” between 1969 and 1976, and made 15 appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” between 1970 and 1973.
He would personally hit bottom with the death of Judy Garland in 1969. Liza Minnelli has been quoted as saying that she wanted Rooney to give the eulogy at her mother’s funeral, but decided against it because Rooney’s emotional state made her feel that he might not be able to get through it, given his long and close friendship with Garland.
Things began to turn around for Rooney in the 70s. He gave up the booze and drugs and became a born-again Christian. In 1978, he wed his eighth – and final – wife, Jan Chamberlain, a country singer he met through son Mickey Rooney Jr. Their marriage lasted longer than his previous seven combined. (They would permanently separate, though, in 2012.) Jan brought a focus to her husband’s life, making him the star of their show.
In 1979, Rooney gained some of his best notices and his last Oscar nomination for his performance as Henry Dailey, a once successful horse trainer who receives one last shot at immortality in The Black Stallion. In 1981, he finally won an Emmy Award for his turn in the television movie Bill as a developmentally disabled man who has spent most of his life in an institution and must adjust to living in the outside world. A reprise of the role in the 1983 sequel, Bill: On His Own, led to his fifth – and final – Emmy nomination. Also, in 1983, he was awarded an honorary Oscar by the Academy “in recognition of his 60 years of versatility in a variety of film performances.”
In 1979, Rooney, along with fellow MGM hoofer Ann Miler, was approached by the duo of Ralph G. Allen and Al Dubin about starring on Broadway in an old-fashioned burlesque revue called Sugar Babies. He threw himself into the project with renewed energy, relying on his years in vaudeville to whip a motley collection of burlesque skits into shape. He would argue with the producers over every skit and every song, and was vindicated when the show opened on October 8, 1979, to ecstatic reviews from critics and strong sales. Both Rooney and Miller were nominated for Tony Awards. It would run for nearly three years after 1,208 performances. A road company with Carol Channing and Robert Morse headlining was unsuccessful – people wanted to see Mickey Rooney – so Rooney stayed four more years on the road with the show. In 1991, he returned to Broadway to star in The Will Rogers Follies, a review that played from May 1, 1991, to September 5, 1993, and 981 performances. And in 2007, he and wife Jan began touring in what they described as a “one man, one wife” show with the nostalgic title “Let’s Put On a Show.”
The coming of the new millennium failed to slow Rooney, as he appeared in Night at the Museum (2006) and The Muppets (2011) in addition to other movies. At the time of his death he was working on a new version of Jekyll and Hyde. His last live appearance was as a special guest on the TCM Classic Cruise in January 2013.
In 2011, Rooney obtained a restraining order against his stepson Christopher Aber and Mr. Aber’s wife, Christina, charging them with withholding food and medicine and forcing him to sign over his assets. He later filed suit against them, which was settled in 2013, with the Abers agreeing that they owed Rooney $2.8 million.
Also in 2011, Rooney repeated his allegations against the Abers in testimony before the Senate Special Committee on Aging, which is considering legislation to curb abuses of senior citizens.
He is survived by wife Jan Chamberlin; sons Mickey Rooney Jr., Theodore Michael Rooney, Michael Joseph Rooney, and adopted son Jimmy Rooney; daughters Kelly Ann Rooney, Kerry Rooney, Kimmy Sue Rooney, and Jonelle Rooney. Son Tim Rooney died in 2006.
Besides his autobiography, Life Is Too Short, Rooney also published a murder mystery, The Search for Sonny Skies, in 1994.
He was a co-owner for many years of the Mickey Rooney Tabas Hotel in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.
In Life Is Too Short, Rooney mentions a brothel called "The T&M Studio," where the girls looked like Hollywood starlets. Although there were many rumors of such a brothel, no one would admit to ever having been there, or even verify its existence. Rooney also wrote that Groucho Marx had taken him there once, and Groucho appeared to be on a first-name basis with many of the hookers.
According to one story, Mickey Mouse was supposedly named for Rooney. It seems that Walt Disney saw young Rooney while working on the first drawings of what was to become Mickey Mouse. He asked the child actor what he thought of the drawings and also asked what his name was. This later was proven to be false.
Rooney broke his leg while filming A Midsummer’s Night Dream and was doubled by George Breakston in many scenes. Breakston would later go on to play “Beezy” Anderson, Andy Hardy’s best friend, in the Hardy Family series.
Rooney is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for longest movie career: 89 years (1925-2014).
Norman Lear considered him for role of Archie Bunker, but Rooney rejected the project just as Jackie Gleason had because of the controversial nature of the role.
THE ESSENTIAL MICKEY ROONEY
Death on the Diamond (MGM, 1934), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (WB, 1935), Ah, Wilderness! (MGM, 1935), A Family Affair (MGM, 1937), Captains Courageous (MGM, 1937), Love Finds Andy Hardy (MGM, 1938), Boys Town (MGM, 1938), Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever (MGM, 1939), Young Tom Edison(MGM, 1940), Strike Up the Band (MGM, 1940), The Human Comedy (MGM, 1943), Girl Crazy (MGM, 1943), National Velvet (MGM, 1944), Quicksand (UA, 1950), The Bridges at Toko-Ri (Paramount, 1954), The Bold and the Brave (RKO, 1956), Baby Face Nelson (UA, 1957), The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (Universal, 1960), Requiem for a Heavyweight (Columbia, 1962), The Black Stallion (UA, 1979), Bill (CBS, 1981), Night at the Museum (20th Century Fox, 2006), The Muppets (Walt Disney, 2011), Driving Me Crazy (Keith Black Films, 2012).