Mickey Rooney

The Mickster

Mickey Rooney, the exuberant entertainer who led a roller-coaster life — the world’s top box-office star at 19 as the irrepressible Andy Hardy, a bankrupt has-been in his 40s, a comeback kid on Broadway as he neared 60 — died on Sunday. He was 93 and lived in Westlake Village, Calif.

His death was confirmed by his son Michael Joseph Rooney.

He stood only a few inches taller than five feet, but Mr. Rooney was larger and louder than life. From the moment he toddled onto a burlesque stage at 17 months to his movie debut at 6 to his career-crowning Broadway debut in “Sugar Babies” at 59 and beyond, he did it all. He could act, sing, dance, play piano and drums, and before he was out of short pants he could cry on cue.

As Andy Hardy, growing up in the idealized fictional town of Carvel, Mr. Rooney was the most famous teenager in America from 1937 to 1944: everybody’s cheeky son or younger brother, energetic and feverishly in love with girls and cars. The 15 Hardy Family movies, in which all problems could be solved by Andy’s man-to-man talks with his father, Judge Hardy (played by Lewis Stone), earned more than $75 million — a huge sum during the Depression years, when movie tickets rarely cost more than 25 cents.

In 1939, America’s theater owners voted Mr. Rooney the No. 1 box-office star, over Tyrone Power. That same year he sang and danced his way to an Oscar nomination for best actor in “Babes in Arms,” the first of the “Hey kids, let’s put on a show” MGM musicals he made with Judy Garland.

He was box-office king again in 1940, over Spencer Tracy, and in 1941, with Clark Gable taking second place. Three years earlier, in The New York Times, Frank S. Nugent had written of Mr. Rooney’s performance as the swaggering bully redeemed by Tracy’s Father Flanagan in “Boys Town”:

“Mickey is the Dead End gang rolled into one. He’s Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and King Kong before they grew up, or knew a restraining hand. Mickey, as the French would understate it, is the original enfant terrible.”

Mr. Rooney’s personal life was as dynamic as his screen presence. He married eight times. He earned $12 million before he was 40 and spent more. Impulsive, recklessly extravagant, mercurial and addicted to playing the ponies and shooting craps, he attacked life as though it were a six-course dinner.

Movie audiences first saw him as Mickey McGuire, a tough kid in a battered derby hat, in a series of two-reel shorts based on the comic strip “Toonerville Trolley.” (The first short in which he had a starring role, “Mickey’s Circus,” was thought to be lost, but a print was found, along with many other silent films, in the Netherlands in 2014.)

At 13, he auditioned for the role of the mischievous sprite Puck in the great Austrian producer-director Max Reinhardt’s 1934 Hollywood Bowl production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Though unfamiliar with Shakespeare, Mr. Rooney impressed Reinhardt, who cast him in the play and — along with James Cagney, Dick Powell and Olivia de Havilland — in the movie version he directed with William Dieterle a year later.

He was a sensation. “Rooney seems inhuman, he moves like mist or water, his body is burnished by the extraordinary light, and his gurgling laugh is ghostly and enchanting,” David Thomson wrote of Mr. Rooney’s performance in his “Biographical Dictionary of Film.” “Could such a performance have been directed? Rooney’s Puck is truly inhuman, one of cinema’s most arresting pieces of magic.”

Between 1936 and 1944, Mr. Rooney made more than three dozen movies. Under contract at MGM, he brought vitality even to bit parts like a Brooklyn shoeshine boy in “Little Lord Fauntleroy” (1936), the kid brother in the film version of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!” (1935) and a young deckhand on a fishing boat in “Captains Courageous” (1937).

Along with Deanna Durbin, Mr. Rooney was given a special Academy Award in 1939 “for bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth.” The next year he received his Oscar nomination for “Babes in Arms.” His second nomination was for his performance in the film version of William Saroyan’s “Human Comedy” (1943) as the messenger boy who delivers telegrams from the War Department telling families in a small California town that their sons have died. That movie seems saccharine and preachy more than 70 years later, but time has not tarnished the desolation on Mr. Rooney’s face when he reads those telegrams.

A Career of Ups and Downs

Although his career was one of the longest in show business history — about 90 years separated his first movie from his last — it was crammed with detours and dead ends. (“There have been crevices, fissures, pits, and I’ve fallen into a lot of them,” he told The Times in 1979.)

His elfin face and short, stocky body were part of the problem: At 28, with adolescent roles no longer an option and adult roles hard to come by, he said he would give 10 years of his life to be six inches taller. Yet most of his wounds were self-inflicted.

He married in haste — he wed Miss Birmingham of 1944 after knowing her for less than two weeks — and repented in haste. He turned his back on MGM, the studio that had made him a star, for the mirage of running his own production company, and ended up mired in debt and B movies. Suits for alimony, child support and back taxes pursued him like tin cans tied to the bumper of the car he was driving to his next wedding.

When he needed money most desperately, he could always play Las Vegas. “I was a smash hit at the Riviera, where I drew $17,500 a week and lost twice that on the crap table,” Mr. Rooney wrote in his 1991 autobiography, “Life Is Too Short.”

At one point in 1950, the only job he could get was touring Southern states with the Hadacol Caravan. Admission to the shows was a box top from a bottle of a 26 percent alcohol tonic that the government soon forced off the market.

Yet he always bounced back, often higher than anyone expected.

Not including the Mickey Maguire shorts, Mr. Rooney made more than 200 movies, earning a total of four Academy Award nominations — he was nominated for best supporting actor as the fast-talking soldier who dies trying to protect $30,000 he won in a craps game in “The Bold and the Brave” (1956) and as the trainer of a wild Arabian horse in “The Black Stallion” (1979). (Because of his size, Mr. Rooney played a lot of jockeys and, as his waistline expanded, former jockeys who had become trainers. He was the vagabond who helps Elizabeth Taylor turn an unruly horse into a steeplechase champion in her breakthrough film, “National Velvet,” in 1944.)


He was also nominated for five Emmy Awards and won one, for his performance in the 1981 television movie “Bill” as a developmentally disabled man who has spent most of his life in an institution and must learn to live in the outside world.

An Early Start

Mickey Rooney was born Joseph Yule Jr. in a Brooklyn tenement on Sept. 23, 1920. His mother, Nell Carter, danced in a burlesque chorus line. His father was a top banana, a lead comic, but only on second-rate circuits.

Sonny Yule, as he was known, grew up in boardinghouses in a dozen towns, but he lived backstage and, before he was 2 years old, onstage. His parents separated when he was 4, each of them taking $20 of the $40 they had saved.

For a year he had a normal childhood with his mother in Kansas City, Mo. Then she read in Variety that Hal Roach was looking for children for his Our Gang comedies. A few weeks later, the two of them left for Hollywood.

His mother turned down an offer from Roach’s assistant to try Sonny out at $5 a day. In vaudeville, one always waited for a better offer. But no second offer came. There were too many mothers eager for $5 a day.

It was back to Kansas City and then back again to Hollywood. Sonny got a job in a musical revue for $50 a week. “Marvelous for a five-year-old,” wrote the Los Angeles Times theater critic. A few months later he was Mickey McGuire at $250 for each “Toonerville Trolley” short. His professional name was changed to Mickey McGuire until the creator of the comic strip objected. But he kept the Mickey.

Nobody ever doubted his talent. Of his “all but unimprovable” performance in “National Velvet,” James Agee wrote, “He is an extremely wise and moving actor, and if I am ever again tempted to speak disrespectfully of him, that will be in anger over the unforgivable waste of a forceful yet subtle talent, proved capable of self-discipline and of the hardest roles that could be thrown it.”

In “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” “Captains Courageous” and “The Devil Is a Sissy” (1936), Mr. Rooney was a foil to MGM’s $2,500-a-week child star, Freddie Bartholomew. Decades after seeing “The Devil Is a Sissy,” the critic Walter Kerr remembered “a brief but instantly shocking moment.” Fifteen-year-old Mickey played a street urchin whose father was to be electrocuted that night. “Without warning, the street lights dimmed, just for a second or two,” Mr. Kerr wrote in The Times in 1979. “As Mr. Rooney glanced upward, the swift and silent realization, the ashen pain, that washed over his face and then was as hastily self-consciously erased was — most literally — staggering.”

By “Lord Jeff” (1938) Mr. Rooney and Mr. Bartholomew, playing delinquents in a naval reform school, had equal billing. In the last of their five movies together, “A Yank at Eton” (1942), Mr. Rooney was the star.

But MGM’s cleverest use of Mr. Rooney was teaming him with Judy Garland. His enormous energy and her voice and vulnerability melted the screen in four musicals. That the plots were more or less the same did not matter. In “Babes in Arms,” they put on a show to raise money for their out-of-work parents. In “Strike Up the Band” (1940), they raised money for a high school band contest. In “Babes on Broadway” (1941), they wanted to send orphans on an excursion to the country. And in “Girl Crazy” (1943), the money their Wild West Rodeo raised saved their college. What really mattered were Mickey’s brash charm, Judy’s sincerity and the songs by the Gershwin brothers, Rodgers and Hart, and others.

They were also teamed in three of the Andy Hardy movies and — before either of them was famous — in “Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry” (1937), as a jockey who is tricked into throwing a race and the girl who tries to help him.

Running to the Altar

Mr. Rooney was 21 when he married the 19-year-old starlet Ava Gardner in 1942. The studio fought the marriage and was equally upset at Mr. Rooney’s divorce a year later.

This was just the first chapter in what would be a long and tumultuous marital history. Mr. Rooney was divorced six times, and the divorce petitions all had similar complaints: He had a fiery temper, and he would leave home for days or even weeks at a time.

Drafted into the Army in 1944, Mr. Rooney met Betty Jane Rase, an Alabama beauty queen, at a party. “Sometime after the seventh bourbon or maybe the seventeenth,” Mr. Rooney wrote in “Life Is Too Short,” “I asked Miss Birmingham if she’d like to become Mrs. Mickey Rooney, and she said yes.”

They divorced in 1949. His third marriage, to the actress Martha Vickers, who had played Lauren Bacall’s nymphomaniac sister in “The Big Sleep,” lasted three years. His fourth wife was another beauty queen, Elaine Mahnken, who later recalled, “While they were dunning him for bills, he’d be out buying two new Jaguars.” She handled the finances and brought Mr. Rooney to the brink of solvency. He rewarded her by going to Las Vegas and losing $50,000.

His fifth marriage, to Barbara Thomason, an aspiring actress, ended tragically. When Mr. Rooney declared bankruptcy in 1962, soon after the birth of their third child, he had $500 in cash and almost $500,000 in debts, and he owed $100,000 in delinquent taxes. The I.R.S. gave him an allowance of $200 a month, so he borrowed money to play the ponies. A month after they separated in December 1965 and began a messy custody battle, Barbara Thomason Rooney was shot to death by a jealous lover, Milos Milosevic, who then used the same gun to kill himself.

By then, Mr. Rooney’s career was at low tide. As he grew older and wider, the pugnacious cockiness that had been charming when Andy Hardy sipped sodas with Judy Garland, Lana Turner, Ann Rutherford or Esther Williams in the Carvel drugstore seemed rancid. He drank too much and was addicted to sleeping pills. In December 1959, after he had apparently had a few drinks too many, Mr. Rooney made a fool of himself on “The Tonight Show”; the audience applauded when the host, Jack Paar, asked him to leave.

He could still be an electrifying actor, and often was, especially on television. He inherited the title role in “The Comedian,” written by Rod Serling, on “Playhouse 90” in 1957 because a half-dozen other actors had refused to play a lecherous, vicious and greedy comedian. The role won him his first Emmy nomination.

But he took virtually every part he was offered in those years, and he was most often seen mugging his way through bad movies. He replaced Donald O’Connor in the last of a series about a talking mule, “Frances in the Haunted House” (1956). In “Everything’s Ducky” (1961), one of his co-stars was a talking duck. In “The Private Lives of Adam and Eve” (1960), a low-budget oddity for which he shared director credit with Albert Zugsmith, he played the Devil in an extended dream sequence. He was a manic advertising executive in search of sex symbols in “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini” (1965), a beach-party movie of which The Times critic Howard Thompson observed that anybody expecting the worst would not be disappointed.

The Spotlight Returns

Things began turning around for Mr. Rooney in the 1970s. He stopped drinking and became a born-again Christian. In 1978, after two more marriages and divorces, he married Jan Chamberlin, a country singer whom he met through his son Mickey Jr. Their marriage, his eighth and last, brought stability to his life. And a return to stardom was just around the corner.

It took a year to put together the boisterous and proudly old-fashioned burlesque-style revue “Sugar Babies,” in which Mr. Rooney’s co-star was the former MGM hoofer Ann Miller. Mr. Rooney fought over every skit and argued over every song and almost always got things done his way. The show opened on Broadway on Oct. 8, 1979, to rapturous reviews, and this time he did not throw success away.

“Sugar Babies” ran for three years. A road company with Carol Channing and Robert Morse was not a success — audiences wanted only one top banana, Mickey Rooney — so he spent four more years on the road with the show.

In 1983, Mr. Rooney was given an honorary Academy Award “in recognition of his 60 years of versatility in a variety of film performances.”

He continued performing well into the new millennium. He had roles in “Night at the Museum” (2006), “The Muppets” (2011) and other movies. In 2007 he and Ms. Chamberlin began touring in a “one man, one wife” show with the nostalgic title “Let’s Put On a Show.” As late as 2014 he was still making movies.

In Mr. Rooney’s later years, his life became tumultuous once again. In 2011 he 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 repeated his allegations in Washington before the Senate Special Committee on Aging. He later filed suit against them; the suit was settled in 2013, with the Abers agreeing that they owed Mr. Rooney $2.8 million.

Mr. Rooney is survived by Ms. Chamberlin.

For all the ups and downs of Mr. Rooney’s life and career, there was one constant: his love of performing. “Growing up in vaudeville,” he once said, “made me cognizant of the need to have fun at what you’re doing. You can’t get it done well without it being fun. And I’ve never felt that what I do is ‘work.’ ”


Ashley Southall contributed reporting.

A version of this article appears in print on April 7, 2014, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Mickey Rooney, Who Was a Master of Putting On a Show, Dies at 93. Order Reprints

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