Celebrated American filmstar Mickey Rooney dies aged 93

Actor appeared in more than 300 films during a career spanning 80 years and was
married eight times - first to actress Ava Gardner - and also twice declared bankrupt

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 April, 2014, 2:45pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 April, 2014, 5:25pm

Mickey Rooney, a celebrated child actor who embodied the All-American boy in the 1930s and 40s, and became one of the era’s top box-office draws, has died. He was 93.

The eight-times-married Rooney, whose roller-coaster showbusiness career spanning 80 years was marked by an often-turbulent personal life, died on Sunday, the Los Angeles coroner’s office confirmed.

The first and most famous of his eight wives was actress Ava Gardner, whom he married in 1942. His third wife was another actress, Martha Vickers, who played Lauren Bacall's nymphomaniac younger sister in The Big Sleep.

Jokes about his tendency to walk down the aisle were commonplace in the 1950s and 60s; even Rooney joked about it, saying in 1981, “My marriage licence reads, ‘To whom it may concern’."

“My marriage licence reads, ‘To whom it may concern’ ... Always get married early in the morning. That way, if it doesn't work out, you haven't wasted a whole day.“
Mickey Rooney

He also said: "Always get married early in the morning. That way, if it doesn't work out, you haven't wasted a whole day."

Rooney starred making films in short silent productions in 1927. He gave an eye-catching performance as Puck in 1935's A Midsummer Night's Dream - alongside established stars such as James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland - and became a star himself, while still a child, after playing the role of the relentlessly positive Andy Hardy - providing comic relief - in the 1937 film, A Family Affair.

The film presented an idealised portrait of American family life and was such a success that Rooney would go on to star in another 14 Andy Hardy films up to 1946.

Rooney also starred with Judy Garland in a series of popular musicals, including 1939's Babes in Arms, which brought him the first of four Oscar nominations.

In 1992, recalling his friendship with Garland, who found fame in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, Rooney said: "Judy and I were so close we could've come from the same womb. We weren't like brothers or sisters, but there was no love affair there; there was more than a love affair.

"It's very, very difficult to explain the depths of our love for each other. It was so special. It was a forever love." 

Rooney's appearance in 1938's Boys Town, opposite Spencer Tracy, would cement his reputation as a dramatic actor. Released just before his 18th birthday, his performance won him a special honorary American Juvenile Academy Award. He went on to be the top box-office draw in 1939, 1940 and 1941.

The 1.57 metre-tall Rooney was one of most enduring performers in showbusiness. He made his debut on the vaudeville stage in 1922 as a toddler and toured into his late 80s in a two-person stage show with Jan Chamberlin, his eighth wife. They had been married since 1978.

Of his final, lasting marriage, he once simply said: “I think you go until you find the right one. Jan was the right one for me.”

In the early 1940s, Rooney earned a second Academy Award nomination as a teenager who comes of age during wartime in The Human Comedy and appeared opposite an adolescent Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet, now considered a classic.

A story the Ocar-winning film director Billy Wilder often told shows how important Rooney was to film studio MGM in the 1930s and 40s, which was producing the Andy Hardy films. Wilder saw studio chief Louis B. Mayer – who was unhappy with Rooney’s off-screen antics – grab the teenage star by the lapels and yell, You’re Andy Hardy! You’re America!”

When such leading actors of his generation as Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn were asked in later years who was the best actor in Hollywood, they both immediately named Rooney. 

Micky Rooney once proudly declared that he had followed author W.H. Auden’s counsel, 'Thou shalt not live within thy means'.

After his star began to fade in the late 1950s he began to struggle with problems such as depression, drinking and gambling; he was also declared bankrupt. But he kept on working as a character actor in film and television, and also on the stage.

Later in his career Rooney received an Oscar nomination for his subtly drawn performance as a horse trainer in the 1979 film The Black Stallion.

The following year, Rooney was nominated for a Tony Award for his Broadway debut in Sugar Babies, a musical tribute to burlesque that he called "the resurrection of my career". He said: "I was a famous has-been before it."

In 1982, Rooney earned an Emmy Award for playing the title character in a drama, Bill, about a mentally challenged man living on his own for the first time. Many critics considered it his best performance.

In 2007, while introducing a screening of the 1935 film A Midsummer Night’s Dream, American writer Gore Vidal said: “There’s only one great actor in the United States and that is Mickey Rooney. ... He can do anything. He sings, he dances, he can make you weep. He can play tragedy, he can play comedy.” 

“When I open a refrigerator door and the light goes on, I want to perform.
Mickey Rooney

In 2011, a by-now ailing 90-year-old Rooney testified before Congress about elder abuse, explaining that he spoke from personal experience. A family member who took and misused Rooney’s money had left him powerless, he said.

“I felt trapped, scared, used and frustrated,” Rooney told a Senate committee.

“When a man feels helpless, it’s terrible.”

Although Rooney did not identify the person during his testimony, the previous month he had obtained a restraining order against his stepson, Chris Aber. He had accused him of withholding food and medicine and trying to gain control of his assets.

A settlement was reached when Aber and his wife, who both denied wrongdoing, agreed to abide by the stay-away order without it being enforced by a judge.

“If elder abuse happened to me, Mickey Rooney it can happen to anyone,” Rooney had testified.

It was through the long-running hit musical Sugar Babies that Rooney once again found popular success; he took the show on the road for years.

A New York Times review of a 1985 touring Sugar Babies production called Rooney “one of those rare performers who gives his entire being to the audience in an attempt to please".

In his early 70s, Rooney joked: “When I open a refrigerator door and the light goes on, I want to perform.”

Mickey Rooney was born Joseph Yule Jnr on Septrmber 23, 1920, in New York City. His parents were the vaudeville entertainers Joe and Nell Yule.

When he was about 18 months old, he joined his parents’ act, singing the sentimental Pal of My Cradle Days while wearing a tiny tuxedo.

His parents split up when he was four, and mother and son soon headed to Hollywood. By 1926, Rooney had his first film role, as a midget, in Not to be Trusted.

Soon he was cast in the Mickey McGuire movie shorts, made first as silent films and then talkies. More than 60 were produced between 1927 and 1934, when the Depression flattened everything, Rooney wrote in his 1991 autobiography Life Is Too Short.

Rooney was so closely identified with the little tough guy he played in the series that he began using the name Mickey McGuire, but eventually dropped the last name because of legal issues. A studio publicist and his mother suggested Rooney. In 1939, Rooney starred in five films, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and three Andy Hardy movies.


Judy Garland and I were so close we could've come from the same womb. We weren't like brothers or sisters, but there was no love affair there; there was more than a love affair
Mickey Rooney

After entertaining the troops overseas for two years while serving in the Army during the second world war, Rooney was unable to recapture his early stardom.

Part of the problem stemmed from his personal troubles, which eroded his studio-polished Andy Hardy image - especially the quick failure of his marriage to the 19-year-old Gardner.

Gardner later wrote that she didn’t fit in with Rooney’s lifestyle of “boozing, broads, golfing, and hangers-on”. Within two years of returning from the war, Rooney found that acting work was drying up and his relationship with MGM ended.

Struggling, he reinvented himself as a character actor and increasingly turned to television. Yet he received another Oscar nomination during this period for his intense performance as a doomed GI in the 1956 war movie The Bold and the Brave.

Portraying a Japanese fashion photographer in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which starred Audrey Hepburn, “he made Hollywood notice that if he was no longer exactly a leading man, he was at least a very fine character actor”, biographer Arthur Marx wrote in 1986’s The Nine Lives of Mickey Rooney.

Rooney would go on to have roles in more than 300 films and television projects and make dozens of television appearances as himself.

In 1962, he declared the first of two bankruptcies, blaming gambling – he had a penchant for racetrack betting – and alimony for the loss of US$12 million in career earnings. By then he was married for the fifth time, to Barbara Ann Thomason, who would be killed in a murder-suicide by her lover in 1966.

Two more marriages followed before he turned 50, helping to turn his personal life into a well-worn punch line that fueled the view that he was finished in Hollywood.

Yet he would continue to work, making about three dozen movies during the 1960s and 70s. Rooney once said that his films were so forgettable, even he needed a movie guide to remember them.

In the mid-1970s, Rooney claimed that he found Christianity after a mysterious busboy leaned over in a coffee shop and whispered, “Jesus loves you”. At one point, Rooney made US$500 a night by circulating at private parties pretending to be a friend of the host.

Rooney also turned to alcohol and gambled on horse racing, the Times reported in 1999. He filed for bankruptcy again in 1996.

Rooney proudly declared that he had followed author W.H. Auden’s counsel, “Thou shalt not live within thy means”.

However, Rooney remained busy on the dinner-theatre circuit, performing in the comedy Three Goats and a Blanket for nearly a decade.

He credited his eighth wife for his rebirth as a contemporary performer, saying she had pushed him to get back out there. At her suggestion, he accepted the role in Sugar Babies, a musical that eulogised his showbusiness roots.

For years, the couple toured in Let's Put on a Show – named in honour of the catchphrase from the backyard musicals that Rooney made with Garland. His wife sang classic standards while Rooney recounted anecdotes from his career and showed film clips. Together, they performed duets.

He received the second of his two honourary Oscars in 1982 for “60 years of versatility in a variety of memorable performances”.