Actor who spent a lifetime in Hollywood, making dozens of movies and marrying eight times
In 1938, the extraordinary, multi-talented 18-year-old Mickey Rooney, who has died aged 93, 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 (he had been married seven times). But this remarkable pint-sized entertainer always lived by the creed of his profession: “the show must go on”.
Rooney was in show business literally all his life. His Edinburgh-born father, Joseph Ninian Yule (known as "Red" Yule) and his Arkansas-born mother, Nell Carter, were in vaudeville, and Joe Yule Jr 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 midget pretending to be a child in a short called Not to Be Trusted, in which he had to puff on a cigar. In his first feature, Orchids and Ermine (1927), he played another cigar-smoking midget who makes a pass at Colleen Moore. Soon, he was playing a mischievous child called Mickey McGuire in a series of two-reel comedies, legally changing 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 Clark Gable as a boy 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, The Devil Is A Sissy, and Captains Courageous.
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 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,” and left. Gardner was, in fact, 5ft 1in, the same height as Rooney, but she wore high heels.
“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 wanton 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, who was 5ft tall, but who was transformed from a tormented homosexual into a man who suffers because he was jilted by a woman. 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 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, 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 Milosevic. One fateful 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 boxer Anthony Quinn’s trainer in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962); and in such trash classics as How To Stuff A Wild Bikini (1966).
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 Christian 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 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 mentally-retarded man coping with life outside an institution in Bill.
In 1983, Rooney was presented with a special Oscar for lifetime achievement. He continued to work throughout the 1990s, 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, though he was declared bankrupt again in 1996, owing $1.75m in back taxes.
Nevertheless, Mickey Rooney, shaped like a rubber ball, bounced back as always, so that he was never outside the public eye for long, and was still performing in his 80s.
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.
• Mickey Rooney, actor, born 23 September, 1920; died 6 April 2014.
Mickey Rooney, legend of the screen, dies at 93
Star spent his entire life in show business and could trace his career back to Hollywood's golden age of the 30s and 40s
Actor Mickey Rooney, who became the United States' biggest movie star while still a brash teenager in the 1930s and later a versatile character actor in a career that spanned 10 decades, has died aged 93.
Rooney, who developed a reputation as a hard-partying, off-screen brat in his heyday and married eight times, died after a long illness.
Los Angeles police commander Andrew Smith said that Rooney was with his family when he died Sunday at his North Hollywood home.
"He was undoubtedly the most talented actor that ever lived. There was nothing he couldn't do," actress Margaret O'Brien said in a statement.
She said she had worked recently with Rooney on a film, The Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde, and he "was as great as ever" during the filming.
Actress Rose Marie, a long-time friend, 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.
Rooney was an entertainer almost from the day he was born in New York in 1920. His parents, Joe Yule Sr and Nell, had a vaudeville act and Joe Jr, as he was known then, was not yet two 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 – 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 again to Rooney when he began getting other roles.
As a teenager, Rooney was cute, diminutive (he topped out at 5 feet 2 inches (1.6 meters) 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.
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 Beiber 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.
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 the second world war, 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 as he aged but he persevered.
"I'm a ham who wants to be a small part of anything," he said.
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, harkening 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 an 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 ageing 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.