Remembrances
5:14 am
Mon April 7, 2014

The Inimitable Mickey Rooney Dies At 93

Originally published on Mon April 7, 2014 12:48 pm

Mickey Rooney was a 5-foot-3 dynamo. Whether he was acting, singing or dancing, he poured an uncanny energy into his performances. It's an energy that sustained a lifelong career alongside some of the biggest names in show business, including Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor.

He died Sunday at his North Hollywood home, at age 93. He was still working — on a new film version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

From 1938 to 1941, he ranked as Hollywood's top-grossing star. His inimitable on-screen persona earned him major parts in a variety of films, from the lighthearted Babes in Arms to more dramatic fare like Boys Town.

Rooney's success ebbed and flowed over the course of his long life. His tenacity — at times propelled by financial need — helped him bounce back from lengthy career lulls.

Rooney got his start in showbiz earlier than most. Born in the proverbial trunk in 1920 to vaudevillians Joe and Nell Yule, Joe Jr., as he was christened, made his stage debut at 17 months and landed his first Hollywood role at the tender age of 6.

In 1932, the entertainer changed his name to the zingier Mickey Rooney. Two years later, he signed a contract with MGM, a partnership that produced some of Rooney's most memorable roles.

In the Andy Hardy series, Rooney played the title role: a teen growing up in an all-American family. The series showcased his youthful, wholesome appeal and catapulted him into stardom. He starred in 16 Andy Hardy pictures altogether.

During that same period, MGM dreamed up another teen franchise starring Rooney and the young Judy Garland as a plucky song-and-dance act.

The plots were often identical. Rooney's character usually had eureka moments that sounded like this one: "I'm gonna write a show for us and put it on right here in Seaport! Why, it'll be the most up-to-date thing these hicks around here have ever seen!"

The formula worked in part because of Garland and Rooney's palpable chemistry, a reflection of their off-screen friendship.

Rooney's early performances won him an honorary Oscar for his sunny portrayals of youth.

Arthur Marx, who wrote an unauthorized biography of Rooney in the 1980s, said Rooney's need for attention made it especially difficult when his career took a downturn in the mid-1940s. Rooney began a decadeslong series of failed marriages, starting with the sexy starlet Ava Gardner.

"He married a lot of grown women," Marx said, "and it was hard to see him as a teenager when he was married to someone like Ava Gardner."

While Rooney grew older, he never grew taller, which prevented him from being cast as a leading man. Facing mounting financial problems, he took a number of smaller parts during the 1950s and '60s.

Eventually Rooney overcame years of gambling and alcohol abuse through a newfound devotion to Christianity and the marriage to his eighth and final wife, Jan Chamberlain, in 1978.

A year later, Rooney got the second big break of his career, in Sugar Babies, a collection of Burlesque comedy sketches set to music. The material was an easy fit for old vaudevillians Rooney and co-star Ann Miller.

In the wake of his success with Sugar Babies, Rooney seized the opportunity to do some higher-profile work. He won a Golden Globe for his performance in the made-for-TV-movie Bill, in which he played a mentally disabled adult. In 1983, Rooney, who by then had more than 200 films under his belt, was awarded an Oscar for lifetime achievement.

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