b. Joseph Yule Jnr., 23 September 1920, Brooklyn, New York, USA, d. 6 April 2014, North Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, USA. A five feet three-high bundle of dynamite - an actor, singer, comedian, dancer, songwriter - and much else. The son of vaudevillian parents, Rooney made his stage debut when he was 18 months old, and was taken to Hollywood by his mother soon afterwards. He got his big break at the age of six when he made the first of over 50 two-reel comedies featuring the comic-strip character Mickey McGuire. For most of the 30s he was cast in mainly minor roles, but received critical acclaim for his performances in Ah Wilderness! and as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (both 1935). The year 1937 marked the beginning of two important associations for Rooney. In Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry (1937) he was teamed for the first time with Judy Garland, and he also made A Family Affair, the first in a highly successful series of ‘Andy Hardy’ pictures which continued until 1946. In 1938 he created ‘cinema’s first punk kid’ in Boys’ Town, with Spencer Tracy. In the same year Garland joined him in one of the Hardy pictures, Love Finds Andy Hardy, but their real impact together came in the enormously popular musicals Babes In Arms (1939), Strike Up the Band (1940), Babes On Broadway (1941), and Girl Crazy (1943).
By then, Rooney was at the peak of his career, topping box-office charts in the USA and all over the world. However, after an appearance in Thousands Cheer, MGM’s tribute to the US Armed Forces - and then a stint in the real thing during World War II - he made only two more musicals, Summer Holiday and Words And Music (both 1948). After that, for many different reasons, his career declined rapidly, although he turned in fine dramatic performances in several films during the 50s. After filing for bankruptcy in 1962 his life hit rock bottom, but he continued to work in movies, nightclubs, dinner-theatres and on television, and in 1979, after being nominated for an Oscar for his role in the adventure movie Black Stallion, made a sensational comeback on Broadway with Sugar Babies. This celebration of the golden age of American burlesque with its old song favourites and many examples of classic shtick, was perfect for Rooney, and, with co-star Ann Miller, he toured with the show for several years following its New York run of nearly 1, 500 performances, and took it to London in 1988. In 1981 he won an Emmy for the television film Bill, and a year later received an Honorary Oscar ‘in recognition of his 60 years of versatility in a variety of memorable film performances’. He had received a special Academy Award 44 years earlier, when he and Deanna Durbin had been cited for ‘their significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth, and as juvenile players setting a high standard of ability and achievement’.
He continued to film in the 90s, and is estimated to have made in excess of 200 pictures. In 1990, he returned to Broadway, and played the role of Will Rogers’ father Clem during the final weeks of the musical The Will Rogers Follies. He remained an immensely likeable character who continually bounced back at every stage of adversity. A good deal of the money he earned from his films up until 1965 (estimated box-office taking $3, 000 million - Rooney’s share $12 million) went on alimony to ex-wives. He was married eight times (producing nine children): ranging from Ava Gardner (‘We were both under contract to MGM, and I was dressed as Carmen Miranda at the time, so she could hardly refuse’), through Barbara Thomason (she was murdered by her lover), to country singer Jan Chamberlain. He was back on the road again in 1998, starring in a stage version of the legendary 1939 film The Wizard Of Oz. He played the Wizard, and Eartha Kitt was the Wicked Witch, in a production which toured before dropping in on New York’s Madison Square Garden. Into the 21st century still more could be expected of Rooney, as he seemingly abided by the US Mickey Rooney Old People’s Association’s principal motto: ‘Never Retire But Inspire’. Taking his own advice, in the 00s Rooney and his wife put on a live stage production, Let’s Put On A Show! Although it seemed like he might go on forever, Mickey Rooney died on 6 April 2014 at his home in North Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, surrounded by family members. He was 93 years old.