At the time of his death, Rooney was working on a film called The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Night at the Museum 3 director Shawn Levy tweeted that Rooney had shot scenes for the movie just last month.
From childhood stardom through two honorary Academy Awards, four Oscar nominations and one Emmy Award, Rooney was a phenom, one of the most remarkable and popular entertainers of the 20th century. With movie appearances stretching from 1926 through 2014, his 88-year cinematic career surpasses seldom-used actress Carla Laemmle’s as the longest in Hollywood history.
“American’s Most Lovable Munchkin” landed on the cover of Time magazine in March 1940 -- rare for any actor at the time -- and in 1941 was the biggest ticket-selling star for the third straight year, ranking ahead of such icons as Clark Gable, Bob Hope, Gene Autry, Bette Davis and Abbott & Costello.
At age 18, Rooney received a special Juvenile Academy Award for his performance as Whitey Marsh opposite Spencer Tracy in Boys Town (1938), and 45 years later he was presented with an Honorary Oscar “in recognition of his 50 years of versatility in a variety of memorable film performances.”
“When I open a refrigerator door and the light goes on, I want to perform,” he said in one of his often-told jokes.
Rooney earned Oscar nominations for putting on a show with frequent co-star Judy Garland in the Busby Berkeley musical Babes in Arms (1939); as a teenager at home feeling the effects of World War II in The Human Comedy (1943); as a soldier who runs a memorable crap game across Italy in The Bold and the Brave (1956); and as a retired jockey turned horse trainer in The Black Stallion (1979), another milestone for him on the comeback trail.
Rooney made more than 200 films, and he also received notice for his work as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935); in the family adventure Captains Courageous (1937); as the title character in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939); as a drifter in National Velvet (1944) opposite teenager Elizabeth Taylor; as a Navy man in the James Michener adaptation The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954); as Audrey Hepburn’s bucktoothed Japanese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961); and as Anthony Quinn’s trainer and cutman in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962).
He earned his Emmy Award for his portrayal of a mentally ill man who emerges from an institution and finds love for the first time in the emotional 1981 CBS telefilm Bill.
Rooney received Emmy nominations for dramatic turns in 1957, 1958 and 1961 installments of the anthology series Playhouse 90, Alcoa Theatre and The Dick Powell Theatre, respectively, but in the early 1960s, he was playing in nightclubs and dinner theaters, gambling on the horses too much and forced to file for bankruptcy. A series of regrettable film roles (like in 1965’s How to Stuff a Wild Bikini) followed.
Said a tearful Rooney upon accepting his Honorary Oscar in 1983: “When I was 19 years old, I was the No. 1 star of the world, for two years. When I was 40, nobody wanted me. I couldn’t get a job. And then a professor from the University of Tennessee got a show together with Terry Allen Kramer and Harry Rigby called Sugar Babies, and it resurrected my career.”
From 1990-93, Rooney reprised his role as the trainer in The New Adventures of the Black Stallion for the Family Channel. He wrote and acted in Outlaws: The Legend of O.B. Taggart (1994), starred in a 1998 stage version of The Wizard of Oz with Eartha Kitt and was seen in such films as Babe: Pig in the City (1998), Night at the Museum (2006), Now Here (2010) and The Muppets (2011).
Rooney wrote several songs early in his career, including “Have a Heart,” “Oceans Apart,” “That’s What Love Will Do for You” and the prophetic “I Can’t Afford to Fall in Love.” He composed a three-movement symphony titled Melodante, which he performed on the piano at Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 Inauguration Gala in Constitution Hall.
In addition to his wife and stepchildren, Rooney’s survivors include his children Mickey Jr., Theodore, Kelly, Kerry, Kimmy, Michael (a choreographer), Jonelle and Jimmy. Another son, Tim — like Mickey Jr. a member of The Mickey Mouse Club in the ’50s — died in 2006.
In March 2011, Rooney accused Christopher and his wife of taking his money, denying him his medication and withholding food.
“All I want to do is live a peaceful life, to regain my life and be happy,” Rooney wrote to his fans. “I pray to God each day to protect us, help us endure and guide those other senior citizens who are also suffering.”
TMZ was the first to report the news of Rooney's death.
(Duane Byrge contributed to this report.)
- This article originally appeared in THR.com.