Mickey Rooney, Legendary Actor, Dead at 93

Mickey Rooney, the pint-sized ball of energy who starred as Andy Hardy, America’s boy next door, in 16 films for MGM — merely one highlight in an irrepressible and unimaginable nine-decade career in show business — has died. He was 93.

Rooney's wife, Jan, told The Hollywood Reporter late Sunday night that she had not seen her husband since last April and that she was informed by TMZ of the actor's death.

She said Rooney was living in the Studio City home of her son Mark Aber and his wife. The family has been torn apart in recent years over Rooney's allegations that Jan's son Christopher Aber had withheld food and medication from the actor.

Christopher  said on Facebook that Rooney will be buried in "Westlake Village at the Pierce Brothers cemetery. Thank you for all your prayers."

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.”

The Brooklyn-born son of vaudeville entertainers sang, danced, cracked wise and played several instruments, and he composed songs that were popular with Big Band orchestras back in the day. With his career on the wane, he turned things around by playing opposite Ann Miller in Broadway’s Sugar Babies, starring in more than 1,200 performances of the burlesque hit and receiving a Tony nomination in 1980.

“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.

Another incredible Rooney achievement: He was married eight times. His wives were Hollywood bombshell and future Mrs. Frank Sinatra Ava Gardner (1942-43); Alabama beauty queen and singer Betty Jane Phillips (1944-48); actress Martha Vickers (1949-51); actress-model Elaine Devry (1952-58); starlet Barbara Ann Thompson (1958 until her 1966 murder by her jealous lover in the Rooneys' Brentwood home); writer Marge Lane (1966-67); secretary Carolyn Hockett (1969-75); and actress-singer Jan Chamberlin, whom he wed in 1978. 

Rooney often was the subject of jokes about his inability to stay married. “I didn’t spend money on girls, I married them. Then I spent money unmarrying them,” he once quipped. He wrote a tongue-in-cheek A Guide to a Happy Marriage, which included marriage licenses made out “To Whom It May Concern.”

Rooney was born Joe Yule Jr. on Sept. 23, 1920, the only child to vaudevillians Joe Yule and Nell Carter. He made his stage debut at about 18 months old when he crawled out onto the stage in a tiny tuxedo during one of his parents’ performances, soon becoming a regular in their act.

After his folks divorced when he was 3, his mother took him to Kansas City, Mo., so they could live with her sister, then embarked for Hollywood when she figured her toddler would be ideal for the Our Gang series of shorts. That didn’t work out, but at age 5, he made his motion picture debut as a midget in Not to Be Trusted (1926).

A year later, his mother renamed him Mickey McGuire so he could get a leg up in movie auditions to play a tough lower-class kid from the Toonerville Trolley comic strip that bore that name. She dyed his sandy hair black and he got the job, starring in more than 70 McGuire two-reelers from 1927-34. 

Now known as Mickey Rooney, he vaulted to stardom when producer David O. Selznick created a part for him in 1934’s Manhattan Melodrama (he played the boyhood version of Gable’s character, Blackie). The gangster tale gained notoriety when John Dillinger was shot dead by FBI agents outside Chicago’s Biograph Theatre, where the film was playing. With the increased attention, Rooney, then 14, became an immediate sensation, and MGM signed him to a contract than would last through the late ’40s.

A year before he would graduate from Hollywood High School, the cocky Rooney won the role of Andy Hardy in the 1937 B-movie A Family Affair. Unexpectedly, the film became a hit as it painted an idyllic, wholesome picture of small-town America. MGM had a big-money franchise on its hands.

In the series, Rooney’s rambunctious character had romantic misadventures with the likes of Garland, Lana Turner, Esther Williams and Ann Rutherford, and when he got into trouble (nothing too serious, of course), his father, Judge James K. Hardy (played by Lionel Barrymore in the first film and Lewis Stone in others), made sure to set him straight.

His cherubic looks, thick locks and 5-foot-3 frame allowed him to play boys until he was almost 30.

Rooney entered military service in 1944 and served more than 21 months, earning a Bronze Star for entertaining troops in combat zones. But when he returned to civilian life, his career slumped. He briefly starred in a CBS radio series, Shorty Bell, in 1948, then played Andy Hardy again in a syndicated radio series in 1949 and 1950.

Rooney turned to television, starring as fast-talking TV studio page Mickey Mulligan in the 1954-55 sitcom The Mickey Rooney Show, but up against The Jackie Gleason Show, the show lasted just 39 episodes. (He would star in two other short-lived TV comedies: 1964’s Mickey, in which he operates a hotel in Southern California, and 1982’s One of the Boys, in which his character moves in with grandson Dana Carvey and roommate Nathan Lane. He also reportedly passed on the chance to play Archie Bunker in Norman Lear’s All in the Family.) 

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). 

Meanwhile, he traveled with his wife doing the multimedia live stage production Let’s Put on a Show! recounting his eventful life in show business. His motto: “Don’t retire, inspire!”

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.