Monday, April 07, 2014

Obituary: Mickey Rooney

One of the most famous actors from Hollywood's Golden Age and beyond, Mickey Rooney, died last night at the age of 93. Born Joseph Yule, Jr. in 1920, he began his show business career at the age of 17 months.

Rooney became famous in the 1930s as a juvenile lead. He was in the same age bracket as fellow stars Lana Turner, Judy Garland, and Deanna Durbin, and he was promoted by the studios as a top juvenile actor. He may still be best remembered all these decades later for his starring in the Andy Hardy series of films in the 1930s and early 1940s despite having appeared in over 200 films, plus many television and stage appearances, in his long career.

Too short to be considered leading man material, Rooney as an adult actor focused on character parts. He could always be relied on turning in good performances; in fact, I don't ever recall a bad performance from him. It didn't matter if he co-starred with Elizabeth Taylor in 1944's National Velvet or in that 1968 turkey Skidoo, Rooney made the best of whatever part he was given.

Rooney was not just a butt of comedians' jokes about his short stature, he was also ribbed mercilessly over his many marriages. He was married a total of eight times to eight different women. One of the wives he was always fond of remembering was first wife Ava Gardner. At the time he married her in 1942 when she was 19 and he was around 22, she was not yet famous but was considered a juvenile performer. He was not just her first husband but was her first lover. He was always proud of that fact, and for good reason, for she was later considered one of the most desirable women in the world. Unfortunately, the marriage went kaput the following year.

All of Rooney's other marriages went kaput although one, to Barbara Ann Thomason (aka Carolyn Mitchell), ended tragically in 1966 when she was murdered. These were his other wives after Ava Gardner (from Wikipedia):

B.J. Baker (m. 1944–1948)
Martha Vickers (m. 1949–1951)
Elaine Devry (m. 1952–1958)
Carolyn Mitchell (m. 1958–1966)
Marge Lane (m. 1966–1967)
Carolyn Hockett (m. 1969–1975)
Jan Chamberlin (m. 1978–2014)

The marriage to Chamberlin lasted many years, longer than all of his other marriages combined, but they were separated at the time of his death.

Rooney had a total of nine children. He was also famous for having financial troubles but always seem to bounce back from adversity.

From the New York Times obituary, which makes it clear "they" don't make performers like Mickey Rooney anymore. This great obituary was written by Aljean Harmetz:

He stood only a few inches taller than five feet, but Mr. Rooney was larger and louder than life. From the moment he toddled onto a burlesque stage at 17 months to his movie debut at 6 to his career-crowning Broadway debut in “Sugar Babies” at 59 and beyond, he did it all. He could act, sing, dance, play piano and drums, and before he was out of short pants he could cry on cue.

As Andy Hardy, growing up in the idealized fictional town of Carvel, Mr. Rooney was the most famous teenager in America from 1937 to 1944: everybody’s cheeky son or younger brother, energetic and feverishly in love with girls and cars. The 15 Hardy Family movies, in which all problems could be solved by Andy’s man-to-man talks with his father, Judge Hardy (played by Lewis Stone), earned more than $75 million — a huge sum during the Depression years, when movie tickets rarely cost more than 25 cents.

From the Los Angeles Times:

The young boy's first sustained success came in a series of shorts made between 1927 and 1936 based on a comic strip character named Mickey McGuire. It was during that period that Rooney, having changed his name in the interim, claimed to have met and so inspired a young Walt Disney that he named Mickey Mouse after the lad right on the spot. Though Rooney, who loved to hold the spotlight, told this story with so much drama and passion it seemed churlish to doubt him, most Disney authorities feel it simply never happened.

What did happen was a series of unlikely costars for this youthful ball of energy. Rooney appeared with cowboy hero Tom Mix, lion tamer Clyde Beatty, even the sultry Jean Harlow. He also found time to play Puck in a glorious version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" produced and co-directed by the great German impresario Max Reinhardt.

Rooney's gumption got him a contract at MGM, where he attracted the attention and admiration of studio head Louis B. Mayer. It was under Mayer's aegis that Rooney made a series of 15 Andy Hardy films that were the apotheosis of his boy next door persona.

Rooney received a lifetime achievement Oscar and an Emmy award for his performance in a made-for-television movie called Bill.

A couple of clips:

With Judy Garland again, this time from her television show:

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