June 23, 2018
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Mickey Rooney, master of putting on a show, dies at 93

By Heather Burke, Bloomberg

Mickey Rooney, the pint-sized, Oscar-winning actor whose movie, television and stage career spanned eight decades and eight wives, has died. He was 93.

His death was confirmed by his son Michael Joseph Rooney, The New York Times reported on its website.

Beloved for his all-American charm, natural gift for comedy and versatility, Rooney appeared in more than 200 films. Laurence Olivier called him “the best actor America ever produced.”

Starting in silent films, Rooney became a child star and top box-office draw in the late 1930s and early 1940s with the “Andy Hardy” series. The New York Times said Rooney played the part with “the bounce of a rubber ball.”

He was equally comfortable playing a troubled protagonist in dramas such as “Boys Town” (1938) or barn dancing with Judy Garland in splashy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musicals. By his early 20s, he had won a miniature Academy Award for youthful actors as well as two nominations as best actor.

Although Rooney’s star power diminished after World War II, he successfully transitioned into a character actor who consistently appeared in films and received two more Oscar nominations and an Oscar for lifetime achievement. In his 60s, Rooney found new life on stage in the long-running Broadway musical “Sugar Babies.”

He had nine children with his eight wives, the last of whom, Jan Chamberlin Rooney, he married in 1978.

In February 2010, he went to court to obtain a temporary restraining order against Chris Aber, his stepson through his eighth wife, January. Rooney said Aber interfered with his finances and his ability to get food and medicine.

“My money was stolen from me,” Rooney said at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Aging. “I was eventually stripped of the ability to make even the most basic decisions.”

Rooney was born Joe Yule Jr. in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Sept. 23, 1920. He made his stage debut in his parents’ vaudeville act when he was 1 and first appeared on film playing a midget in “Not to Be Trusted” (1926).

He starred as comic-strip character Mickey McGuire in more than 70 short films between 1927 and 1934, changing his name to Mickey Rooney in 1932. He began to take small roles in full- length films and signed a long-term contract with MGM at 15.

In 16 films between 1937 and 1946, beginning with “A Family Affair” (1937), Rooney played the beloved screen character Andy Hardy, an idealized American teenager frequently in need of help from his father, a judge, to get out of scrapes. Garland co-starred with Rooney in many of those films.

At the onset of World War II, Rooney was the incarnation of the all-American boy. Many of his characters were ambitious, confused troublemakers who were, at the core, good-hearted and naive.

“Any picture with Mickey Rooney is bound to be more funny than otherwise,” the Wall Street Journal said in 1941.

He won his honorary Oscar at the 1938 ceremony for “bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth” in the Andy Hardy movies, and as a troubled youth in “Boys Town.”

Rooney reached the apex of his acting career in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He was the top box-office draw from 1939 to 1941, dethroning Shirley Temple. He sang and danced with Garland in several lavish MGM musicals, including “Babes in Arms” (1939) for which he won a best actor Oscar nomination — the first time a juvenile competed in the category with adult stars — and “Girl Crazy” (1943).

He also starred in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1939) and “National Velvet” (1944). Rooney earned his second best actor Oscar nomination for his role in “The Human Comedy” (1943) as a young man looking after his family in World War II.

In 1942, Rooney eloped with the glamorous actress Ava Gardner, who towered over her 5-foot, 3-inch husband. They divorced a year later.

He was drafted during World War II and found, like many other aging child stars, his career was difficult to revive when he returned from the war.

Rooney made a string of mostly mediocre films in the 1950s, including an attempt to revive the Andy Hardy series. He directed a movie, “My True Story,” in 1951 and performed on TV shows such as “The Mickey Rooney Show” (1954-1955).

Though his film career waned, there were some bright spots, particularly when he chose against-type dramatic roles. He received a supporting actor Oscar nomination for his role as a GI in “The Bold and the Brave” (1956).

He also played a psychopathic gangster in “Baby Faced Nelson” (1957) and a friend of washed-up fighter Anthony Quinn in “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1962), while continuing comedic roles in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961) and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963).

By the early 1960s, Rooney was five times divorced and suffered from alcohol, gambling and emotional problems. He filed for bankruptcy in 1962, claiming his $12 million in assets had been reduced to $500, mostly because of alimony payments. In the mid-1960s, he appeared in summer-stock theater productions and toured nightclubs.

In 1960, Rooney married actress Barbara Ann Thomason. They had four children together. In 1966, she was killed by an actor with whom she was having an affair.

Rooney fell into a deep depression after the murder and, seeking stability for his children, married Thomason’s friend, Marge Lane. Their marriage lasted only 100 days before they divorced.

Rooney slowly built his career again, although it never came close to reaching its 1930s heyday. He became a TV fixture on the series “Mickey” (1964-1965) and “NBC Follies” (1973) and appeared in dozens of variety. In 1981, he won an Emmy Award for his sensitive portrayal of a mentally retarded man in the TV movie “Bill.”

In 1979, he teamed up with former MGM star Ann Miller to star in “Sugar Babies,” an old-fashioned burlesque revue. The musical was a surprise hit on Broadway, and Rooney performed nationwide until 1985. He received a Tony nomination in 1980.

Rooney continued to appear in movies, often playing a genial old mentor. He was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for “The Black Stallion” (1979) and won an honorary Oscar in 1983 in recognition of a versatile 60-year career.

In 1996, Rooney filed for bankruptcy again, saying he owed more than $1.75 million to the Internal Revenue Service.

Rooney graced the big screen once again a decade later in the blockbuster “Night at the Museum” (2006), opposite Ben Stiller, Dick Van Dyke and Robin Williams.

In July 2007 he hosted “Let’s Put on a Show,” a tribute to Judy Garland, which took him to 25 cities in the U.S. and U.K.

“That’s the way I have always lived, for the laughs — today,” Rooney said. “N-O-W. No Other Way.”

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