He has received multiple awards, including a Juvenile Academy Award, an Honorary Academy Award, two Golden Globes and an Emmy Award. Working as a performer since he was a child, he was a superstar as a teenager for the films in which he played Andy Hardy, and he has had one of the longest careers of any actor, to date spanning 91 years actively making films in ten decades, from 1920s to 2010s. For a younger generation of fans, he gained international fame for his leading role as Henry Dailey in The Family Channel‘s The Adventures of the Black Stallion.
Along with Jean Darling, and Baby Peggy, he is one of the last surviving stars who worked in the silent film era. He is also the last surviving cast member of several films in which he appeared during the 1930s and 1940s.
Rooney was born Joseph Yule, Jr. in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. His father, Joseph Yule, was from Glasgow, Scotland, and his mother, Nellie W. (née Carter), was from Kansas City, Missouri. Both of his parents were in vaudeville, appearing in a Brooklyn production of A Gaiety Girl when Joseph, Jr. was born. He began performing at the age of 17 months as part of his parents’ routine, wearing a specially tailored tuxedo.
When he was fourteen months old, unknown to everyone, he crawled onstage wearing overalls and a little harmonica around his neck. He sneezed and his father, Joe Sr., grabbed him up, introducing him to the audience as Sonny Yule. He felt the spotlight on him and has described it as his mother’s womb. From that moment on, the stage was his home.
His father was a womanizer and a heavy drinker, leaving the family when Joe Jr. was only three. While Joe Sr. was traveling, Joe Jr. and his mother moved from Brooklyn to Kansas City to live with his aunt. While his mother was reading the entertainment newspaper, Nellie was interested in getting Hal Roach to approach the young star to participate in the Our Gang series in Hollywood. Roach offered $5 a day to Joe, Jr., while the other young stars were paid five times more.
As he was getting bit parts in films, he was working with other established film stars such as Joel McCrea, Colleen Moore, Clark Gable, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., andJean Harlow. While selling newspapers around the corner, he also entered into Hollywood Professional School, where he went to school with dozens of unfamiliar students such as: Joseph A. Wapner, Nanette Fabray, Judy Garland, Lana Turner, among many others, and later Hollywood High School, where he graduated in 1938.
The Yules separated in 1924 during a slump in vaudeville, and in 1925, Nell Yule moved with her son to Hollywood, where she managed a tourist home. Fontaine Fox had placed a newspaper ad for a dark-haired child to play the role of “Mickey McGuire” in a series of short films. Lacking the money to have her son’s hair dyed, Mrs. Yule took her son to the audition after applying burnt cork to his scalp. Joe got the role and became “Mickey” for 78 of the comedies, running from 1927 to 1936, starting with Mickey’s Circus, released September 4, 1927. These had been adapted from the Toonerville Trolley comic strip, which contained a character named Mickey McGuire. Joe Yule briefly became Mickey McGuire legally in order to trump an attempted copyright lawsuit (if it were his legal name, the film producer Larry Darmourdid not owe the comic strip writers royalties). His mother also changed her surname to McGuire in an attempt to bolster the argument, but the film producers lost. The litigation settlement awarded damages to the owners of the cartoon character, compelling the twelve-year-old actor to refrain from calling himself Mickey McGuire on- and offscreen.
Rooney later claimed that, during his Mickey McGuire days, he met cartoonist Walt Disney at the Warner Brothers studio, and that Disney was inspired to name Mickey Mouse after him, although Disney always said that he had changed the name from “Mortimer Mouse” to “Mickey Mouse” on the suggestion of his wife.
During an interruption in the series in 1932, Mrs. Yule made plans to take her son on a ten-week vaudeville tour as McGuire, and Fox sued successfully to stop him from using the name. Mrs. Yule suggested the stage name of Mickey Looney for her comedian son, which he altered slightly to Rooney, a less frivolous version. Rooney made other films in his adolescence, including several more of the McGuire films, and signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1934. MGM cast Rooney as the teenage son of a judge in 1937’s A Family Affair, setting Rooney on the way to another successful film series.
“Andy Hardy” and Judy Garland
In 1937, Rooney was selected to portray Andy Hardy in A Family Affair (1937), which MGM had planned as a B-movie. Rooney provided comic relief as the son of Judge James K. Hardy, portrayed by Lionel Barrymore (although Lewis Stone would play the role of Judge Hardy in subsequent films). The film was an unexpected success, and led to 13 more Andy Hardy films between 1937 and 1946, and a final film in 1958. Rooney also received top billing as “Shockey Carter” in Hoosier Schoolboy (1937).
Also in 1937, Rooney made his first film alongside Judy Garland with Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry. Garland and Rooney became close friends and a successful song-and-dance team. Besides three of the Andy Hardy films, where she portrayed Betsy Booth, a younger girl with a crush on Andy, they appeared together in a string of successful musicals, including the Oscar-nominated Babes in Arms (1939). During an interview in the 1992 documentary film MGM: When the Lion Roars, Rooney describes their friendship:
“Judy and I were so close we could’ve come from the same womb. We weren’t like brothers or sisters but there was no love affair there; there was more than a love affair. It’s very, very difficult to explain the depths of our love for each other. It was so special. It was a forever love. Judy, as we speak, has not passed away. She’s always with me in every heartbeat of my body.”
Rooney’s breakthrough-role as a dramatic actor came in 1938’s Boys Town opposite Spencer Tracy as Whitey Marsh, which opened shortly before his 18th birthday. Rooney was awarded a special Juvenile Academy Award in 1939 and was named the biggest box-office draw in 1939, 1940 and 1941. A well-known entertainer by the early 1940s, his picture appeared on the cover of the March 18, 1940 issue ofTime magazine, timed to coincide with the release of Young Tom Edison; the cover story began:
“Hollywood’s No. 1 box office bait in 1939 was not Clark Gable, Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power, but a rope-haired, kazoo-voiced kid with a comic-strip face, who until this week had never appeared in a picture without mugging or overacting it. His name (assumed) was Mickey Rooney, and to a large part of the more articulate U. S. cinemaudience, his name was becoming a frequently used synonym for brat.”
Rooney, with Garland, was one of many celebrities caricatured in Tex Avery‘s 1941 Warner Bros. cartoon Hollywood Steps Out. As of 2013, Rooney is the only surviving entertainer depicted in the cartoon. In 1991, Rooney was honored by the Young Artist Foundation with its Former Child Star “Lifetime Achievement” Award recognizing his achievements within the film industry as a child actor. After presenting the award to Rooney, the foundation subsequently renamed the accolade “The Mickey Rooney Award” in his honor.
After the war
In 1944, Rooney entered military service. He served more than twenty-one months, until shortly after the end of World War II. During and after the war he helped entertain the troops in America and Europe, and spent part of the time as a radio personality on the American Forces Network and was awarded the Bronze Star Medalfor entertaining troops in combat zones. In addition to the Bronze Star Medal, Rooney also received the Army Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign Medal,European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, and World War II Victory Medal for his military service.
After his return to civilian life, his career slumped. He appeared in a number of films, including Words and Music in 1948, which paired him for the last time with Garland on film (he appeared with her on one episode as a guest on her CBS variety series in 1963). He briefly starred in a CBS radio series, Shorty Bell, in the summer of 1948, and reprised his role as “Andy Hardy”, with most of the original cast, in a syndicated radio version of The Hardy Family in 1949 and 1950 (repeated on Mutual during 1952).
His first television series, The Mickey Rooney Show: Hey, Mulligan (created by Blake Edwards with Rooney as his own producer), appeared on NBC television for thirty-two episodes between August 28, 1954 and June 4, 1955. In 1951, he directed a feature film for Columbia Pictures, My True Story starring Helen Walker. Rooney also starred as a ragingly egomaniacal television comedian in the live 90-minute television drama The Comedian, in the Playhouse 90 series on the evening ofValentine’s Day in 1957, and as himself in a revue called The Musical Revue of 1959 based on the 1929 film The Hollywood Revue of 1929, which was edited into a film in 1960, by British International Pictures.
In 1958, Rooney joined Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra in hosting an episode of NBC’s short-lived Club Oasis comedy and variety show. In 1960, Rooney directed and starred in The Private Lives of Adam and Eve, an ambitious comedy known for its multiple flashbacks and many cameos. In the 1960s, Rooney returned to theatrical entertainment. He still accepted film roles in undistinguished films, but occasionally would appear in better works, such as Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and The Black Stallion (1979). One of Rooney’s more controversial roles came in the highly-acclaimed 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s where he played a stereotyped buck-toothed myopic Japanese neighbor (Mr. Yunioshi) of the main character, Holly Golightly. Despite Rooney’s protests that he was congratulated for the role by Asians, that role would later be held up as one of the most notorious examples of Hollywood’s history of stereotypical depictions of that racial group.
On December 31, 1961, he appeared on television’s What’s My Line and mentioned that he had already started enrolling students in the MRSE (Mickey Rooney School of Entertainment). His school venture never came to fruition. This was a period of professional distress for Rooney; as a childhood friend, director Richard Quine put it: “Let’s face it. It wasn’t all that easy to find roles for a 5-foot-3 man who’d passed the age of Andy Hardy.” In 1962, his debts had forced him into filing for bankruptcy.
In 1966, while Rooney was working on the film Ambush Bay in the Philippines, his wife Barbara Ann Thomason (akas: Tara Thomas, Carolyn Mitchell), a former pinup model and aspiring actress who had won 17 straight beauty contests in Southern California, was found dead in their bed. Beside her was her lover, Milos Milos, an actor friend of Rooney’s. Detectives ruled it murder-suicide, which was committed with Rooney’s own gun.
Rooney was awarded an Academy Juvenile Award in 1938, and in 1983 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted him their Academy Honorary Award for his lifetime of achievement. He was mentioned in the 1972 song “Celluloid Heroes” by The Kinks: “If you stomped on Mickey Rooney/ He’d still turn ’round and smile…”
Character actor[edit source | editbeta]
In addition to his movie roles, Rooney made numerous guest-starring roles as a character actor for nearly six decades, beginning with an episode of Celanese Theatre. The part led to other roles on such television series as Schlitz Playhouse, Playhouse 90, Producers’ Showcase, Alcoa Theatre, Wagon Train, General Electric Theater, Hennesey, TheDick Powell Theatre, Arrest and Trial, Burke’s Law, Combat!, The Fugitive, Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, The Jean Arthur Show, The Name of the Game, Dan August, Night Gallery, The Love Boat, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, among many others.
Television, stage and The Black Stallion
Rooney made a successful transition to television and stage work. In 1961, he guest-starred in the 13-week James Franciscus adventure–drama CBS television series The Investigators. In 1962, he was cast as himself in the episode “The Top Banana” of the CBS sitcom, Pete and Gladys, starring Harry Morgan and Cara Williams.
In 1963, he entered CBS’s The Twilight Zone, giving a one-man performance in the episode “The Last Night of a Jockey“. Also in 1963, in ‘The Hunt’ episode 9, season 1 forSuspense Theater, he played the sadistic sheriff hunting the young surfer played by James Caan. In 1964, he launched another half-hour sitcom, Mickey, on ABC. The story line had “Mickey” operating a resort hotel in southern California. Son Tim Rooney appeared as Rooney’s teenaged son on this program, and Emmaline Henry starred as Rooney’s wife. It lasted 17 episodes, ending primarily due to the suicide of co-star Sammee Tong in October 1964.
He won a Golden Globe and an Emmy Award for his role in 1981’s Bill. Playing opposite Dennis Quaid, Rooney’s character was a mentally-challenged man attempting to live on his own after leaving an institution. He reprised his role in 1983’s Bill: On His Own, earning an Emmy nomination for the role.
Rooney provided the voices for four Christmas TV animated/stop action specials: Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (1970), The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974), Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979), and A Miser Brothers’ Christmas (2008)—always playing Santa Claus.
He continued to work on stage and television through the 1980s and 1990s, appearing in the acclaimed stage play Sugar Babies with Ann Miller beginning in 1979. Following this, he toured as Pseudelous in Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. In the 1990s, he returned to Broadway for the final months of Will Rogers Follies, playing the ghost of Will’s father. On television, he starred in the short-lived sitcom, One of the Boys, along with two unfamiliar young stars, Dana Carvey and Nathan Lane, in 1982. He toured Canada in a dinner theatre production of The Mind with the Naughty Man in the mid-1990s. He played The Wizard in a stage production of The Wizard of Oz with Eartha Kitt at Madison Square Garden. Kitt was later replaced by Jo Anne Worley. In 1995 he starred with Charlton Heston, Peter Graves and Deborah Winters in the Warren Chaney docudrama America: A Call to Greatness. He also appeared in the documentaries That’s Entertainment! and That’s Entertainment! III, in both films introducing segments paying tribute to Judy Garland.
Rooney voiced Mr. Cherrywood in The Care Bears Movie (1985), and starred as the Movie Mason in a Disney Channel Original Movie family film 2000’s Phantom of the Megaplex. He had a guest-spot on an episode of The Golden Girls as Sophia’s boyfriend “Rocko”, who claimed to be a bank robber. He voiced himself in the Simpsonsepisode “Radioactive Man” of 1995. In 1996–97, Rooney played Talbut on the TV series, Kleo The Misfit Unicorn. He costarred in Night at the Museum in 2006 with Dick Van Dyke and Ben Stiller; Rooney filmed a cameo with Van Dyke for the 2009 sequel, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, which was cut from the film but included as an extra on the DVD release.
After starring in one unsuccessful TV series and turning down an offer for a huge TV series, Rooney finally hit the jackpot, at 70, when he was offered a starring role on The Family Channel’s The Adventures of the Black Stallion, where he reprised his role as Henry Dailey in the film of the same name, eleven years earlier. The show was based on a novel by Walter Farley. For this role, he had to travel to Vancouver. Like the show itself, the Black Stallion TV series, Rooney became one of the most beloved stars. The show became an immediate hit with teenagers, young adults and people all over the world, being seen in 70 countries.
Rooney appeared in television commercials for Garden State Life Insurance Company in 1999, alongside his wife Jan Rooney. In commercials shown in 2007, he can be seen in the background washing imaginary dishes.
In 2003, Rooney and his wife began their association with Rainbow Puppet Productions, providing their voices to the 100th Anniversary production of Toyland!, an adaptation of Victor Herbert‘s Babes in Toyland. He created the voice for the Master Toymaker while Jan provided the voice for Mother Goose. Since that time, they have created voices for additional Rainbow Puppet Productions including Pirate Party, which also features vocal performances by Carol Channing. Both productions continue to tour theaters across the country.
He continues to work in film and tours with his wife in a multi-media live stage production called Let’s Put On a Show! His first performance of this show after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack was in Bend, Oregon, in which Mickey and Jan requested that the show begin with the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner” by Jan offstage with only the American flag visible on stage.
On May 26, 2007, he was grand marshal at the Garden Grove Strawberry Festival. Rooney made his British pantomime debut, playing Baron Hardup in Cinderella, at the Sunderland Empire Theatre over the 2007 Christmas period, a role he reprised in 2009 at the Milton Keynes theatre.
In 2008, Rooney starred as Chief, a wise old ranch owner, in the independent family feature film Lost Stallions: The Journey Home, marking a return to starring in equestrian-themed productions for the first time since the 1990s TV show Adventures of the Black Stallion. Even though they acted together before, Lost Stallions: The Journey Home is the sole film to date in which Rooney and Jan portrayed a married couple onscreen.
Rooney made a brief cameo appearance in The Muppets (2011), making his career span ten decades.
In 2011, Rooney appeared in an episode of Celebrity Ghost Stories, recounting how, during a down period in his career, his deceased father appeared to him one night, telling him not to give up on his career. He claims that the experience bolstered his resolve and soon afterwards his career experienced a resurgence.
Rooney has been married eight times. In the 1950s and 1960s, he was often the subject of comedians’ jokes for his alleged inability to stay married. He is currently married to Jan Chamberlin. In 2013, this eighth marriage reached a milestone for reaching the same span of time from Rooney’s first marriage to his last divorce. He has a total of nine children, as well as nineteen grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.
In 1942, he married future Hollywood starlet Ava Gardner, but the two were divorced well before she became a star in her own right. While stationed in the military in Alabama in 1944, Rooney met and married local beauty-queen Betty Jane Phillips. This marriage ended in divorce after he returned from Europe at the end of World War II. His subsequent marriages to Martha Vickers (1949) and Elaine Mahnken (1952) were also short-lived and ended in divorce. In 1958, Rooney married Barbara Ann Thomason, but tragedy struck when she was murdered in 1966. Falling into deep depression, he married Barbara’s friend, Marge Lane, who helped him take care of his young children. The marriage lasted only 100 days. He was married to Carolyn Hockett from 1969 to 1974, but financial instability ended the relationship. Finally, in 1978, Rooney married Jan Chamberlin, his 8th wife.
Rooney is an outspoken advocate for veterans and senior rights.
On September 23, 2010, Rooney celebrated his 90th birthday at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency in the Upper East Side of New York City. Among the people who were attending the party were: Donald Trump, Regis Philbin, Nathan Lane and Tony Bennett. In December 2010 he was honored as Turner Classic Movies Star of the Month.
On February 16, 2011, Rooney was granted a temporary restraining order against Christopher Aber, one of Jan Rooney’s two sons from a previous marriage. On March 2, 2011 Rooney appeared before a special U.S. Senate committee that was considering legislation to curb elder abuse. Rooney stated that he was financially abused by unnamed family members. On March 27, 2011, all of Rooney’s finances were permanently handed over to lawyers over the claim of missing money.
In April 2011, the temporary restraining order that Rooney was previously granted was replaced by a confidential settlement between Rooney and his stepson. Christopher Aber and Jan Rooney have denied all the allegations.
In May of 2013, Mickey sold his house of many years, separated from his wife Jan Rooney and split the proceeds