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Obit of the Day: Mickey Rooney, 88 Years in Movies
The first time Mickey Rooney performed in front of a theater audience he was only 18 months old and dressed in a tuxedo. The son of vaudevillians, he moved with his newly-divorced mother to Hollywood when he was four years old. He made his first movie appearance in 1926 when he was only six.
By the time he was seven, Mr. Rooney had earned his first starring role in a series of movie shorts that began with Mickey’s Circus (1927). By the time he career ended he appeared in more than 200 films and television shows over parts of ten decades. Peers like Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn called him the greatest actor in Hollywood
Mr. Rooney’s stardom peaked when he was only 19 and theater owners named him the most popular film star in America of 1939. He was earning rave reviews for his performances as “Andy Hardy,” considered a version of the “All-American boy.” He also co-starred in several musicals with fellow teenager Judy Garland. (The Rooney-Garland films were formulaic hits that often ended with the couple putting together a musical to raise money for a fictional cause.) Mr. Rooney would earn his first of four Academy Award nominations for his performance with Ms. Garland in Babes in Arms (1939).
It was also at this time that Mr. Rooney’s long-term romantic woes began. In 1942, he married Ava Gardner, then a 19-year-old starlet which ended in divorce a year later. Ms. Gardner dissolved the marriage because of Mr. Rooney’s extramarital affairs, drinking, and gambling. It was the first of eight marriages for the actor. (Mr. Rooney would claim, years later, that his gambling and alimony payments cost him $12 million.)
Earning a second Oscar nod in 1943 for The Human Comedy and his third in 1956 for The Bold and the Brave, Mr. Rooney’s career was gliding along smoothly as he starred in two to three films as year, including 1944’s hit National Velvet which co-starred a 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor. But like most child actors, age was his greatest enemy.
Decades later, while receiving an honorary Oscar in 1982, Mr. Rooney summed up his career: “When I was 19 years old, I was the number one star of the world for two years. When I was 40, nobody wanted me. I couldn’t get a job.”
Although he was using a bit of hyperbole, Mr. Rooney found himself no longer cast as the lead in most films. He transitioned to television and earned three Emmy nominations in the late 1950s and early ’60s for Best Single Performance by an actor. He had also found a place as a character actor in Hollywood earning rave reviews for his appearances in Breakfast at Tiffany’s(1961)*, Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).
His star began to rise once again in 1979 when he earned his fourth, and final, Academy Award nomination for his supporting role in The Black Stallion. A year later he made a triumphal return to Broadway, co-starring in the tribute to vaudeville Sugar Babies.
In 1981 he won his lone Emmy for his performance as “Bill” in the television movie of the same name. He portrayed a mentally disabled man who was living independently for the first time after release from a mental institution. Some critics considered it his best role, surpassing even his Oscar-nominated work.
Finally, it was in 1982 that he received his honorary Oscar for 60 years of work in film. Mr. Rooney, now in his 60s, was an icon once again.
Over the last thirty years of his career he embraced his role as Hollywood’s senior statesmen and satirized his own love life as well as his career longevity. He made guest appearances on Murder, She Wrote, The Simpsons, ER, and The Love Boat. He also did voiceover work for several animated films and shows including The Fox and the Hound, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, The Year Without a Santa Claus, and The Care Bears Movie. As late as 2014 Mr. Rooney filmed scenes for the upcoming production of Night at the Museum III.
Mickey Rooney died on April 6, 2014 at the age of 93.
(Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland singing “Our Love Affair” from the 1940 film Strike Up the Band when Rooney was 20 and Garland 18 years old. The film is copyright MGM and courtesy of TheManThatGetsAway on YouTube.com)
* Mr. Rooney’s portrayal of Mr. Yunioshiin Breakfast is obivously racist when watched 50 years later, but was considered high comedy at the time.
Also read Obit of the Day’s post on child star Shirley Temple who died on February 10, 2014