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Mickey Rooney Was Earliest Surviving Best Actor Oscar Nominee

Mickey Rooney Boys Town Spencer TracyMickey Rooney was earliest surviving Best Actor Oscar nominee (photo: Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy in 'Boys Town')

(See previous post: "Mickey Rooney Dead at 93: MGM's Andy Hardy Series' Hero and Judy Garland Frequent Co-Star Had Longest Film Career Ever?") Mickey Rooney was the earliest surviving Best Actor Academy Award nominee -- Babes in Arms, 1939; The Human Comedy, 1943 -- and the last surviving male acting Oscar nominee of the 1930s. Rooney lost the Best Actor Oscar to two considerably more "prestigious" -- albeit less popular -- stars: Robert Donat for Sam Wood's Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) and Paul Lukas for Herman Shumlin's Watch on the Rhine (1943).

Following Mickey Rooney's death, there are only two acting Academy Award nominees from the '30s still alive: two-time Best Actress winner Luise Rainer, 104 (for Robert Z. Leonard's The Great Ziegfeld, 1936, and Sidney Franklin's The Good Earth, 1937), and Best Supporting Actress nominee Olivia de Havilland, 97 (for Victor Fleming's Gone with the Wind, 1939). (See also: Luise Rainer, Olivia de Havilland, Danielle Darrieux, Michèle Morgan, Marsha Hunt, and Maureen O'Hara among few movie stars of the 1930s still alive.)

The earliest surviving Best Actor Oscar nominee is now Kirk Douglas, 97, nominated for Mark Robson's Champion (1949), Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), and Minnelli's Lust for Life (1956). The only other Best Actor nominee of the '50s still alive is Sidney Poitier, 87, shortlisted for Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones, 1958. Poitier also happens to be the earliest surviving Best Actor Oscar winner -- for Ralph Nelson's Lilies of the Field, 1963.

Following the recent deaths of Peter O'Toole and Maximilian Schell, besides Sidney Poitier, the only other surviving Best Actor Oscar nominees of the '60s are:

  • Stuart Whitman, 86, for Guy Green's The Mark (1961);
  • Albert Finney, 77, for Tony Richardson's Tom Jones (1963);
  • Alan Arkin, 80, for Norman Jewison's The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966) and Robert Ellis Miller's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968);
  • Michael Caine, 81, for Lewis Gilbert's Alfie (1966);
  • Warren Beatty, 77, for Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967);
  • Dustin Hoffman, 76, for Mike Nichols' The Graduate (1967) and John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy (1969);
  • Ron Moody, 90, for Carol Reed's Oliver! (1968);
  • Jon Voight, 75, for Midnight Cowboy.

Mickey Rooney: More Academy Award nominations, Special Oscars

Mickey Rooney's two other Oscar nominations, both as Best Supporting Actor, were for Lewis R. Foster's World War II drama The Bold and the Brave (1956) and Carroll Ballard's The Black Stallion (1979), with Rooney, like in Clarence Brown's Sussex-set horse-racing drama National Velvet (1945), once again as a horse trainer. Rooney lost to, respectively, Anthony Quinn for Lust for Life and fellow MGM veteran Melvyn Douglas for Hal Ashby's Being There.

Additionally, at the 1939 Academy Awards ceremony Rooney and Deanna Durbin were handed miniature Oscars "for their significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth, and as juvenile players setting a high standard of ability and achievement." And in 1982 he was given an Honorary Oscar for the bulk of his career.

For the record, the earliest surviving Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee is Don Murray, 84, nominated for Joshua Logan's Bus Stop (1956) -- coincidentally, the same year Mickey Rooney was nominated for The Bold and the Brave. The only other Best Supporting Actor nominees of the '50s still alive are Russ Tamblyn, 79, shortlisted for Mark Robson's Peyton Place (1957); Theodore Bikel, 89, for The Defiant Ones (1958); and Robert Vaughn, 81, for Vincent Sherman's The Young Philadelphians (1959).

The end of stardom

Mickey Rooney's last major hit at MGM was the aforementioned National Velvet, co-starring Elizabeth Taylor, and featuring Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Anne Revere. Getting away from his Andy Hardy persona, Rooney, by then 25 years old, plays an embittered drifter and former jockey who helps a girl (Taylor) get her horse ready for the Grand National steeplechase.

With the end of World War II came the end of Mickey Rooney's stardom. Upon his return from overseas, where he entertained U.S. soldiers for a couple of years, MGM attempted to revive Rooney's popularity, but with little luck: Willis Goldbeck's Love Laughs at Andy Hardy (1946) proved that Rooney was much too old to go on playing naive teens; Roy Rowland's Killer McCoy (1947), had Rooney cast against type as a boxer; while Rouben Mamoulian's Summer Holiday (1948), a musicalized version of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness!, failed to catch on, though it's well regarded in some quarters. (Rooney, in the role played by Jackie 'Butch' Jenkins in the musical, had been featured in MGM's 1935 version of O'Neill's play.)

Another disappointment was the all-star musical Words and Music (1948), co-starring Tom Drake and Janet Leigh, and which featured the 5'3" Rooney playing gay composer Lorenz Hart as a heterosexual man in love with Betty Garrett, who just happens to be much too tall for him. And therein lies some of the film's drama. Worth noting, Words and Music marked the last time Rooney and Judy Garland were featured in the same movie.

By 1949, Mickey Rooney was gone from MGM. At that time he could find leading roles only in minor productions, e.g., Tay Garnett's The Fireball (1950) at 20th Century Fox, a sports drama notable for featuring one of Marilyn Monroe's early film appearances; Irving Pichel's crime drama Quicksand (1950); and, back at MGM, a couple of minor releases: László Kardos' The Strip (1951) and Don Weis' A Slight Case of Larceny (1953).

From then on, Rooney would alternate between leads in smaller movies -- e.g., Baby Face Nelson (1957), in the title role; The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (1960), which he codirected -- and supporting roles in bigger productions such as the Jack Lemmon comedy Operation Mad Ball (1957) and the Audrey Hepburn star vehicle Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), in which Rooney was irritatingly miscast as the bucktoothed Mr. Yunioshi.

In recent years, Mickey Rooney could be found in supporting roles in movies as diverse as Ben Stiller's blockbuster Night at the Museum (2006), Todd Wolfe's little-seen indie comedy-drama Saddle Up with Dick Wrangler & Injun Joe, and James Bobin's The Muppets (2011).

Mickey Rooney: Television, stage work

On television, Mickey Rooney's best-received role is probably that of the mentally retarded Bill Sackter in Anthony Page's Bill (1981), which earned Rooney an Emmy, and its sequel, Bill: On His Own (1983), which earned him an Emmy nomination. Rooney was shortlisted for three other Emmy awards for his guest/lead roles in the anthology television series Playhouse 90 (episode "The Comedian," 1956), Alcoa Theater (episode "Eddie," 1957), and The Dick Powell Show (episode "Somebody's Waiting," 1961).

On stage, in the late '70s Mickey Rooney made a huge comeback with the musical revue Sugar Babies, co-starring fellow Hollywood veteran Ann Miller. For his efforts, he was nominated for a Tony in 1980.

Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy Boys Town photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. A major box-office hit, the saccharine Boys Town (1938) solidified the popularity of both Rooney and Tracy. The latter won his second consecutive Best Actor Academy Award for his performance as the real-life Father Flanagan, who, at least according to the film, teaches a toughie (Rooney) a few things about The Life Worth Living.

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