Mickey Rooney dead at 93: Four-time Oscar nominee & frequent Judy Garland co-star may have had the longest film career ever
Mickey Rooney, four-time Academy Award nominee and one of the biggest domestic box office draws during the studio era, died of “natural causes” on Sunday, April 6, at his home in the Los Angeles suburb of North Hollywood. The Brooklyn-born Rooney (as Joseph Yule Jr., on Sept. 23, 1920) had reportedly been in ill health for some time. He was 93.
Besides his countless movies, and numerous television and stage appearances, Mickey Rooney was also known for his stormy private life, which featured boozing and gambling, some widely publicized family infighting (including his testifying in Congress in 2011 about elder abuse), his filing for bankruptcy in 1962 after having earned a reported $12 million (and then going bankrupt again in 1996), his eight marriages – including those to actresses Ava Gardner, Martha Vickers, and Barbara Ann Thomason (a.k.a. Carolyn Mitchell), who was killed in a murder-suicide by her lover, former Alain Delon stunt double Milos Milosevic (a.k.a. Milos Milos), in 1966.
Mickey Rooney also had his share of factual and alleged off-screen affairs. The most notable one in the latter category had Rooney romancing Queen of MGM Norma Shearer, then the widow of the studio’s former second-in-command, Irving G. Thalberg. The Rooney-Shearer affair is discussed in Shearer’s biography by Gavin Lambert (apparently using Rooney as a source) and in one of Rooney’s own autobiographies, Life Is Too Short. Yet, in a letter to the Los Angeles Times following the publication of Rooney’s book, a woman claiming to have been Shearer’s secretary in the mid-’30s asserted that the affair never took place, recalling that in the late ’30s the up-and-coming teen star had become enamored of the veteran superstar twenty years his senior, who laughed off “that little Munchkin.”
Mickey Rooney: Longest film career in history?
Mickey Rooney may well have enjoyed the longest film career in history. “I’ve been working all my life, but it seems longer,” he once said – and that was no overstatement.
By then already a stage veteran (he used to play a tuxedo-clad midget in his parent’s vaudeville act), at age seven Rooney – billed as Mickey McGuire – was showcased in a series of silent comedy shorts revolving around his character, e.g., Mickey’s Circus (1927), Mickey’s Little Eva (1927), and Mickey’s Babies (1928). From then on, he continued to work steadily in films all the way to the 2010s. Rooney’s runners-up are probably Lillian Gish, who, with a few gaps, worked steadily in films from An Unseen Enemy, 1912, to The Whales of August, 1987; and Danielle Darrieux, a film star from Le Bal, 1931, all the way to The Wedding Cake / Pièce montée, 2010.)
According to the IMDb, Mickey Rooney was last seen – in supporting roles – in three 2012 productions: Michael Mandell’s The Woods, Tony DeGuide’s The Voices from Beyond, and Steve Marshall’s Driving Me Crazy, also featuring old timer Celeste Holm. Additionally, Rooney had a role in B. Luciano Barsuglia’s version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, listed as “currently filming.” Rooney’s fellow MGM star Margaret O’Brien is also featured in the film’s credits.
Between the dying days of the silent era and the early 21st century, Mickey Rooney was featured in more than 250 titles, including both shorts and features, starring and minor supporting roles, and prestigious and grade-Z productions. His heyday went from the late ’30s to the mid-’40s – a brief span when, as an MGM star, Rooney became one of the top box office attractions in the United States. In fact, for all it’s worth, for three years in a row (1939-1941) U.S. film exhibitors voted him the country’s top box office star, ahead of the likes of Clark Gable, Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, Errol Flynn, and Bette Davis. Rooney’s best-known efforts during that period were the Andy Hardy movie series and his various musical pairings with fellow juvenile MGM star Judy Garland.
Mickey Rooney movies: Andy Hardy series
MGM’s first Andy Hardy movie came out in 1937: A Family Affair, directed by George B. Seitz (who would stay on with the series), and featuring Mickey Rooney as the irrepressible all-American boy Andy Hardy; Best Actor Academy Award winner Lionel Barrymore (A Free Soul) as his father, Judge Hardy; Spring Byington as the judge’s wife, Emily; and Cecilia Parker as their daughter, Marian. In subsequent films, stage and screen veteran Lewis Stone (The Prisoner of Zenda, Scaramouche) replaced Barrymore, Fay Holden took over from Byington, and Ann Rutherford (later of Gone with the Wind fame) was added as Andy Hardy’s (chaste) love interest, Polly.
It’s unclear whether or not anyone in their right minds ever believed that small-town American boys – or any small-town boy from anywhere in the world, for that matter – ever behaved like Mickey Rooney’s gee-whizzing Andy Hardy. But MGM couldn’t care less; those movies were cheaply made, and thus easily profitable. Moreover, they matched the idealized (i.e., traditionalist, reactionary) image of American life that studio boss Louis B. Mayer liked to propagate, and that, however dishonest, millions of Americans liked to pretend was true. And finally, the Andy Hardy movies served as a training ground for some of the studio’s young female talent, e.g., Judy Garland (Love Finds Andy Hardy, Andy Hardy Meets Debutante), Esther Williams (Andy Hardy’s Double Life), Lana Turner (Love Finds Andy Hardy), Kathryn Grayson (Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary), and Donna Reed (The Courtship of Andy Hardy).
Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland musicals
In terms of plot and character, Mickey Rooney’s musicals with Judy Garland were just as puerile as the Andy Hardy films. However, they were immensely popular, and were truly A-grade productions, at times featuring lavish musical numbers. Noteworthy among these were Busby Berkeley’s Babes in Arms (1939), which – somehow – earned Mickey Rooney a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for his performance as a hyperkinetic teenager determined to put on a show (unfortunately, he succeeds); Berkeley’s Babes on Broadway (1941), in which Rooney gets to dress up in drag and do a Carmen Miranda imitation and dance in black face opposite Judy Garland; and MGM’s version of George Gershwin’s Broadway hit Girl Crazy (1943), whose highlight is June Allyson in her feature film debut. For the last title, Norman Taurog (who had previously directed Mickey Rooney in the 1938 hit Boys Town) replaced Busby Berkeley, who reportedly quit the production after running into problems with Garland (whose role was, bizarrely enough, an amalgam of Ethel Merman’s and Ginger Roger’s in the Broadway original.)
Mickey Rooney’s other Best Actor Oscar nod was for the unabashedly sentimental drama The Human Comedy (1943), directed by veteran Clarence Brown (The Goose Woman, Flesh and the Devil) and initially written by William Saroyan (who received “story” credit; Howard Estabrook was credited for the actual screenplay). Set in a fictional California town during World War II, The Human Comedy features Rooney once again playing a variation of Andy Hardy, but with more serious undertones. (See also: “Mickey Rooney Movies: Music and Murder,” Mickey Rooney photos at an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences poster exhibit.)
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.
- 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 Kardo’s The Strip (1951) and Don Wei’s 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.
Mickey Rooney photo: MGM publicity shot ca. 1940.