By Anthony McCartney
AP Entertainment Writer
LOS ANGELES – Mickey Rooney’s approach to life was simple: “Let’s put on a show!” He spent nine decades doing it, on the big screen, on television, on stage and in his extravagant personal life.
A superstar in his youth, Rooney was Hollywood’s top box-office draw in the late 1930s to early 1940s. He epitomized the “show” part of show business, even if the business end sometimes failed him amid money troubles and a seesaw of career tailspins and revivals.
Pint-sized, precocious, impish, irrepressible — perhaps hardy is the most-suitable adjective for Rooney, a perennial comeback artist whose early blockbuster success as the vexing but wholesome Andy Hardy and as Judy Garland’s musical comrade in arms was bookended 70 years later with roles in “Night at the Museum” and “The Muppets.”
Rooney died Sunday at age 93 surrounded by family at his North Hollywood home, police said. The Los Angeles County Coroner’s office said Rooney died a natural death.
There were no further details immediately available on the cause of death, but Rooney did attend Vanity Fair’s Oscar party last month, where he posed for photos with other veteran stars and seemed fine. He was also shooting a movie at the time of his death, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” with Margaret O’Brien.
He was nominated for four Academy Awards over a four-decade span and received two special Oscars for film achievements, won an Emmy for his TV movie “Bill” and had a Tony nomination for his Broadway smash “Sugar Babies.”
“I loved working with Mickey on ‘Sugar Babies.’ He was very professional, his stories were priceless and I love them all … each and every one. We laughed all the time,” Carol Channing said.
Small man, big talent
A small man physically, Rooney was prodigious in talent, scope, ambition and appetite. He sang and danced, played roles both serious and silly, wrote memoirs, a novel, movie scripts and plays and married eight times, siring 11 children.
His first marriage — to the glamorous, and taller, Ava Gardner — lasted only a year. But a fond recollection from Rooney years later — “I’m 5 feet 3, but I was 6 feet 4 when I married Ava” — summed up the man’s passion and capacity for life.
Rooney began as a toddler in his parents’ vaudeville act in the 1920s. He was barely six when he first appeared on screen, playing a midget in the 1926 silent comedy short “Not to Be Trusted,” and he was still at it more than 80 years later, working incessantly as he racked up about 250 screen credits in a career unrivaled for length and variety.
“I always say, ‘Don’t retire — inspire,”’ Rooney said in an interview with The Associated Press in March 2008. “There’s a lot to be done.”
This from a man who did more than just about anyone in Hollywood and outlasted pretty much everyone from old Hollywood.
Rooney was among the last survivors of the studio era, which his career predated, most notably with the lead in a series of “Mickey McGuire” kid comedy shorts from the late 1920s to early ‘30s that were meant to rival Hal Roach’s “Our Gang” flicks.
After signing with MGM in 1934, Rooney landed his first big role playing Clark Gable’s character as a boy in “Manhattan Melodrama.” A year later, still only in his mid-teens, Rooney was doing Shakespeare, playing an exuberant Puck in Max Reinhardt’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which also featured James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland.
Rooney soon was earning $300 a week with featured roles in such films as “Riff Raff,” “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” “Captains Courageous” and “The Devil Is a Sissy.”
Then came Andy Hardy in the 1937 comedy “A Family Affair,” a role he would reprise in 15 more feature films over the next two decades. Centered on a kindly small-town judge (Lionel Barrymore) who delivers character-building homilies to troublesome son Andy, it was pure corn, but it turned out to be golden corn for MGM, becoming a runaway success with audiences.
“I knew ‘A Family Affair’ was a B picture, but that didn’t stop me from putting my all in it,” Rooney recalled.
Studio boss Louis B. Mayer saw “A Family Affair” as a template for a series of movies about a model American home. Cast changes followed, most notably with Lewis Stone replacing Barrymore in the sequels, but Rooney stayed on, his role built up until he became the focus of the films, which included “The Courtship of Andy Hardy,” “Andy Hardy’s Double Life” and “Love Finds Andy Hardy,” the latter featuring fellow child star Garland.
He played a delinquent humbled by Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan in 1938’s “Boys Town” and Mark Twain’s timeless scamp in 1939’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
Rooney’s peppy, all-American charm was never better matched than when he appeared opposite Garland in such films as “Babes on Broadway” and “Strike up the Band,” musicals built around that “Let’s put on a show” theme.
One of them, 1939’s “Babes in Arms,” earned Rooney a best-actor Oscar nomination, a year after he received a special Oscar shared with Deanna Durbin for “bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth, and as juvenile players setting a high standard of ability and achievement.”
He earned another best-actor nomination for 1943’s “The Human Comedy,” adapted from William Saroyan’s sentimental tale about small-town life during World War II. The performance was among Rooney’s finest.
“Mickey Rooney, to me, is the closest thing to a genius I ever worked with,” “Human Comedy” director Clarence Brown once said.
Brown also directed Rooney and Elizabeth Taylor in 1944’s horse-racing hit “National Velvet,” but by then, Rooney was becoming a cautionary tale for early fame. He earned a reputation for drunken escapades and quickie romances and was unlucky in both money and love. In 1942 he married for the first time, to Gardner, the statuesque MGM beauty. He was 21, she was 19.
They divorced a year later. Rooney joined the Army, spending most of his World War II service entertaining troops.
When he returned to Hollywood, disillusionment awaited him. His savings had been stolen by a manager and his career was in a nose dive. He made two films at MGM, then his contract was dropped.
“I began to realize how few friends everyone has,” he wrote in one of autobiographies. “All those Hollywood friends I had in 1938, 1939, 1940 and 1941, when I was the toast of the world, weren’t friends at all.”
His movie career never regained its prewar eminence. “The Bold and the Brave,” 1956 World War II drama, brought him an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor. But mostly, he played second leads in such films as “Off Limits” with Bob Hope, “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” with William Holden, and “Requiem for a Heavyweight” with Anthony Quinn.
In the early 1960s, he had a wild turn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” as Audrey Hepburn’s bucktoothed Japanese neighbor, and he was among the fortune seekers in the all-star comedy “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.”
Rooney’s starring roles came in low-budget films such as “Drive a Crooked Road,” “The Atomic Kid,” “Platinum High School,” “The Twinkle in God’s Eye” and “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.”
But no one ever could count Rooney out. He earned a fourth Oscar nomination, as supporting actor, for 1979’s “Black Stallion,” the same year he starred with Ann Miller in the Broadway revue “Sugar Babies,” which brought him a Tony nomination and millions of dollars during his years with the show.
“I’ve been coming back like a rubber ball for years,” Rooney wisecracked at the time.
In 1981 came his Emmy-winning performance as a disturbed man in “Bill.” He found success with voice roles for animated films such as “The Fox and the Hound,” “The Care Bears Movie” and “Little Nemo.”
“He was undoubtedly the most talented actor that ever lived. There was nothing he couldn’t do. Singing, dancing, performing … all with great expertise,” Margaret O’Brien said. “I was currently doing a film with him, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr Hyde.” I simply can’t believe it. He seemed fine through the filming and was as great as ever.”
Biographical material in this story was written by former AP reporter David Germain and the late AP reporter Bob Thomas. AP National Writer Hillel Italie in New York and writers Lynn Elber and Sue Manning in Los Angeles contributed to this report.