Mickey Rooney (born Joseph Yule, Jr.; September 23, 1920 – April 6, 2014) was an American actor of film, television, Broadway, radio, and vaudeville. In a career spanning nine decades and continuing until shortly before his death, he appeared in more than 300 films and was one of the last surviving stars of the silent film era.
At the height of a career that was marked by precipitous declines and raging comebacks, Rooney played the role of Andy Hardy in a series of fifteen films in the 1930s and 1940s that epitomized American family values. A versatile performer, he could sing, dance, clown, and play various musical instruments, becoming a celebrated character actor later in his career. Laurence Olivier once said he considered Rooney "the best there has ever been." Clarence Brown, who directed him in two of his earliest dramatic roles, National Velvet and The Human Comedy, said he was "the closest thing to a genius I ever worked with."
Rooney first performed in vaudeville as a child and made his film debut at the age of six. At thirteen he played the role of Puck in the play and later the 1935 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream. His performance was hailed by critic David Thomson as "one of cinema's most arresting pieces of magic". In 1938, he co-starred with Spencer Tracy in the Academy Award-winning film Boys Town. At nineteen he was the first teenager to be nominated for an Oscar for his leading role in Babes in Arms, and he was awarded a special Academy Juvenile Award in 1939. At the peak of his career between the ages of 15 and 25, he made forty-three films and co-starred alongside Judy Garland, Wallace Beery, Spencer Tracy, and Elizabeth Taylor. He was one of MGM's most consistently successful actors and a favorite of studio head Louis B. Mayer.
Rooney was the top box office attraction from 1939 to 1941, and one of the best-paid actors of that era, but his career never rose to such heights again. Drafted into the Army during World War II, he served nearly two years entertaining over two million troops on stage and radio and was awarded a Bronze Star for performing in combat zones. Returning from the war in 1945, he was too old for juvenile roles but too short to be an adult movie star, and he was not able to obtain acting roles as significant as before. Nevertheless, Rooney was tenacious and he rebounded, his popularity renewed with well-received supporting roles in films such as Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and The Black Stallion (1979) for which he was nominated for an Oscar. In the early 1980s, he returned to Broadway in Sugar Babies and again became a celebrated star. Rooney made hundreds of appearances on TV, including dramas, variety programs, and talk shows. During his career, he received four Academy Award nominations and was nominated for five Emmy Awards, winning one.
At his death, Vanity Fair called him "the original
Becoming a Star
In 1937, Rooney received top billing as Shockey Carter in Hoosier Schoolboy but his breakthrough-role as a dramatic actor came in 1938's Boys Town opposite Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan, who runs a home for wayward and homeless boys in Omaha, Nebraska, and helps the boys get their lives back together. Rooney was awarded a special Juvenile Academy Award in 1939 and
The popularity of his films made Rooney the biggest box-office draw in 1939, 1940 and 1941. For their roles in
A major star in the early 1940s, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1940, timed to coincide with the release of Young Tom Edison; the cover story began:
During his long career, Rooney also worked with many of the silver screen's greatest leading ladies, including Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet (1944) and Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)." Rooney's "bumptiousness and boyish charm" as an actor would develop more "smoothness and polish" over the years, writes biographer Scott Eyman. The fact that Rooney fully enjoyed his life as an actor played a large role in those changes:
Clarence Brown, who directed Rooney in his Oscar-nominated performance in The Human Comedy (1943) and again in National Velvet (1944), enjoyed working with Rooney in films:
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.