A history of showbiz on two legs, Mickey Rooney, all 5’ 2” of him, strode across the cultural landscape from the 1920s to the 2010s. Born in a trunk to vaudevillians on September 23, 1920, Joseph Yule, Jr. was performing onstage in Brooklyn at 17 months, wearing a little tux as part of his parents’ act. When they separated, his mother took him to Hollywood, where at age 7 he landed the role of Mickey McGuire, a character he played in 78 short comedies until 1936. MGM took notice, and put the adolescent actor, renamed “Mickey Rooney,” under contract in 1934.
When the McGuire series wrapped, the studio cast Rooney in A Family Affair (1937) as Andy Hardy, the slightly mischievous son of a small-town judge. Due to Rooney’s appeal, a minor production on the slate proved an unexpected smash, and he played the character in 13 more films through 1946. Three of them co-starred Judy Garland, with whom he was first paired in Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry (1937). Their chemistry sparked most brightly in musicals, including 1939’s Babes in Arms, for which Rooney was nominated for an Academy Award. In a successful change of pace, Rooney played a delinquent in Boys Town (1938), reformed by priest Spencer Tracy. With a sizable amount of varied and popular work behind him, Rooney received a Juvenile Academy Award in 1939; that year, and in 1940 and 1941, he was Hollywood’s biggest box office draw.
But after almost two years in the military during World War II, the adult Rooney returned home to declining prospects, and after a final film featuring Garland, 1948’s Words and Music, left MGM. By then his second marriage was winding down as well. (His first, to fledgling star Ava Gardner, lasted a year and ended in 1943.) His marital misadventures—there would be six more marriages, and nine children—plus problems with debt, drinking, and drugs overshadowed a run of mostly minor films and TV shows, including a one-off return, Andy Hardy Comes Home (1958). Yet he kept his sense of humor. “A lot of people have asked me how short I am. Since my last divorce, I think I’m about $100,000 short,” he quipped.
Bright spots included two additional Oscar nominations, for the World War II-set The Human Comedy (1943) and The Bold and the Brave (1956), plus an Emmy nomination for a frank portrait of a fading entertainer, The Comedian (1956), written by Rod Serling and directed by John Frankenheimer for the live TV showcase Playhouse 90. Rooney's role as a trainer attending to prizefighter Jack Palance in the film version of Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), and an ensemble part in Stanley Kramer’s hit chase comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) maintained his profile—while the role of Audrey Hepburn’s bucktoothed Japanese neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) drew complaints about racial insensitivity.
Almost two decades later, Rooney, nearing 60 years old, experienced a career renaissance. Reminding older viewers of his co-starring role with Elizabeth Taylor in the horse-training favorite National Velvet (1944), The Black Stallion (1979) attracted critical acclaim and family audiences, and won Rooney an Oscar nomination. Opposite fellow MGM star Ann Miller in the long-running burlesque musical Sugar Babies (1979), he received a Tony nomination. Playing a long-institutionalized retarded man in the TV film Bill (1981), Rooney won an Emmy. An honorary Oscar followed in 1982. “You always pass failure on the way to success,” he explained.
Hit or miss, the work never stopped—a TV spin-off, Adventures of the Black Stallion (1990), ran for three seasons, and 80 years after his screen debut a new generation saw him in the Ben Stiller comedy Night at the Museum (2006) and The Muppets (2011). No holiday season is complete without viewings of the Rankin-Bass specials Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (1970) and The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974), for which Rooney voiced Kris Kringle. What accounted for his longest-lasting relationship, the one with viewers? “The audience and I are friends,” he said. “They allowed me to grow up with them. I've let them down several times. They've let me down several times. But we're all family.”