Mickey Rooney one of last of the Hollywood golden age
The actor, who has died, had a career lasting almost his entire event-filled life
Mickey Rooney (21) and Ava Gardner (19) in 1942, shortly after they applied for a marriage licence. Another seven marriages followed for Rooney, who died on Sunday. Photograph: AP
The death of Mickey Rooney at the age of 93 severs one more connection with Hollywood’s golden era of the 1930s. Indeed, a working actor almost since the drawing of his first breath, the Brooklyn-born star was cheering-up audiences before film gained sound and Wall Street crashed.
By the time the second World War began, following success with the Andy Hardy films and Captains Courageous , Rooney was crowned the US’s biggest box-office star.
Despite eight marriages, two bankruptcies and depressingly familiar substance abuse issues, he never quite lost his round-faced boyish charm. He still seemed a little like a child star in his 90s.
Born Joseph Yule jnr to parents who worked in vaudeville, the future Mickey Rooney is alleged to have made his first appearance on stage at the age of 14 months. If rumour is to be credited, he crawled before the audience, sneezed theatrically and, raised up by an indulgent father, was introduced to the audience as Sonny Yule.
By 1927, following his parents’ separation and his mother’s relocation to Hollywood, he was appearing as “Mickey McGuire” in a series of raucous shorts. In 1934, now Mickey Rooney, he signed to MGM and embarked on a stunning juvenile career.
(Despite journeying under two Irish stage names, Mickey, whose father was a Glaswegian Protestant, does not seem to count as a fully fledged Irish- American.)
The studio made the most of its investment.
During the first year of his contract, Rooney appeared in 10 pictures. A year later, on loan to Warner Brothers, he essayed a charming, incorrigible Puck in Max Reinhardt’s still-delightful production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream .
Proper superstardom came with his role as Andy Hardy, son to a rural judge, in a series of cute pictures that idealised small-town US life for an audience still grappling with the Great Depression. Judy Garland appeared in several of those movies and the two actors went on to create a legendary partnership.
Unlike their near contemporary Shirley Temple, Garland and Rooney both had rough edges – hints of “the street” – that allowed their performances to avoid too much glutinous sentimentality.
These were the years when the studios worked hard at engineering their stars’ off-screen personae and the minders had a job on their hands with Rooney. As his fame increased and various glands reached maturity, he began his lengthy career as a romancer of women.
“I don’t care what you do off camera,” Louis B Mayer, co- founder of MGM, told him, “just don’t do it in public. In public, behave. Your fans expect it. You’re Andy Hardy. You’re the United States.”
By 1942, he had married an up-and-coming star called Ava Gardner (nearly a decade before Frank Sinatra manoeuvred her to the altar). Another seven, mostly brief, marriages followed. The singer BJ Baker stayed with him for four years. The actor Martha Vickers managed just two years.
Like a lot of wedding addicts, he eventually settled down and remained married to Jan Chamberlin, a country singer, from 1978 to his death on Sunday. He had nine children, one of whom, Tim, died in 2006.
Rooney did not slide into obscurity when adulthood pounced, but his later career – that’s to say the final 60 years – was characterised by as many downs as ups. There were struggles with drink and drugs in the 1950s.
Still he was good as a boxing trainer in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), as one of many loons in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and, generating an Oscar nomination, as a retired jockey in The Black Stallion (1979). Later this year, he will be seen reprising a cameo in the third film of the Nights at the Museum franchise.
Despite his many troubles, Rooney retained an impishness that never failed to warm hearts when appearing on chat shows. In 2004, after singing a duet with Jan on the Late Late Show , he expressed an apparently sincere desire to shoot a film in Ireland.
He had lived with that surname so long, he surely died an honorary Irishman.