Multi-talented actor with a long and storied career

Mickey Rooney: September 23rd, 1920 - April 6th, 2014


In 1938, the extraordinary, multi-talented 18-year-old Mickey Rooney was America’s No 1 box-office star, earning more than $300,000 annually. In 1939, he was awarded a special Oscar for his “spirit and personification of youth”.

In 1962, Rooney declared himself bankrupt, revealing that he had nothing left of the $12 million he had earned over the years.

After being an MGM luminary for a decade, he was forced to appear in dozens of B-movies to pay off his debts and alimony payments (by then he had been married seven times). But Rooney, who has died aged 93, always lived by the creed of his profession: “the show must go on”.

He was in show business all his life. His father, Joseph Yule (known as “Red” Yule), and mother, Nell Carter, were in vaudeville, and Joe Yule jnr, born in Brooklyn, New York, first appeared on stage as part of the family act at the age of 17 months, playing a mouth organ.

When his parents separated in 1924, he and his mother took off, in a Model T Ford, for Hollywood. There he made his film debut, aged five, as a dwarf pretending to be a child in a short called Not to Be Trusted (1926), in which he had to puff on a cigar.

In 1937, in a modest comedy called A Family Affair , Rooney played Andy Hardy, a small-town judge’s son. It was the first of 15 vastly popular Hardy Family films – idealised, over-sentimental views of American life, but wonderfully entertaining.

Despite Louis B Mayer’s objections, Rooney married Ava Gardner, a new MGM contract player, whom he met when she visited the set of Babes on Broadway (1941). But they soon found out they had little in common. One day, she exploded.

“You know, Mick, I’m goddamned tired of living with a midget,” she said, and left. Gardner was 5ft 6in, while Rooney was said to be 5ft 2in.

In 1944, after completing National Velvet , in which he was suitably dour as a former jockey helping Elizabeth Taylor to win the Grand National, Rooney joined the army. While based in Alabama, he met 17-year-old Betty Jane Rase, a beauty queen, whom he married a few weeks later.

On his return from entertaining the troops in Europe, he found his wife, now the mother of his first child, Mickey Rooney jnr, too intellectually narrow for him. After the birth of a second son, they were divorced, and he married actress Martha Vickers, mainly known for playing Lauren Bacall’s younger sister in The Big Sleep .

Secret of attraction
“Women liked me because I made them laugh,” he explained. “What is an orgasm, after all, except laughter of the loins?”

In 1956, with his career on the slide and his fourth marriage on the rocks, Rooney drank heavily and popped pills. In 1958, he married Barbara Ann Thomason, wife No 5, with whom he had his first daughter. At the time of his eighth marriage, to Jan Chamberlin, a country and western singer, in 1978, his career and morale began to pick up.

In 1982, Rooney was presented with a special Oscar for lifetime achievement. He continued to work throughout the 1990s and beyond, appearing as a guest star on television series such as ER , providing his voice for animated features and playing the title role in a stage version of The Wizard of Oz .

He was declared bankrupt again in 1996, owing $1.75 million in back taxes. He was last in the news in 2011, when he accused his stepson, Christopher Aber, and Aber’s wife, Christina, of “elder abuse” and financial exploitation.

His son Tim died in 2006. He is survived by Jan and eight children.