On September 23, 2010, Mickey Rooney turned 90 years old. Rooney, whose biography reads like a history of Hollywood, has the distinction of being the only actor in silent films who is still acting, with three films in post-production in 2010 for 2011 release. Mickey Rooney’s career spans 83 years — 89 if you count his days in vaudeville.
What’s in a Name?
“Mickey Rooney” was born Joseph Yule Jr. in Brooklyn, New York to vaudevillian parents. His father was a Scottish immigrant, and his mother, Nellie W. Carter, was from Kansas City, Missouri. Joseph Jr., wearing a baby tuxedo, was part of his parents’ act from the age of 17 months.
Joseph was five, in 1925, his mother Nell moved with her young son to Hollywood, California. His parents had separated the year before. Nell answered an ad for a dark-haired child to play the role of “Mickey McGuire” in a series of short silent films based on the comic strip Tooterville Trolly. Since Nell Yule couldn’t afford to have her red-headed son’s hair dyed, she used burnt cork to darken hair. Joseph won the role, and appeared in 78 Mickey McGuire comedies from 1927 to 1936, actually starring under the name of “Mickey McGuire.” This was so that the producers did not have to pay the Tooterville Trolley comic strip writers royalties, since they could argue that Mickey McGuire was the child’s real name.
Urban legend has it that that little Mickey McGuire met Walt Disney at Warner Brothers, and that Disney named Mickey Mouse after him. Since Mickey Mouse’s original name was Mortimer Mouse, and Disney’s wife suggested the name Mickey, this seems more than doubtful.
A New Name, a New Series, a New Star
The name “Mickey McGuire” finally had to go in 1932, when 20th Century Fox sued successfully to keep the boy from using the name. Mrs. Yule finally came up with “Mickey Looney,” which was changed to Mickey Rooney. In 1934, Rooney signed with MGM. He starred as the young stable hand who helps a very young Elizabeth Taylor train her winning horse in National Velvet (1935). He was cast as the son of Judge Hardy in A Family Affair (1937). The wildly popular Andy Hardy series was born. By 1939, Mickey Rooney was the #1 box office draw in the world, a title he also held in 1940 and 1941.
There were thirteen Andy Hardy movies, though MGM kept Rooney busy with other projects. In Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry, Rooney was teamed with Judy Garland, who went on to play Betsy Booth in several Hardy films. The two were teamed up for a series of “hey, kids, let’s put on a show” musicals through the early ’40s: Babes in Arms (1939), Strike Up the Band (1940), Babes on Broadway (1941), and Girl Crazy (1943).
Rooney also proved himself an excellent dramatic actor as a delinquent in Boys Town starring Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan. In 1938, he was awarded a juvenile Academy Award. At the age of nineteen, he became the first teenager to be Oscar-nominated in a leading role for Babes in Arms (1939).
War Service, Career Slump
Rooney joined the service in 1944, where he helped to entertain the troops and worked on the American Armed Forces Network. He returned to Hollywood after 21 months. He was no longer a juvenile, and his boyish face and short stature precluded many leading man roles. He returned to Andy Hardy in Love Laughs at Andy Hardy (1946), did a remake of a Robert Taylor film, The Crowd Roars called Killer McCoy (1947), and portrayed composer Lorenz Hart in Words and Music (1948).
Ever the survivor, Rooney moved into directing, and turned to character roles in films and on television. Besides guest-star appearances and TV movies, Rooney appeared in four series: The Mickey Rooney Show (1954-1955), a comedy sit-com in 1964, Mickey, One of the Boys in 1982, and from 1990-1993, The Adventures of the Black Stallion. Though his TV work won him an Emmy and a Golden Globe, Rooney had one miss — he turned down the role of Archie Bunker in All in the Family. Rooney returned to the stage in 1979 in Sugar Babies with Ann Miller, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award, and later on, he was the Wizard in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with Eartha Kitt at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Other work includes voiceovers, commercials, nightclubs, and dinner theater.During the course of his film career, Rooney received two Best Actor and two Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominations. In 1983, he received a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award.
Though short in stature at 5’3″, Rooney has always enjoyed huge success with the ladies. In fact, some of the most glamorous women in Hollywood succumbed to his charms, including actress Norma Shearer, when Rooney was just 18. He has been married eight times and jokes, “When I say ‘I do,’ the Justice of the Peace replies, ‘I know, I know.’ I’m the only man in the world whose marriage license reads, “To Whom it May Concern.” Rooney was married to Ava Gardner, beauty queen Betty Jane Rase, actress Martha Vickers, Elaine Mahnken, Barbara Ann Thompson (who was murdered), Marge Lane, and Carolyn Hockett. Finally, in 1978, he married Jan Chamberlin, to whom he is still married. In fact, he has been married to her longer than all of his previous marriages combined. Rooney has eight children. All at one time or another has worked in show business. His son Tim Rooney died in 2006 at the age of 59. His oldest son, Mickey Rooney, Jr., has an evangelical ministry in California.
Rooney suffered from drug and gambling addictions and lost most of his money, and in the 1970s, he became a born-again Christian. His autobiography, Life is Too Short, was published in 1991. He says: “Had I been brighter, the ladies been gentler, the Scotch weaker, the gods kinder, the dice hotter – it might have all ended up in a one-sentence story.”