Mickey Rooney Was Hollywood’s Golden Age Showman

At 17 months, Mickey Rooney interrupted a vaudeville show when he sneezed behind a shoeshine stand. He then played his mouth organ for the audience. A star was born.

Hulton Archive/Getty

Mickey Rooney, the elfin actor who could pull out all the stops on stage and on film, died Sunday in Los Angeles at the age of 93. Known as a triple threat, the kind rarely seen in movies today who can sing, dance, act in drama and comedies, Rooney was born a showman.

At 17 months, Rooney was watching a vaudeville performance behind a shoeshine stand when he sneezed and interrupted the show. As he was coaxed out from behind the stand and scared to death that his vaudevillian parents would punish him, he pulled out his mouth organ and began to play for the audience. A star was born.

Rooney, nee Joe Yule, Jr., always understood his role in life.

“I was a gnomish prodigy—half-human, half-goblin, man-child, child-man—as wise in the ways of comedy as Wallace Beery and twice as cute,” he wrote in his 1991 autobiography, Life is Too Short. “I didn’t play romantic leads. Clark Gable and Robert Taylor and Tyrone Power could make women sigh. I made people laugh.”

His life, like many a Hollywood star, was a rollercoaster ride full of box office success, pretty girls and lots of money followed by a deep barren stretch of financial insecurity and has-been status. In 2011, he made headlines as a vulnerable and angry senior citizen pleading with Congress to help stop elder abuse. In a teary and emotional testimony, Rooney revealed that he had been abused by his stepson. A very ugly, public suit followed his testimony where he accused Chris Aber of squandering his money and making him eat canned food. The suit was later settled.

"All I want to do is live a peaceful life, to regain my life and be happy,” Rooney said in a released statement at the time. “I pray to God each day to protect us, help us endure, and guide those other senior citizens who are also suffering.”

But if Rooney was anything, he was a survivor. He came to Hollywood during the Golden Age when studios cranked out hundreds of pictures a year and controlled every aspect of an actor’s life. If there was a problem, Louis B. Mayer, the indomitable head of MGM, would fix it. But as with today’s Hollywood, an actor was only as good as their box office and when Rooney’s pictures stopped making money, he was quickly dumped. He married eight times, including a brief one with screen siren Ava Gardner, and once famously quipped, “Always get married early in the morning. That way, if it doesn’t work out, you haven’t wasted a whole day.”

He overcame addictions to gambling and drugs and outlived most of his Hollywood friends—most notably, his childhood pal and co-star Judy Garland. Throughout his long career he won two Oscars, one Emmy and two Golden Globes and he starred with such notables as Spencer Tracy in Boy’s Town, with Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet and with Anthony Quinn in Requiem for a Heavyweight.

“Who else can you name who’s done so much?” noted film critic and historian Robert Osborne said in a tribute to Rooney. “Think about it: acting, singing, dancing, playing instruments, performing on screen and stage, on radio, television and records, in barns, vaudeville houses, summer stock tents, dinner theaters, cabaret rooms and Broadway houses—and done it so well, so publicly and so long as Rooney has?”

Born to a chorus girl mother and a vaudevillian father in Brooklyn, New York, Rooney was lulled to sleep by the sounds of the stage, the glare of the lights, chorus girl coos and the crash of the tympani. His tiny stature and eerily grown up facial features often fooled people into thinking he was a “midget” and so he began his act at the tender age of two. His life as the child of a vaudeville couple was one-step above living in the circus—cheap hotels and rooming houses were home. With his alcoholic and philandering father Rooney learned advanced words and concepts like “floozies,” which he took to be another name for a bartender. Finally, his mother had enough, left his father, Joe Yule, Sr. and took off to California on an adventure with her son.

It was not until their second visit to Los Angeles that Joe Yule, Jr. got his first break as the scowling little tough guy Mickey McGuire in the Our Gang series. The slap stick comedies, with the children falling in mud pits, or getting pushed by goats around weedy, sandy lots, were a hit. Off camera, Rooney was growing up fast, ditching school and developing an impressive vocabulary of curse words.

By 1932, at the age of 12, he was cast in his first adult feature—and he was introduced to a lifelong passion—horseracing. The Information Kid starred Maureen O’Sullivan and James Gleason and was shot at the Agua Caliente race track in Tijuana, an old fashioned den of sin where gambling, drinking and sex lured many in Hollywood.

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Soon after, German director Max Reinhardt saw Rooney as the perfect prankster-ish gnome when he cast him as Puck in a major production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Hollywood Bowl. It was so successful, Warner Bros. hired Reinhardt and Rooney to make it a film starring some heavyweights like Olivia de Havilland and James Cagney. Rooney outshined them all and even got the crusty New York Times to laud, “He is a mischievous and joyous sprite, a snub nosed elf who laughs with shrill delight as the foolish mortals blunder.”

So began his upward trajectory, signing as a contract player with MGM. But he landed a secure place in Hollywood stardom with a role that was quite foreign to him—the squeaky clean and ever bright Andy Hardy.

The Andy Hardy series became one of the studio’s most profitable ever, catapulting Rooney into major heights. Americans, desperate to escape their reality of struggle in the waning years of the Depression and the looming catastrophe unfolding in Europe and Japan, flocked to the see the movies. MGM chief Mayer understood that audiences did not want to see reality, they wanted the fantasy of a happy, un-tormented life of a simple and sweet family with a nurturing mother, an evenhanded and reasonable father and obedient children in a small town. Rooney’s reputation as a playboy and prankster was held in check by an MGM PR man who tailed him like a Cold War spy. Rooney’s headlong plunge into marriage with an 18-year-old Southern beauty and ingénue named Ava Gardner was looked on disapprovingly by Mayer.

But his career never reached those heights again and by 1946, he seemed washed up. He struggled for years to regain his footing in Hollywood and made many missteps including playing one of the most dreaded stereotypes, the infamously buck-toothed Mr. Yunioshi, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

While he never regained his super star status, he did continue to work. He was grateful to Francis Ford Coppola for thinking of him as the battered old jockey in 1979 in The Black Stallion, which earned him an Academy Award nomination. He continued to make cameo appearances in such films as Night at the Museum and The Muppets, and voiceovers for other children’s movies. His final film will be Night at the Museum 3, in theaters Dec. 19.

It’s hard to think of young actors who have followed in his tracks—partly because Hollywood does not train its stars as rigorously as it did during the golden age. The outsized personalities of that time are also of a bygone era. And so perhaps it is best said that Rooney was truly one of a kind.