Mickey Rooney Biography

Mickey Rooney photo

Born: September 23, 1920


Date of Birth: September 23, 1920

Born Joseph Yule Jr. to vaudeville performers, Mickey Rooney made his stage debut before the age of two.

His mother, Nell, divorced his father when Mickey was three and moved to Kansas City. For several months, Mickey, at that time called Sonny by his mother, had a normal life. However, his mother missed showbiz and when she heard that Hollywood was searching for children to star in movies, she had a feeling that Mickey would be a success. He was small for his age, but behaved like a miniature adult, so at first he landed roles as midgets, first in the silent short film Not to Be Trusted (1926) and then in the feature Orchids and Ermine (1927).

By the time he was six, Sonny was cast in the lead in a series of short films based on the cartoon character Mickey McGuire. For the next six years, he made over 60 Mickey McGuire films. At first the films were silents, but as talking pictures became popular, the series changed to sound pictures. The filmmakers changed Sonny's name legally to Mickey McGuire, in what wound up being a futile effort to get away with not paying the creator of the comic strip.

At 12, Mickey, as he was now called by everyone (including his mother) was out of work and typecast. He didn't stay that way for long. When Mickey entered a ping pong tournament in Hollywood, David O. Selznick couldn't help but notice Mickey, who was not only winning, but doing impersonations, dancing and cracking jokes while he played. Selznick convinced MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer to sign the boy to a contract.

Soon after, Mickey won the role of Puck in a stage production of Shakespeare's play A Midsummer's Night Dream. He not only gained critical acclaim, but recreated the role in the 1935 movie version. No longer allowed to use the name Mickey McGuire, his last name was changed to Rooney. Under MGM's wing, his star began to rise and his roles grew to starring ones as he worked in an impressive number of films. At 16, he was cast as Andy Hardy in the 1937 movie A Family Affair. It made so much money at the box office that MGM immediately began planning sequels. Before the end of 1937, the next one—You're Only Young Once— hit theaters and was just as successful.

Three more Andy Hardy films were released in 1938, but it was his work in dramatic films such as Boys Town, opposite Spencer Tracy, that earned him critical acclaim. In 1939 he was given a Juvenile Oscar for his "significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth, and as juvenile players setting a high standard of ability and achievement."

Judy Garland, whom he'd known for years due to their having attended the same school for child performers prior to either of them being signed on by MGM, was paired with Mickey in the 1937 film Thoroughbreds Don't Cry. Good friends in real life, their chemistry was apparent on the big screen. MGM noticed and cast Judy opposite Mickey in an Andy Hardy film, followed by Babes in Arms, which was a big hit in 1940 for MGM. Mickey was nominated for his first Oscar in the Best Actor in a Leading Role category for his work in the musical, which spawned two similar movies, Strike up the Band and Babes on Broadway.

In addition to doing Andy Hardy movies and musicals with Judy, Mickey continued performing in serious dramas such as The Human Comedy (1943), for which he earned his second Best Actor Academy Award nomination.

While performing a Carmen Miranda number on the set of Babes on Broadway, Mickey was introduced to Ava Gardner and immediately fell head over heels. By then, he was the top money-marking star in the world (he achieved this status three years in a row, from 1939 to 1941) and was a "teen idol," with teenage girls screaming and throwing themselves at him wherever he went. Ava turned down his offer to take her out to dinner. Her apathy attracted him and he and kept asking her out until she agreed. After several months of dating and numerous marriage proposals, she said yes and the two were wed in a private ceremony on January 10, 1942. The marriage fell apart within months, due to Mickey's need to constantly entertain whenever they went out in public, which was in contrast to Ava's desire for a quiet home life. They divorced in May 1943, and Mickey was drafted to the army shortly thereafter.

By the time Mickey was discharged in 1945, he'd married again, this time to a teenage girl a week after meeting her (he was also drunk at the time, still in love with Ava and hurting from his divorce). She gave birth to his first son, Mickey Rooney Jr., while he was still in the service. Though the marriage produced one more son, Timmy Rooney, they realized they had nothing in common and eventually divorced.

In the late 1940s, Mickey listened to bad advice and broke his contract with MGM. Over the next few years he continued to work, but in "B" movies. He also married and divorced several more times. His fifth wife, the mother of four of his children, was murdered after the marriage had fallen apart—her mentally unstable boyfriend was afraid she was going to return to Mickey.

Mickey continued to accept work of all kinds, both in movies and nightclubs. He also starred in several TV shows and performed on radio. In 1957 he received his third Oscar nomination, this time for his work in The Bold and the Brave (1956). He received a fourth nomination in 1980 for his portrayal of an ex-jockey in The Black Stallion (1979). In 1983, he received an Honorary Oscar "In recognition of his 50 years of versatility in a variety of memorable film performances."

Mickey appeared in over 300 films over the course of his lifetime. He starred in film, television (Hey Mulligan, Mickey and One of the Boys) and on Broadway (in the hit musical Sugar Babies, for which he received a Tony Award nomination). He won both an Emmy award and a Golden Globe for his portrayal in the title role as a mentally challenged man in the TV movie Bill (1981) and has four stars on the Walk of Fame— one for Television, one for Radio, one for Motion Pictures and one shared with longtime wife Jan Rooney (whom he married in 1978) for their achievement in Live Entertainment.

In his spare time, Mickey enjoyed golfing and betting on horse races. He owned horses at times in his life, and loves animals of all kinds. In the biography The Nine Lives Of Mickey Rooney, written by Arthur Marx (who knew Mickey when they were teens and later produced the television series Mickey), Marx recounted an episode in which a dozen trout were supposed to fall on Mickey as a gag. Mickey insisted that the trout be rubber, because he didn't want a dozen fish killed just for the sake of a laugh. Marx also remembered Mickey's kindness during the taping of an episode of Mickey, when an elderly actress got upset after flubbing a line. After that, every time she forgot a line or said it incorrectly, Mickey would mess up one of his lines to cover for her.

When he was 90 years old, Mickey, who was famous for his incredible energy from the time he was a youngster, was the only living actor who had starred in both silent and talking motion pictures. He died of natural causes on April 6, 2014 at his home in Hollywood, surrounded by family.

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