Born in Brooklyn to veteran vaudevillian parents, the former Joe Yule, Jr. began his career as a performer before he had even earned the distinction of becoming a toddler. By 1927 he already had a feature film under his belt, playing a cigar-smoking midget in “Orchids and Ermine,” and had gone on to star in a string of two-reel comedies as the tough and spunky “Mickey ‘Himself’ McGuire.” He legally changed his name to Mickey Rooney in 1932, and in 1935 he landed the role of Puck in the lush Warner Bros. adaptation of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer’s Night Dream.”
Rooney’s impishly intoxicating rendition of Puck led to a long-term contract with MGM where he captured audience attention in “The Devil Is a Sissy” (1936) and “Captain Courageous” (1937). He then took on the role of the adventurous teenager Andy Hardy in “A Family Affair” (1937) which spawned a hit series featuring Rooney as young Hardy over the next eight years. During that time, MGM kept Rooney busy with other top projects, such as “Boys Town” (1938) featuring Rooney as the troubled youth Whitey Marsh, and a series of “barnyard” musicals that paired him with longtime friend Judy Garland (“Babes in Arms,” 1939, for which he won an Oscar® nomination; “Strike up the Band,” 1940; “Babes on Broadway,” 1941; and “Girl Crazy,” 1943). In 1938, the Academy awarded Rooney with an honorary Oscar® for “significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth.”
By 1939, Rooney had become America’s top box-office draw. In addition to his roles in musicals and adventures, Rooney had proven his dexterity with dramatic roles in such films as “Young Tom Edison” (1940), “The Human Comedy” (1943) for which he received his second Oscar® nomination, and “National Velvet” (1944) alongside Elizabeth Taylor.
The very qualities the Academy had seen fit to honor eluded Rooney when he returned from wartime service in 1947. After completing “Summer Holiday” and “Words and Music” in 1948, Rooney left MGM and attempted throughout the next two decades to translate his wily youthful persona into more mature roles. Among the dozens of films he appeared in during that time, it was the 1956 World War II drama “The Bold and the Brave” that tapped into the dramatic genius behind Rooney’s comedic soul; his portrayal of an American soldier fighting in Italy won him his third Academy Award nomination.
The 1970’s greeted audiences with more Rooney films befitting his massive talents, including “Pulp” (1972), “Rachel’s Man” (1975), “The Domino Principle” “Pete’s Dragon” (1977), and his memorable performance as the horse trainer in “The Black Stallion” (1979). His 1979 revival of the burlesque musical hit “Sugar Babies” had a three year run on Broadway and went on tour for four years. He continued to act in films and television movies right up until he died (he won an Emmy in 1981 for “Bill”) and has three books to his credit, two autobiographies (1965’s “i.e.,” and 1991’s “Life’s Too Short”) and a biographical mystery (1994’s “The Search for Sonny Skies”).
He died April 6, 2014.