The Long and the Short of Mickey Rooney

14 minute read

“You are the most precocious, overconfident, spoiled young man I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet,” says an exasperated Judy Garland early in the 1943 MGM musical Girl Crazy. And Mickey Rooney replies, “I think you’re cute too.”

Seventy-five years ago, moviegoers thought Rooney was the absolute cutest. As Andy Hardy in 15 MGM films, from the 1937 A Family Affair through the 1947 Love Laughs at Andy Hardy, he embodied the irrepressible spirit of the American teenager, talking himself into minor scrapes and falling in love with some new girl at least once a film. In his musicals with Garland, Rooney was the sparkplug for prodigious entrepreneurship — that era’s predecessor of the garage band, but with Gershwin tunes and an all-star cast. Working on the brash side of nice, the 5′ 2″ Rooney told fretful Americans that they could overcome the Depression, and the Nazi menace too, if they just caught some of his go-getter energy — if it could be like Mick.

In Hollywood’s Golden Age, when Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, James Cagney, Bette Davis and other immortals wrote their legends across the screen, the No. 1 box-office attractions were kids well below voting age: Shirley Temple for three years beginning in 1936 (when she was all of eight), immediately followed by Rooney for 1938-’41. Her movies lifted the Fox studio from bankruptcy; his were said to have earned some $3 billion, back when that was real money. Now, within two months of each other, those reigning stars are dead. Temple passed, at 85, on Feb. 10. Rooney died yesterday at 93. The most glamorous chapter of American movies is now officially over.

(READ: The moppet magnetism of Shirley Temple)

Movie stars often outlast the first flame of their appeal; they come and go. (Temple retired from feature films when she was 21.) But Rooney never went. Quite possibly the only actor to have appeared in movies for 10 consecutive decades, he headlined in more than 60 Mickey McGuire comedy shorts of the late-silent and early-sound period; rose from featured player to star in the 1930s; fell from hot-shot to has-been after the War; and simply refused to quit. The occasional miracle year — 1979, when he wowed Broadway in Sugar Babies and played a horse trainer in The Black Stallion (Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor) — might be surrounded by fallow decades of indifferent work in forgettable films and TV shows. But the Rooney engine, once gunned, could never be turned off. A month before his death, the Mick was shooting scenes for Night at the Museum 3.

This man, this eternal kid, said his lifelong mission was to make ’em laugh. Yet many saw more. To Laurence Olivier, the preeminent classical actor of the 20th century, Rooney was the finest American performer. Cary Grant called him “the most talented man in the history of the movies.” Tennessee Williams said, “There’s only one great actor in the United States, and that is Mickey Rooney.” Gore Vidal, citing Williams’ testimonial on Turner Classic Movies in 2007, added his own praise: “He sings, he dances. He can make you weep, he can play tragedy, he can play comedy… He’s formidable. He can do anything, and effortlessly.”

Joseph Yule, Jr., did it from the start. In his 1991 autobiography Life Is Too Short, Rooney recounts that, at his birth on a kitchen table in Brooklyn on Sep 23, 1920, he was delivered by a Chinese doctor “who patted me on the bottom and said, ‘Okay, kid, you’ve been resting for nine months. Now get to work.'” That didn’t take long. The son of vaudevillian Joe Yule, a Scots immigrant, and dancer Nell Carter, whose folks were from England (no, Mickey Rooney wasn’t Irish), the future star made his debut at the age of 17 months on the stage of Chicago’s Haymarket Theater, where he stole the show singing “Sweet Rosie O’Grady.” From then on, Rooney recalled, “I always enjoyed the lights of the theater…. even now, when I open a refrigerator door, I feel like performing.”

(SEE: Mickey Rooney’s Early Life in Pictures)

Joe Sr., an alcoholic who referred to his son as “that goddamned kid,” split from Nell when the boy was three — a preview of Rooney’s own eight marriages, all of which concluded sourly. Nell took Joe Jr. to Hollywood, where the kid, first calling himself Mickey Yule, quickly found work starring as the street-sassy, cigar-chomping Mickey McGuire in kid comedies based on Fontaine Fox’s popular strip. (He legally adopted the McGuire name until Fox sued him.) Rooney also claimed that in 1928, when he met Walt Disney, the cartoonist said he would change the name of his mouse character from Mortimer to Mickey. Disney recalled it differently.

In 1934, the year the McGuire series ended, Rooney played the tough kid who would become Clark Gable in Manhattan Melodrama; and in 1935 he made his big movie into feature films. He got strong supporting roles with Will Rogers in The County Chairman and Jean Harlow in Reckless. He was the mouthy kid brother in the film of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! Most impressively, he was Puck, bewitching mortals and cavorting like a kid Cagney, in producer Max Reinhardt’s all-star production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Cagney was in it too, as Bottom.) It is still among Rooney’s most daring and charming work.

MGM’s top child star at the time was Freddie Bartholomew, of the angelic face, curly hair and patrician disposition; Rooney played rough to Bartholomew’s smooth in Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Devil Is a Sissy, Captains Courageous and Lord Jeff. But MGM saw that this elfin pit bull of comic relief could be domesticated and put at the center of its family-friendly films — if only a wise parent was there, armed with moral lessons. The Hardy films, based on Aurania Rouverol’s play Skidding, instantly became the most popular and beloved series of its time.

Adhering to MGM boss Louis B, Mayer’s dewy vision of American family life, the Hardy films were set in an idyllic suburb called Carvel, with Lewis Stone and Fay Holden as Andy’s parents, Cecilia Parker as his sister and Ann Rutherford as his often overlooked girlfriend Polly. In nearly every episode, impulsive Andy would commit some breach of propriety, think himself a big shot in a small town and receive a gentle, third-act comeuppance from his father; the Judge’s study was Andy’s courtroom. Whether or not viewers subscribed to this fantasy, they enjoyed the view through the Hardys’ lace-curtain windows, and took delight in Andy’s flirtations with, over the years, Garland, Lana Turner, Kathryn Grayson, Donna Reed and Esther Williams, the young ladies who made the runt feel like a Romeo.

(READ: TIME’s tribute to the wet and wild life of Esther Williams)

Rooney considered himself no singer; he said he had “a voice like a bullfrog.” But MGM producer Arthur Freed saw promise in latching the Mick’s jackhammer verve to Garland’s little-girl sweetness and uniquely mature voice for a run of A-grade musicals based on Broadway hits. Maybe Rooney couldn’t sing a song, but he sure could sell it. And he had the Gentile chutzpah to exclaim to his pals, in Babes in Arms, “I’ve got an idea! I’m gonna write a show for us and put it on right here in Seaport!”

In transferring Babes in Arms from Broadway to Hollywood, Freed eliminated several Rodgers and Hart classics (“I Wish I Were in Love Again,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Johnny One-Note”) to make room for some songs he had written in his lyricist days; and for Strike Up the Band he jettisoned the Gershwin standards “Soon” and “I’ve Got a Crush on You.” But the mixings were still choice. Girl Crazy, the best of the bunch, has spiffy settings for George and Ira’s “Bidin’ My Time,” “Embraceable You,” “I Got Rhythm” and “But Not for Me.” A canny mixture of innocence and effervescence, the movies also live today as the record of two irreplaceable stars at the apogee of their appeal, before age and addiction made their lives so complicated. (And for Garland, tragic: she died in 1969 at 47.)

Rooney was wearing a dress — impersonating Carmen Miranda in Babes on Broadway — when he first spotted an 18-year-old MGM contract player, Ava Gardner, in the first blush of her ravishing beauty. Mickey instantly proposed and, after being advised that he could help her career, Ava accepted. Mayer, furious, forbade the marriage until Rooney threatened to leave MGM. As he wrote in Life Is Too Short, “It was an ideal honeymoon: sex and golf and sex and golf. Ideal, that is, for me. It never occurred to me to ask what Ava wanted.” For the 16 months of their marriage, Rooney went to the track or played drums with his friends, and of course worked on movies, while one of the world’s most gorgeous women waited alone at home.

In 1944, when MGM had exhausted its clout with the Army and Rooney was about to be drafted, he played the horse trainer in National Velvet opposite 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor. Somehow, he never got around to marrying the grown-up Taylor, though she too would have eight weddings. Liz matured spectacularly, while Mickey remained the impish adolescent, but both couldn’t stop doing something they were bad at: living with other people. In the nearly half-century from Taylor’s first “I do” (to Nicky Hilton) to her final divorce (from Larry Fortensky), she was married for all but 13 of those years. Rooney, in the 72 years between his wedding to Gardner and his death, was unmarried, or between marriages, for just under eight years.

(READ: Our elegy to Elizabeth Taylor)

For the record, his post-Ava wives were beauty queen B.J. Baker in 1944, actress Martha Vickers in 1949 (he married Vickers the same day he divorced Baker), actress Elaine Devry in 1952, actress Barbara Thomason in 1958, Thomason’s friend Margaret Lane in 1966, Carolyn Hockett in 1969 and country singer Jan Chamberlin in 1978. All but two of these unions ended in divorce. Thomason, separated from Rooney at the time, was shot and killed by a former lover who then turned the gun on himself. Mickey’s 1978 marriage to Chamberlin, who took the name Jan Rooney and toured with him in a song-and-chat show about his life, lasted 35 years — seven years longer than his first seven stints combined — but they were legally separated at the time of his death. When asked if he would marry them all again, Rooney said, “Yes. I loved them all.” He just couldn’t live with them.

And when he returned from his Army service (entertaining the troops), he decided he didn’t want to live with MGM either. He started his own company and made a bunch of B-picture flops, bankrupting him. His star career was over at 25; in the postwar Hollywood landscape, heroes were streaked by guilt and doom, and the bumptious vaudevillian found few people who wanted to put on his kind of show. A believer in, and an example of, eternal adolescence, Rooney told TCM’s Robert Osborne, in a 1997 episode of Private Screenings, that “Actors and actresses are nothing but grown-up children playing make-believe.” Had he grown up during the war? Or had audiences simply grown tired of him?

Occasionally, Rooney found filmmakers who could mine the toxic elements in his manic personality. Rod Serling and director John Frankenheimer secured an Emmy Nomination for Rooney by casting him as a vaudeville veteran turned tyrant TV star in the 1957 Playhouse 90 drama The Comedian, as daring a challenge to his cheerful image as Andy Griffith’s Lonesome Rhodes was in the same year’s A Face in the Crowd. And in Don Siegel’s grim, taut Baby Face Nelson (1958), he’s the ’30s gangster with a machine-gun mean streak toward nearly everyone — except one bank teller, whom the killer spares because they are both short men. (Today’s essay theme: When Acting Is Autobiography.)

(READ: Andy Griffith as multimedia monster in A Face in the Crowd)

“Hey, I’m not an angel,” Rooney confessed to The Saturday Evening Post’s Pete Martin in 1958, “and certainly I’ve made a million mistakes, you know. And I hope I’m around long enough to make a million more.” He did. An attempt to restart his iconic character, in the 1958 Andy Hardy Comes Home, with the adult Andy returning to Carvel (and Mickey’s son Teddy as Andy Hardy Jr.), was a sad fizzle. Rooney’s typical movie projects over the next 20 years ranged from B-minus down to Z, for Albert Zugsmith’s nudie retelling of Genesis, The Private Lives of Adam and Eve. Even his upmarket appearances — like his buck-toothed Japanese photographer in Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s — could induce cringes. Of the two decades of movies he made between Baby Face Nelson and The Black Stallion, Rooney wrote, “There were 29 in all, and most of them were crap.”

He needed the work, and the money, because, for decades after his early stardom, he kept spending — gambling — under the mistaken impression that he was still Mickey Rooney the golden boy. Even his big gigs in Las Vegas, where in the ’50s he could still command crowds, were occasions of sin. “I flew to Vegas to play a club date,” he wrote, “and lost $50,000 on the crap table.”

One of his rare wins came in 2011, under trying circumstances: he filed suit against his stepson, alleging that they had withheld medication and forced him to sign over his assets; the stepson eventually agreed that he owed Rooney $2.8 million. But most of his behavior had to be hard on his spouses, his other children and, in moments of reflection, himself. “I know Mickey Rooney,” he told Osborne. “I’ve had to live with him. It hasn’t been easy. But I won’t give up.”

(READ: The 1940 cover story on Mickey Rooney by subscribing to TIME)

Inexhaustible, and often exhausting, Rooney was less an actor than a showman. Movie acting is often called the art of reacting, of intimate underplaying. Such subtleties didn’t interest Rooney, who was always the clown, always on — perhaps the little man’s strategy to make a big impression. In one of his own post-MGM productions, the 1950 Army comedy Sound Off, he dances the hula, mugs shamelessly and, in a two-shot, gazes not at the other actor but straight into the camera, as if waiting to detect the cheers of the movie audience.

He heard them in his signal triumph, the 1979 Sugar Babies, a Broadway musical revue that rekindled the rowdy spirit of old burlesque. On opening night, he wrote in Life Is Too Short, “The applause lasted for 24 minutes …and during that ovation I cried with joy.” He repaid the customers by performing a comic striptease, “until I was down to my bright-red long johns, laughing a laugh that began when I was Puck” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream 44 years earlier. He stayed on Broadway for two-and-a-half years, then took Sugar Babies on the road for years more. A stage star at last, he could hear the rapture, feel the love that could never reach him on an MGM sound stage.

(READ: Theodore Kalem on Mickey Rooney in Sugar Babies)

The memory or the hope of that response sustained Rooney till the end. “Retire?” he wrote in 1991. “Sheee-it. I’ll always be leading the cheers for life…. Applause got me started, it kept me going through my bad days, and it keeps me going still.” After Sugar Babies, and between touring with his autobiographical show, he appeared in a hundred or so TV series and movies, including Eric the Viking, Babe: Pig in the City, Night at the Museum, The Muppets and 96 nobody ever heard of. He coped with illness and his family dramas. It wasn’t always fun being Mickey Rooney.

Yet the perennially precocious, overconfident, spoiled trouper wanted to go out smiling; Andy Hardy had one saved last snappy line about his diminutive stature. “And if anyone wonders what my dying wish will be, they can stop wondering,” he wrote at the end of his book. “That will be easy. ‘I’ll have a short bier.'”

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