Remembrances
3:14 am
Mon April 7, 2014

The Inimitable Mickey Rooney Dies At 93

Originally published on Mon April 7, 2014 10:48 am

Mickey Rooney was a 5-foot-3 dynamo. Whether he was acting, singing or dancing, he poured an uncanny energy into his performances. It's an energy that sustained a lifelong career alongside some of the biggest names in show business, including Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor.

He died Sunday at his North Hollywood home, at age 93. He was still working — on a new film version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

From 1938 to 1941, he ranked as Hollywood's top-grossing star. His inimitable on-screen persona earned him major parts in a variety of films, from the lighthearted Babes in Arms to more dramatic fare like Boys Town.

Rooney's success ebbed and flowed over the course of his long life. His tenacity — at times propelled by financial need — helped him bounce back from lengthy career lulls.

Rooney got his start in showbiz earlier than most. Born in the proverbial trunk in 1920 to vaudevillians Joe and Nell Yule, Joe Jr., as he was christened, made his stage debut at 17 months and landed his first Hollywood role at the tender age of 6.

In 1932, the entertainer changed his name to the zingier Mickey Rooney. Two years later, he signed a contract with MGM, a partnership that produced some of Rooney's most memorable roles.

In the Andy Hardy series, Rooney played the title role: a teen growing up in an all-American family. The series showcased his youthful, wholesome appeal and catapulted him into stardom. He starred in 16 Andy Hardy pictures altogether.

During that same period, MGM dreamed up another teen franchise starring Rooney and the young Judy Garland as a plucky song-and-dance act.

The plots were often identical. Rooney's character usually had eureka moments that sounded like this one: "I'm gonna write a show for us and put it on right here in Seaport! Why, it'll be the most up-to-date thing these hicks around here have ever seen!"

The formula worked in part because of Garland and Rooney's palpable chemistry, a reflection of their off-screen friendship.

Rooney's early performances won him an honorary Oscar for his sunny portrayals of youth.

Arthur Marx, who wrote an unauthorized biography of Rooney in the 1980s, said Rooney's need for attention made it especially difficult when his career took a downturn in the mid-1940s. Rooney began a decadeslong series of failed marriages, starting with the sexy starlet Ava Gardner.

"He married a lot of grown women," Marx said, "and it was hard to see him as a teenager when he was married to someone like Ava Gardner."

While Rooney grew older, he never grew taller, which prevented him from being cast as a leading man. Facing mounting financial problems, he took a number of smaller parts during the 1950s and '60s.

Eventually Rooney overcame years of gambling and alcohol abuse through a newfound devotion to Christianity and the marriage to his eighth and final wife, Jan Chamberlain, in 1978.

A year later, Rooney got the second big break of his career, in Sugar Babies, a collection of Burlesque comedy sketches set to music. The material was an easy fit for old vaudevillians Rooney and co-star Ann Miller.

In the wake of his success with Sugar Babies, Rooney seized the opportunity to do some higher-profile work. He won a Golden Globe for his performance in the made-for-TV-movie Bill, in which he played a mentally disabled adult. In 1983, Rooney, who by then had more than 200 films under his belt, was awarded an Oscar for lifetime achievement.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

When news came yesterday that the actor Mickey Rooney had died, condolences began pouring in on Twitter. Fellow actor Joshua Malina wrote: Rest in peace, Mickey Rooney. Take down the Hollywood sign.

Rooney worked alongside Shirley Temple in the 1930s. At age 93, he was still working - on a new film version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Becky Vlamis has this remembrance.

BECKY VLAMIS, BYLINE: Mickey Rooney was a 5-foot-3 dynamo. Whether he was acting, singing or dancing, he poured an uncanny energy into his performances. From 1938 to 1941, he ranked as Hollywood's top-grossing star. His inimitable onscreen persona earned him major parts in a variety of films; from the light-hearted "Babes in Arms" to more dramatic fare, like "Boystown."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BOYSTOWN")

MICKEY ROONEY: (As Whitey Marsh) That school with those kids, they're going to be closed up tight. Those kids sent to reform school, taken away from Father Flannigan. I don't care what they do to me, but I ain't going to see those kids tossed out like that. No, I can't do it! I can't do it!

VLAMIS: Rooney's success ebbed and flowed over the course of his long life. His tenacity - at times propelled by financial need - helped him bounce back from lengthy career lulls.

Rooney got a start in showbiz early earlier than most, born in the proverbial trunk in 1920 to vaudevillians Joe and Nell Yule. Joe Jr., as he was christened, made his stage debut at 17 months and landed his first Hollywood role at the tender age of 6. In 1932, the entertainer changed his name to the zingier Mickey Rooney. Two years later, he signed a contract with MGM, a partnership which produced some of Rooney's most memorable roles.

ANN RUTHERFORD: Mickey Rooney was everybody's son, everybody's kid brother.

VLAMIS: Ann Rutherford co-starred with Rooney in the Andy Hardy series. Rooney played the title role, a teen growing up in an all-American family.

RUTHERFORD: He was trying to find out who he was. He was a kid. He was a teenager. He was trying to be grown up and yet every now and then, he was reduced to having to ask his father to have a man-to-man talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF "ANDY HARDY" FILM)

ROONEY: (As Andy Hardy) Can a guy be in love with two girls at once?

LEWIS STONE: (As Judge Hardy) Both - are you asking me about young ladies?

ROONEY: (As Andy Hardy) Mm-hmm. Well, we just do a little hugging and kissing, Dad. I mean, good, clean fun - just like Polly and me.

VLAMIS: The Andy Hardy series showcased Rooney's youthful, wholesome appeal, and catapulted him into stardom. He starred in 16 Andy Hardy pictures altogether. During that same period, MGM dreamed up another teen franchise, starring Rooney and the young Judy Garland as a plucky song and dance act.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD MORNING")

ROONEY: (As Mickey Moran) (Singing) Good morning.

JUDY GARLAND: (As Patsy Barton) It's a lovely morning.

ROONEY: (As Mickey Moran) (Singing) Good morning.

GARLAND: (As Patsy Barton) (Singing) What a wonderful day.

ROONEY, GARLAND: (As Mickey Moran and Patsy Barton) (Singing) We danced the whole night through. Good morning. Good morning, to you.

GARLAND: (As Patsy Barton) (Singing) How do you do-do-doodley-do?

ROONEY: (As Mickey Moran) (Singing) I said good morning...

VLAMIS: The plots were often identical: Rooney's character usually had eureka moments that sounded something like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BABES IN ARMS")

ROONEY: (As Mickey Moran) I'm going to write a show for us and put it on right here in Seaport. Why, it'll be the most up-to-date thing these hicks around here have ever seen. Opening night, we'll have Max Gordon, Sam Harris, Lee Schubert down to give us the once-over. How 'bout it, kids?

VLAMIS: The formula worked, in part because of Garland and Rooney's palpable chemistry, a reflection of their off-screen friendship.

Rooney's early performances won him an honorary Oscar for his sunny portrayals of youth.

ARTHUR MARX: He loved to be the ham. He loved to get up and be a performer.

VLAMIS: Arthur Marx wrote an unauthorized biography of Rooney in the 1980s. He says Rooney's need for attention made it especially difficult when his career took a downturn in the mid-1940s. Rooney began a decades-long series of failed marriages, starting with the sexy starlet Ava Gardner.

MARX: He married a lot of grown women. And it was hard to see him as a teenager when he was married to someone like Ava Gardner.

VLAMIS: And while Rooney grew older, he never grew taller - which prevented him from being cast as a leading man. Facing mounting financial problems, he took a number of smaller parts during the 1950s and '60s. Eventually, Rooney overcame years of gambling and alcohol abuse through a newfound devotion to Christianity and the marriage to his eighth and final wife, Jan Chamberlain, in 1978.

A year later, Rooney got the second big break of his career - in "Sugar Babies," a collection of burlesque comedy sketches set to music. The material was an easy fit for Rooney and co-star Ann Miller, both old vaudevillians.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SUGAR BABIES")

ROONEY: (Singing) Show them, Mama. But I love you the same...

ANN MILLER: (Singing) Ah, you know the way you tell the band to play...

(APPLAUSE)

VLAMIS: In the wake of his success with "Sugar Babies," Rooney seized the opportunity to do some higher-profile work. He won a Golden Globe for his performance in the made-for-TV-movie "Bill," in which he played a mentally handicapped adult. In 1983, Rooney - who by then had over 200 films under his belt - was awarded an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement.

Becky Vlamis, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SUGAR BABIES")

ROONEY: (Singing) Baggy blues, yeah.

MILLER: (Singing) Baggy blues, yeah.

(APPLAUSE)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

More than 90 years - never ran out of energy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program