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Mickey Rooney, All-American Boy For More Than 90 Years, Dies

Apr 7, 2014
Originally published on April 7, 2014 5:29 pm
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Mickey Rooney, who lived a long life on stage and screen, died last night at his home in Los Angeles. He was 93. For a while, the star seem to have it all, but he ended up playing the comeback kid as our film critic Bob Mondello remembers.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: You'd have to call it a full life - more than 200 movies, everything from Shakespeare to the Muppets, voted Hollywood's biggest box office attraction three years running, including the year that Clark Gable starred in a little trifle called "Gone With The Wind." Mickey Rooney spent his childhood on the MGM back lot, earned and gambled away $12 million by the time he was 40, and lived a life at least as storied as the characters he played, and they were some characters - Huckleberry Finn, Puck in "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM")

MONDELLO: It would be hard to say Rooney threw away a serious career to be a movie star. No telling what a serious Mickey Rooney would've looked like. But he had the chops even at the start in "Boys Town," for instance, where he thinks at one point that he's caused the death of a smaller kid.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BOYS TOWN")

MONDELLO: But the studio system in the 1930s was built to give audiences what they wanted, and audiences wanted Rooney in a lighter vein, a more reassuring vein. In 14 Andy Hardy movies, for instance, where he may have been sort of an operator but was basically the wholesome, all-American teen. Never with a problem that couldn't be solved by a good talk with his dad, even if he did get into little misunderstandings, especially with girls.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LOVE FINDS ANDY HARDY")

MONDELLO: That's Judy Garland he's talking to. And at MGM, chemistry like theirs did not go unexploited, especially with stars who could sing and dance. Even as the Andy Hardy movies were becoming the franchise of the decade, these two were being turned into that era's notion of teen ideals, ones who could reliably put on a show.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BABES IN ARMS")

MONDELLO: Rooney was a trooper, but not a particularly selective one, especially after World War II interrupted his career at about the same moment his personal life was taking a bad turn. He had always had an eye for beauty queens, marrying eight of them, starting with Ava Gardner. But that meant he was paying a lot of alimony. And combined with a gambling problem, he was heavily in debt by the time he turned 40.

Having to take every job that's offered is not ever a good career move. Rooney foundered for more than a decade before finding salvation on Broadway in "Sugar Babies" and onscreen as a racehorse trainer in "The Black Stallion," dispensing advice to a kid a lot like the kid he'd once been.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BLACK STALLION")

MONDELLO: Mickey Rooney, the star who had himself thrown it all away, was back in form at the age of 60. No longer a teenager, but perhaps the ultimate comeback kid. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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