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Legendary star Mickey Rooney dies at age 93

Mickey Rooney, the exuberant entertainer who led a roller-coaster life — the world's top box-office star at 19 as the irrepressible Andy Hardy, a bankrupt has-been in his 40s, a comeback kid on Broadway as he neared 60 — died on Sunday. He was 93 and lived in Westlake Village, Calif.

His death was confirmed by his son Michael Joseph Rooney.

He stood only a few inches taller than five feet, but Mr. Rooney was larger and louder than life. From the moment he toddled onto a burlesque stage at 17 months to his movie debut at 6 to his career-crowning Broadway debut in Sugar Babies at 59 and beyond, he did it all. He could act, sing, dance, play piano and drums, and before he was out of short pants he could cry on cue.

As Andy Hardy, growing up in the idealized fictional town of Carvel, Mr. Rooney was the most famous teenager in America from 1937 to 1944: everybody's cheeky son or younger brother, energetic and feverishly in love with girls and cars. The 15 Hardy Family movies, in which all problems could be solved by Andy's man-to-man talks with his father, Judge Hardy (played by Lewis Stone), earned more than $75 million — a huge sum during the Depression years, when movie tickets rarely cost more than 25 cents.

In 1939, America's theater owners voted Mr. Rooney the No. 1 box-office star, over Tyrone Power. That same year he sang and danced his way to an Oscar nomination for best actor in Babes in Arms, the first of the "Hey kids, let's put on a show" MGM musicals he made with Judy Garland.

He was box-office king again in 1940, over Spencer Tracy, and in 1941, with Clark Gable taking second place. Three years earlier, in the New York Times, Frank Nugent had written of Mr. Rooney's performance as the swaggering bully redeemed by Tracy's Father Flanagan in Boys Town:

"Mickey is the Dead End gang rolled into one. He's Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and King Kong before they grew up, or knew a restraining hand. Mickey, as the French would understate it, is the original enfant terrible."

Mr. Rooney's personal life was as dynamic as his screen presence. He married eight times. He earned $12 million before he was 40 and spent more. Impulsive, recklessly extravagant, mercurial and addicted to playing the ponies and shooting craps, he attacked life as though it were a six-course dinner.

Movie audiences first saw him as Mickey McGuire, a tough kid in a battered derby hat, in a series of two-reel shorts based on the comic strip Toonerville Trolley. (The first short in which he had a starring role, Mickey's Circus, was thought to be lost, but a print was found, along with many other silent films, in the Netherlands in 2014.)

At 13, he auditioned for the role of the mischievous sprite Puck in the great Austrian producer-director Max Reinhardt's 1934 Hollywood Bowl production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Though unfamiliar with Shakespeare, Mr. Rooney impressed Reinhardt, who cast him in the play and — along with James Cagney, Dick Powell and Olivia de Havilland — in the movie version he directed with William Dieterle a year later.

He was a sensation. "Rooney seems inhuman, he moves like mist or water, his body is burnished by the extraordinary light, and his gurgling laugh is ghostly and enchanting," David Thomson wrote of Mr. Rooney's performance in his Biographical Dictionary of Film. "Could such a performance have been directed? Rooney's Puck is truly inhuman, one of cinema's most arresting pieces of magic."

Between 1936 and 1944, Mr. Rooney made more than three dozen movies. Under contract at MGM, he brought vitality even to bit parts like a Brooklyn shoeshine boy in Little Lord Fauntleroy, the kid brother in the film version of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! and a young deckhand on a fishing boat in Captains Courageous.

Along with Deanna Durbin, Mr. Rooney was given a special Academy Award in 1939 "for bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth." The next year he received his Oscar nomination for Babes in Arms. His second nomination was for his performance in the film version of William Saroyan's Human Comedy) as the messenger boy who delivers telegrams from the War Department telling families in a small California town that their sons have died. That movie seems saccharine and preachy more than 70 years later, but time has not tarnished the desolation on Mr. Rooney's face when he reads those telegrams.

Although his career was one of the longest in show business history — about 90 years separated his first movie from his last — it was crammed with detours and dead ends. ("There have been crevices, fissures, pits, and I've fallen into a lot of them," he told the New York Times in 1979.)

His elfin face and short, stocky body were part of the problem: At 28, with adolescent roles no longer an option and adult roles hard to come by, he said he would give 10 years of his life to be 6 inches taller. Yet most of his wounds were self-inflicted.

He married in haste — he wed Miss Birmingham of 1944 after knowing her for less than two weeks — and repented in haste. He turned his back on MGM, the studio that had made him a star, for the mirage of running his own production company, and ended up mired in debt and B movies. Suits for alimony, child support and back taxes pursued him like tin cans tied to the bumper of the car he was driving to his next wedding.

When he needed money most desperately, he could always play Las Vegas. "I was a smash hit at the Riviera, where I drew $17,500 a week and lost twice that on the crap table," Mr. Rooney wrote in his 1991 autobiography, Life Is Too Short.

At one point in 1950, the only job he could get was touring Southern states with the Hadacol Caravan. Admission to the shows was a box top from a bottle of a 26 percent alcohol tonic that the government soon forced off the market.

Yet he always bounced back.

Not including the Mickey Maguire shorts, Mr. Rooney made more than 200 movies, earning a total of four Academy Award nominations — he was nominated for best supporting actor as the fast-talking soldier who dies trying to protect $30,000 he won in a craps game in The Bold and the Brave (1956) and as the trainer of a wild Arabian horse in The Black Stallion (1979). (Because of his size, Mr. Rooney played a lot of jockeys and, as his waistline expanded, former jockeys who had become trainers. He was the vagabond who helps Elizabeth Taylor turn an unruly horse into a steeplechase champion in her breakthrough film, National Velvet, in 1944.)

He was also nominated for five Emmy Awards and won one, for his performance in the 1981 television movie Bill as a developmentally disabled man who has spent most of his life in an institution and must learn to live in the outside world.

Mickey Rooney performs at Rock Crusher Pavilion in 2002. He began his career as a child actor and starred in movies and on Broadway.

Times (2002)

Mickey Rooney performs at Rock Crusher Pavilion in 2002. He began his career as a child actor and starred in movies and on Broadway.