Mickey Rooney, one of the last living movie stars who worked in the silent film era, died Sunday. He was 93.
Born Joseph Yule Jr. in Brooklyn in 1920, Rooney was not only one of the few child stars to have a career into adulthood, but enjoyed one of the longest careers of anyone in the movie business or otherwise. He technically worked for 92 of his 93 years, starting when he crawled onto a Brooklyn stage wearing overalls and a harmonica. Throughout his life, he would prove willing to take on any role, even if that meant working in fare well beneath his considerable talents.
As such, his life spanned light comedy and dark dramas, excellence and dreck. His youth was dominated by popular film series. He spent nine years, starting in 1927, doing short comedy films as Mickey McGuire, a name that had been borrowed from a comic strip upon whom his character was based.
He was forced to change it to Rooney, which rhymed with “looney,” at the time he embarked on what was his most profitable run: the Andy Hardy films. It’s hard today to imagine the popularity of these sometimes interchangeable portraits of idyllic Americana, of which there were 13 from 1937 to 1946, plus a final number in 1958. In them, Hardy’s high-strung, cracked-voiced small town judge’s son gets into various mini-messes, often romantic in nature (and sometimes with Judy Garland). Each episode ends with a lesson (or two, or three), usually brought via a touching father-son talk. Forerunners of the family sitcom, they were among the most popular films of their period, and from the late 1930s to the early 1940s Rooney was the top box office draw. (“Spanning two decades!” Bart Simpson exclaimed when Rooney popped up on “The Simpsons.”)
Still, Rooney was drawn to drama and finer things early on. He was a fairly irritating Puck in the 1935 “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and drew accolades for the Spencer Tracy juvie drama “Boys Town,” from 1938.
Much of Rooney’s career after his height was busy and messy. Always eager to please and be seen, even if at all, he was on nearly every television show imaginable, including a couple of his own. He did a Francis the Talking Mule picture around the same time he shook up his image by starring in Don Siegel’s “Baby Face Nelson” in 1957.
In the 1960s he didn’t mind playing even more with his Hollywood legacy. Of course he was there for “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”; he was even a member of the principal cast. Later in the decade he did a very different all-star film: Otto Preminger’s jaw-dropping LSD comedy “Skidoo.” One of his finest turns was in 1972’s “Pulp.” In director Mike Hodge’s sneaky, goofy follow-up to his lacerating revenge crime film “Get Carter,” Rooney was called on to play a parody of an aging movie star known for playing outsized gangsters. He brought his old school all opposite an ever-still Michael Caine. He was a Hollywood ghost in the post-Code wilderness, still nailing every line and beat, even though the party was long over and cold, hard realism had won.
In the 1970s he settled into his role as a grandfatherly legend, albeit a rambunctious one still up for mischief. He did Disney (“Pete’s Dragon,” “The Fox and the Hound”) and gained a new lease on life with “The Black Stallion,” which he milked for numerous sequels, spinoffs and TV shows.He was last seen by most in a brief cameo in “The Muppets,” though he also filed appearances in “A Night at the Museum” and, most eerily, as a drunken clown in the underrated “Babe: Pig in the City.”
Rooney did many things he probably shouldn’t have just to keep working. He probably did even worse than his turn as a barndoor broad Asian stereotype in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” a film that is often considered classic with a massive asterisk denoting his performance in it. Rooney endured no shortage of ostracization for his work in it, and not undeservingly. But credit where it’s due: He was committed, however ill-advisedly, to his job, which was so over the top wrong that you nearly, in a sense, have to admire the chutzpah that went into it. It’s not racist, just stupid, and with misplaced dedication he goes down with his own little ship.
Rooney always worked, despite ill health, legal and money problems, including bankruptcy. In fact, he never seems to have chilled out. He was forever a sparkplug, a force of life — note the adorable pictures of him at one of this year’s Oscars parties, including bro-ing with Bruce Dern and Martin Landau. But he was almost as prolific in his career as he was in love. He ratcheted up eight wives, including a pre-fame Ava Gardner, and who knows how many conquests.Rooney’s life may have been hills and valleys, but it wasn’t a bad way to live.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge