Nobody remembers Joseph Yule Jr., but everybody knows the man he became: Mickey Rooney. Rooney died Sunday at age 93. His family reports Rooney had been in declining health for several years.
Rooney’s life was spent in the limelight. Rooney’s tale was one of peaks and valleys. Both extremes provided ample fodder for tabloid journalism.
His first moments on stage came at the age of 15 months, appearing in his parents’ vaudeville act. He “played” a midget in a tuxedo. This might have been the first but it would not be the last time Rooney’s big stage presence outpaced his diminutive stature.
Standing a mere 5 feet, 3 inches, Rooney’s size was a common comedic point in his legion of roles. Even as a child he demonstrated precise comic timing and a natural ability to evoke smiles. This was first evident when his mother, Nell, helped him get the part as comic strip character, Mickey McGuire, in an 80-episode silent film serial.
It was during this time that Joseph Yule became Mickey Rooney.
He was an exceptionally versed actor, playing not only comedies but also in dramas, westerns as well as adaptations of Shakespeare and Eugene Oneill plays. He posted memorable performances in classics like “Manhattan Melodrama,” “Boys Town” and “Captains Courageous.”
It was, however, a B-movie adaptation of the Broadway play “Skidding” that first brought Mickey Rooney to the world’s attention. The film, A Family Affair, introduced audiences to the Hardy family and their irrepressible son, Andy. Another 14 Hardy Boys films would follow.
It proved to be one of the most successful film franchises in American history. The popularity of the series propelled Rooney’s personal fortunes as well. By age 20 he was earning $150,000 a year. So great was his popularity that he was awarded a special Oscar by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences in 1939.
Before World War II, Rooney made several memorable films starring opposite Judy Garland. Classics such as “Babes in Arms,” “Strike Up the Band,” and “Girl Crazy” remain fan favorites. His performance in “Babes in Arms” garnered him his second Oscar nomination.
During World War II, he served in the U.S. Army, travelling 150,000 miles as part of the Jeep Theater, a touring outfit that entertained the troops.
After the war, Rooney’s own personal battles began. His transition from beloved child star to adult actor was rocky and unforgiving. Audiences who loved Andy Hardy didn’t relate to the same saccharine and overly precious repartee coming from a more mature Rooney.
His personal life was just as muddy. He was married eight times. Perhaps his most famous round of nuptial wrangling was to the bad girl of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Ava Gardner. Cast against future beaus like Frank Sinatra and Artie Shaw, Rooney seemed unlikely to measure up, especially given the terms of their first meeting. In character for a movie and dressed in a Brazilian drag costume, with his mouth smeared with lipstick, Rooney must have looked ludicrous. But it didn’t stop him from asking Gardner for a date. She refused — repeatedly. They were married in 1942.
Marriage wasn’t the only venue in which Rooney made inopportune wagers. He squandered a large portion of his wealth on horse races and at casinos. Between, gambling, divorces and drinking, Rooney went down a very long hillside.
Even so, he continued to work, racking up an Emmy award and a Tony nomination. He also helped the cause of elder abuse prevention by testifying about his own experiences before a special Senate committee that was convened to study the issue.
In a career that spanned almost his entire life, Rooney did what every actor must surely want to do — he captivated and amused. He took us on long voyages and made us cry.
In the 1938 film, “Love Finds Andy Hardy,” Rooney’s character quips: “I’ve never before really appreciated the advantage of being dead.” We’re just glad Rooney helped us feel so alive.