|From a 1938 issue of World Film and Television Progress (Lantern Media Archive)|
Born Joseph Yule, Jr. to vaudeville performers Joe and Nell Yule in 1920, he made his acting debut on the vaudeville stage as a toddler in his parents' act. When his parents split up while at the age of four, he went with his mother, heading to Hollywood, California. Yule's first film performance came in 1926, in Not to be Trusted. Soon thereafter, he was cast in the Mickey McGuire film series (based off of the comic strip of the same name)- which ran from 1927 to 1934.
Near the conclusion of the McGuire series, Yule began to use his character's name as his own (specifically on the vaudeville circuit), but legal issues prevented him from doing so. Upon being signed to Metro-Goldwyn Mayer in 1934 (through the suggestion of his mother and a studio publicist)- he changed his name to Mickey Rooney.
He was lent to Warner Bros. in 1935, appearing in Max Reindhart's rendition of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream as Puck- opposite Warner contract players James Cagney, Olivia DeHavilland, Dick Powell, Joe E. Brown, and Frank McHugh.
Throughout his time at MGM, Rooney became close friends with Judy Garland, their first film together was 1937's Thoroughbreds Don't Cry. She also appeared with Rooney in three Andy Hardy films, beginning with 1938's Love Finds Andy Hardy, and in various musicals such as Strike Up The Band, Babes In Arms, and Babes on Broadway.
In addition to the musicals and Andy Hardy films, Rooney appeared in the 1938 film Boys Town, with Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan (along with a young Gene Reynolds- would would later become an accomplished award-winning Television writer/director/producer, notably for the TV adaptation of M*A*S*H). Rooney would receive a special Academy Award for his performance in Boys Town. He would also portray Huckleberry Finn in Richard Thorpe's adaptation of the Mark Twain story in 1939, and would portray Thomas Edison in 1940's Young Tom Edison. He would become Hollywood's number one box office draw in 1939, beating Clark Gable and Errol Flynn.
In 1944, Rooney enlisted in the United States Army during the Second World War, entertaining troops in the nation and in Europe (during and after the war). After serving for only 21 months, he was awarded with the Bronze Star Medal for entertaining troops in combat areas.
After the war ended, Rooney found it difficult to find roles- mostly playing minor characters in his later films, but with one notable part in 1954's The Bridges At Toko-Ri with William Holden, Grace Kelly, and Fredric March. Rooney would jump over to television, with his own short-lived TV series, The Mickey Rooney Show that same year. He also had a supporting Oscar nomination in 1956 for The Bold and the Brave.
Another minor film role that he had was in Stanley Kramer's 1963 comedy masterpiece- It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World. He would also make guest appearances on popular television programs such as The Twilight Zone and Naked City.
Better chances would come for Rooney in the 1970s. He returned to Broadway in a song-and-dance play, Sugar Babies- which was nominated for a Tony Award. In 1979, he played a horse trainer in Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of The Black Stallion- for which he earned an Oscar nomination.
In 1981, Rooney was praised for his performance in Alan Landsburg's made-for-television movie Bill; about a mentally challenged man living on his own. He won an Emmy and a Golden Globe award for his performance in Landsburg's teleplay. Rooney received an honorary Oscar in 1983.
He lent his voice (portraying himself) in a 1995 episode of The Simpsons- titled "Radioactive Man" (from the show's "golden era"). Rooney tries to comfort Bart's best friend- Milhouse Van Houten (voiced by Pamela Hayden), who doesn't want to go on with playing "Fallout Boy" in the Radioactive Man movie. Here's a snippet of the dialogue between Mickey Rooney and Milhouse:
Mickey Rooney: Milhouse, listen- you can't quit this movie. I've seen your work; it's good- very, very good. "Van Johnson" good.
Milhouse: I know I'm good. Movie stardom is just so hollow.
Rooney: Hollow?! The only thing that's hollow in show business is the music industry.
Note: This writer agrees with that statement. No offense, but even today- the music industry is still hollow.
Rooney was married eight times, one of his marriages was to Ava Gardner, which was short-lived. He had an obsession with horse racing, and lost his fortunes several times in life. Most recently, Rooney's struggles received significant attention in 2011 when he asked a Los Angeles court to appoint a conservator to protect him from his stepson and stepdaughter. Rooney would take his case to Congress, delivering an emotional testimony for the stop of elder abuse by family members and caregivers.
Rooney would continue working until the end, attending various classic film ceremonies and events. One of his last film roles was in The Muppets (2011).
Farewell to the "Mickster", Mickey Rooney (1920-2014).
Greenbriar Picture Shows (a great classic film blog operated by John McElwee) also has a tribute piece to Mickey Rooney.
Turner Classic Movies will have a tribute to Mickey Rooney, with his classic films airing on April 13th. Most of Rooney's classic MGM features (along with the 1935 Warner Bros. rendition of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream) are available on Warner Home Video, and through their Warner Archive & Warner Archive Instant imprints.
Olive Films (under license from Paramount) has several Rooney flicks on DVD & Blu-Ray disc- including the 1953 Bob Hope-Marilyn Maxwell comedy Off Limits, Rooney's 1954 comedy effort for Republic Pictures- The Atomic Kid (with Elaine Davis & Robert Strauss), and Otto Premiger's 1968 farce with Jackie Gleason, (which is considered a cult classic today) Skidoo.