Rooney may have only been five-foot three-inches tall, but he loomed large over the history of Hollywood from the days of the silent films through its golden era in the 1930s and `40s and beyond. A consummate song and dance man he starred opposite fellow MGM star Judy Garland in a string of musicals as well took the lead in the wholesome and heartwarming Andy Hardy series that peaked in popularity with homefront audiences during World War Two.
Over the course of his career, Rooney was nominated for four Academy Awards and received two special Oscars, the Juvenile Award in 1939, which he shared with Deanna Durbin, and a lifetime achievement award in 1983.
A child of show business parents who performed on the vaudeville circuit, Rooney was quite literally born in a trunk and by the time he was a toddler he had joined his parents stage act. When his parents divorced in 1924, his mother took him to Hollywood where he landed the role of comicstrip character Mickey McGuire in a series of silent comedy shorts. Rooney starred in 78 episodes of the popular serial between 1927 and 1932.
Ironically, it was announced just last weekend that a print of the previously thought lost first installment of the series, Mickey’s Circus, had been discovered in the Netherlands and was being readied for restoration through a joint effort by the San Francisco-based National Film Preservation Foundation and the EYE Filmmuseum of Amsterdam.
In 1934, Rooney was signed to his first of many contracts with MGM where he soon found success in such films as Manhattan Melodrama, where he played the younger version of star Clark Gable’s character, and Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which he played Shakespeare’s mischievous Puck. He also appeared in other such films as an adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah Wilderness, Little Lord Fauntleroy, Captains Courageous and Boy’s Town.
Rooney found his first big success when he was cast as Andy Hardy in the 1937 family comedy A Family Affair, an adaptation of the Broadway play Skidding. An unexpected hit for MGM, the studio quickly ordered up a sequel and soon the film had grown into a full-on franchise, ultimately delivering eighteen entries. Although the original A Family Affair centered on the entire Hardy family, the series would quickly become focused on Rooney’s Andy Hardy character who habitually found trouble trying to navigate through teenage life. MGM also used the franchise’s popularity as a launching pad for several of its up and coming ingenues including Lana Turner in Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), Kathryn Grayson in Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary (1941) and Esther Williams in Andy Hardy’s Double Life (1942).
It was also in 1937 that Rooney made his first screen appearance with Judy Garland, the actress whom he is forever linked with in the minds of many a fan of Hollywood’s Golden Era. Garland would go on to make three appearances in the Andy Hardy franchise as well as co-star in a number of musicals with Rooney including Babes In Arms (1939), Strike Up the Band (1940) and Babes on Broadway (1941).
Rooney continued to work through the post-World War Two collapse of the studio system that had been his home for the previous two decades. Roles were scarcer, however, partly due to Rooney being trapped in the popular image of him as a child actor. While his turn as Audrey Hepburn’s easily irritated Asian neighbor in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a problematic in today’s sensibilities, Rooney redeemed himself the following year as a boxing trainer in Requiem for a Heavyweight, co-starring with Anthony Quinn and Jackie Gleason. In 1963 he was part of the blockbuster ensemble comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad Mad World. His career slumped through the 1970s, but Rooney managed to pull out of it in 1979 with his work in the 1979 drama The Black Stallion for which he received a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination.
Amongst his final film appearances were 2006’s Night At The Museum and 2011’s The Muppets.
Rooney also worked in television, receiving an Emmy nomination in 1981 for his role as a mentally challenged man in the TV movie Bill, and on Broadway, where he was nominated for a Tony Award in 1980 for starring in the burlesque musical revue Sugar Babies with another MGM veteran, tap-dancer Ann Miller.
I actually had the opportunity to interact with Rooney twice. The first time was back in the late 1990s, when he was scheduled to bring his one man stage show to a local theater and I, freelancing for a local newspaper at the time, was set to do an advance interview with him to promote the show via phone. After spending a week doing far more research than I would normally have for such a piece and fretting about what I would talk to him about in the fifteen minutes or so I was promised I would have with him, I dutifully called the phone number the show’s promoter had supplied me. Mickey answered, but sounded a bit surprised that I had called, as the show had been cancelled just the day before. It turns out the promoter had forgotten to let me know that fact. Needless to say, I was mortified, but Mickey seemed to understand and was very nice about what was probably an interruption in his day and took a moment or two for some inconsequential chatting before I politely excused myself. The second time I met Mickey was just a few years ago at an autograph show in New Jersey. At that time, Mickey seemed a bit tired and confused and I think that the hecticness of the weekend may have been a bit too much for someone his age. I have to admit that I felt more than a little sad after that second brief encounter in which he signed a lobby card from his final Andy Hardy film, Andy Hardy Comes Home, for me. But then I think of the extraordinary life that he lived and the contributions he made to film and I know that the real exuberant Mickey Rooney will live on forever.