One of the last remaining stars of Hollywood’s golden era, Mickey Rooney was born to vaudeville parents, and appeared with them onstage by the age of 1. He became a star when he was signed to play the part of comic book hero Mickey McGuire in a series of successful shorts that began in 1927 with “Mickey’s Circus” and ended with “Mickey’s Derby Day” in 1936.
But it was at MGM in the 1930s that the diminutive dynamo hit real fame, particularly with the “Andy Hardy” movie series that launched in 1937.
While at MGM he earned Oscar nominations for best actor for 1939’s “Babes in Arms” and 1943’s “The Human Comedy.” He also shared a juvenile 1939 Academy Award with Deanna Durbin.
His career declined after World War II, but he kept working, earning another Oscar nomination in 1956’s “The Bold and the Brave” and again in 1979’s “The Black Stallion.” Rooney also found success on live TV in the 1950s and earned an Emmy in 1981 for the TV movie “Bill.”
Here’s a look at some of Rooney’s most memorable work in film and TV.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
Rooney played Puck in Warner Bros. 1935 all-star production of Shakespeare’s comedy, directed by famed European-born directors Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle. Midway through the production, Rooney had a tobogganing accident and broke his leg. His cast was disguised by foliage and even holes in the floor.
“A Family Affair”
MGM’s popular franchise of “Andy Hardy” family comedies, which began with this film, proved a perfect match for the tireless Rooney. Shot on a shoestring budget in just 15 days, the film was a smash, leading one exhibitor in Rochester, N.Y., to wire MGM saying: “For God’s sake let’s have more of that Rooney kid. He really wowed them. … The kid’s a gold mine. … Please make another Hardy picture right away.” Lionel Barrymore and Spring Byington were replaced as his parents after the first installment by Lewis Stone and Fay Holden.
Rooney teamed with Spencer Tracy for the second time (they had appeared the year previous in the seafaring adventure “Captains Courageous”), in this sentimental 1938 melodrama. Tracy won his second consecutive Oscar for his portrayal of Father Flanagan, a priest who built the famed Boys Town for orphaned boys, with the motto “there’s no such thing as a bad boy.” Rooney plays juvenile delinquent Whitey Marsh. The two actors reunited in 1940 for the poorly received “Men of Boys Town.”
“Babes in Arms”
Rooney was still a teenager when he earned his first lead actor Oscar nomination for this 1939 “let’s put on a show” musical comedy that marked his third movie with Judy Garland. Loosely based on the Rodgers & Hart Broadway show of the same name, the film retained three of the show’s standards, including “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “When or Where.”
“The Human Comedy”
Rooney earned another Oscar nomination as Homer Macauley, a high school student in a small California town who works part time as a telegram delivery boy. The 1943 film, which was written by William Saroyan and rewritten by Howard Estabrook because Saroyan’s script was too long, follows the effects of World War II on Homer, his family, friends and neighbors. Saroyan wrote the novel version published at the time the film was released.
Rooney gives one of his first character role performances in the 1944 film that catapulted Elizabeth Taylor to stardom. Rooney plays Mi Taylor, a young British wanderer who helps train Velvet Brown’s beloved horse the Pi for the Grand National.
“The Bold and the Brave”
Rooney earned a supporting actor Oscar nomination for this low-budget 1956 World War II film. He plays Willie Dooley, a working-class soldier who has just arrived in Italy in 1944. Ronald B. Rogers wrote in the Village Voice: “This reviewer will not soon forget the sweaty, greedy face of Rooney in his five-minute-acting-marathon crap game.”
“Playhouse 90: The Comedian”
Rod Serling adapted this Emmy Award-winning installment of “Playhouse 90” (from a novel by Ernest Lehman) directed by John Frankenheimer that stars Rooney in his Emmy-nominated performance as popular TV comedian on a top-rated comedy-variety show who hides his ruthless and venomous personality behind a charming facade.
“Requiem for a Heavyweight”
Rooney turns in another well-received performance in this 1962 film adaptation of Serling’s drama about a boxer (Anthony Quinn) who is quite literally on the ropes. Rooney plays his trainer, Army.
“The Black Stallion”
Critics praised Rooney’s understated performance that recalls “National Velvet” in Carroll Ballard’s 1979 adaptation of Walter Farley’s 1941 children’s novel about a young boy (Kelly Reno) and a horse. Rooney plays Henry Dailey, a former jockey who comes out of retirement to train the stallion. Nominated for a supporting actor Oscar, he lost the award to another MGM veteran, Melvyn Douglas for “Being There.” Rooney later reprised the role for the 1990-93 TV series “The New Adventures of the Black Stallion.”
Rooney won the Emmy and Golden Globe for his performance in this 1981 CBS TV movie, based on a true story, as Bill Sackter, a mentally disabled kitchen cleaner at a country club who spent 46 years in a mental institution. He finds a friend and champion in a young filmmaker (Dennis Quaid). Although he also received an Emmy nomination for the sequel 1983’s “Bill: On His Own,” most critics thought the film didn’t measure up to the original.
“Night at the Museum”
Rooney teams with veterans Dick Van Dyke and Bill Cobbs to play night security guards at the Museum of Natural History who are retiring. Ben Stiller has been hired to replace them in this 2006 hit comedy.
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