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Arts and Entertainment

Mickey Rooney, Movie Legend, Dies At 93

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Mickey Rooney, whose show business career started when he was a toddler and who was the "most famous teenager in America from 1937 to 1944" as movie character Andy Hardy, died yesterday.

Even though he was only 5'3", Rooney loomed high as a movie star during the 1930s and 1940s. Besides his Andy Hardy films, which showed him as a typical girl-crazy, car-crazy teen boy (he romanced Judy Garland in three of them), he also starred in Boys Town with Spencer Tracy and received a special Juvenile Oscar; National Velvet with Elizabeth Taylor; and Babes in Arms, which started his "Let’s put on a show" musicals. From the NY Times obituary:

He was box-office king again in 1940, over Spencer Tracy, and in 1941, with Clark Gable taking second place. Three years earlier, in The New York Times, Frank S. Nugent had written of Mr. Rooney’s performance as the swaggering bully redeemed by Tracy’s Father Flanagan in “Boys Town”: “Mickey is the Dead End gang rolled into one. He’s Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and King Kong before they grew up, or knew a restraining hand. Mickey, as the French would understate it, is the original enfant terrible.”

Mr. Rooney’s personal life was as dynamic as his screen presence. He married eight times. He earned $12 million before he was 40 and spent more. Impulsive, recklessly extravagant, mercurial and addicted to playing the ponies and shooting craps, he attacked life as though it were a six-course dinner.

Of his many marriages (including one to Ava Gardner), Rooney said, "I didn’t spend money on girls, I married them. Then I spent money unmarrying them."His true love was performing—he joked, "When I open a refrigerator door and the light goes on, I want to perform." Born Joseph Yule Jr. in 1920, in Brooklyn, New York, to a vaudeville family, Rooney was essentially brought up on the stage. When his parents separated, his mother took him to Hollywood and he starred in short films starting in 1927.
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LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan wrote:
Everyone knows Rooney, who died at the great age of 93, precisely because he lived so long, the tireless last surviving star of Hollywood's 1930s Golden Age, a performer always ready to make an appearance when there was a crowd waiting to applaud. But Rooney was more than just any star. In the final innocent prewar years of 1939, 1940 and 1941, he was the country's biggest box-office attraction, period, end of story. And the actor reached that pinnacle not by being a dashing action hero lead or a glamorous romantic lead, but by playing a teenage boy, a character one contemporary critic called "the perfect composite of everybody's kid brother." Nothing says more than that about how America's popular culture movie tastes have changed in the interim.

Rooney wasn't just any teenager either, he was brash, exuberant, unstoppable, the kind of kid Americans once upon a time liked to feel was representative of this country at its good-hearted, irrepressible best.

Even British rocker Ray Davies and the Kinks, who in 1972 recorded "Celluloid Heroes," their classic tribute to the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, paid tribute to that quality by claiming, "if you stamped on Mickey Rooney, he would still turn round and smile." Just so.

After his successful run of movies in the 1930s and 1940s, Rooney had a more difficult time transitioning into roles. As the NY Times put it, "His elfin face and short, stocky body were part of the problem: At 28, with adolescent roles no longer an option and adult roles hard to come by, he said he would give 10 years of his life to be six inches taller. Yet most of his wounds were self-inflicted," by marrying quickly and spending money even faster.

He did star in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Breakfast at Tiffany's, where he played a Japanese man, now considered a racist depiction of Asians.

Rooney's Broadway debut came at age 59, in the musical revue Sugar Babies with Ann Miller; crowds loved him so much that he also starred in the touring version.

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There has been drama around Rooney's later years. The Hollywood Reporter says, "His wife Jan told THR that she had not seen her husband since last April and that she was informed by TMZ of the actor's death. She said Rooney was living in the Studio City home of her son Mark Aber and his wife. The family has been torn apart in recent years over Rooney's allegations that Jan's son Christopher Aber had withheld food and medication from the actor."

Rooney testified at a Senate hearing on elder abuse and Christopher Aber agreed that he owed him $2.8 million. Christopher Aber wrote on Facebook that Rooney would be buried in "Westlake Village at the Pierce Brothers cemetery. Thank you for all your prayers."

Recently, he starred in the 2011 Muppets movie and was working on the third Night at the Museum film. The NY Times noted Rooney's attitude towards work, "Growing up in vaudeville, made me cognizant of the need to have fun at what you’re doing. You can’t get it done well without it being fun. And I’ve never felt that what I do is ‘work.’"

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