Mickey Rooney was the original Hardy boy.
His 200-plus film credits notwithstanding, the spry, spirited Rooney will be best remembered for playing the impetuous title character in MGM's beloved Andy Hardy movies.
Rooney, 93, who died Sunday surrounded by family at his North Hollywood home, leaves behind a colorful Hollywood legacy that spanned 80 years and a couple of hundred films, including Boys Town and The Black Stallion.
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He won two honorary Oscars, the first in 1938, the second in 1982. In January 2005, Rooney made headlines for the unlikeliest of reasons when Fox rejected a Super Bowl cold remedy commercial — featuring Rooney's bare bottom — for being inappropriate.
Rooney certainly knew how to put on a show. But of all the characters that Rooney inhabited — from Puck in the 1935 film production of A Midsummer Night's Dream to his Oscar-nominated turn as a preternaturally mature teen in 1943's The Human Comedy — not one could compete with or begin to overshadow Rooney himself.
Laurence Olivier called Rooney "the greatest actor of them all," yet he was the unlikeliest of stars. At 5-foot-3, Rooney was short, with pointy, elfin features and a spirited, in-your-face energy more suited to selling cars than starring in films. Yet during the Depression, when jobs were scarce and the national mood grim, audiences loved his joie de vivre and his down-home appeal.
Born Joe Yule Jr. in a Brooklyn, N.Y., rooming house on Sept. 23, 1920, Rooney made his first stage appearance at 17 months as part of his comic father and dancer mother's vaudeville performances. Performing, Rooney told BackStage, was "in my blood. It's who I am."
He switched to the silver screen at age 6, playing the title character Mickey McGuire in 78 film shorts based on the old Toonerville Trolley cartoons from 1927 until 1933. In 1932, he changed his moniker to the catchier Mickey Rooney, and five years later landed the role that would define him for the rest of his career: the feisty teen-about-town Andy Hardy, with a cheeky grin, irresistible boy-next-door charm and plenty of romantic mishaps.
The 15-part movie series was such a smash that from 1939 to 1941, Rooney became the Tom Cruise of his time: the No. 1 box-office draw in the country.
But like any good mutual fund, Rooney diversified, playing a problem child in Boys Town opposite Spencer Tracy in 1938 and co-starring in the 1939 musical Babes in Arms with longtime collaborator and pal Judy Garland, with whom he co-starred in 10 films. The two enjoyed a close friendship off screen and it was no coincidence that of all his Hollywood compatriots, Rooney bonded most with Garland, a troubled star who, like him, matured in front of the cameras and struggled to find her footing as an adult.
At the peak of his fame, Rooney met President Roosevelt in the White House and auto magnate Henry Ford in Dearborn, Mich. And soon, his personal life became every bit as gaudy as his film roles, starting with his 1942 marriage to sultry actress Ava Gardner, the first of his eight wives (they split in 1943).
His popularity soaring, his star ever rising, Rooney's success seemed unstoppable — until 1944, when he served in World War II, joining the entertainment brigade dubbed the Jeep Theater and traveling 150,000 miles to entertain more than 2 million overseas troops.
But when the war was over in 1945 and Rooney returned to Hollywood, he was suddenly something of an outsider. MGM, the studio that had turned Rooney into a megastar, dropped him. And he found there was little industry wiggle room for a quirky, unconventionally appealing actor who wasn't a kid anymore, but lacked the stature of a mature leading man.
Like Macaulay Culkin in the 1990s, Rooney had trouble making the transition from kid star to adult actor.
But Rooney, ever the realist, knew his time at the top would be short-lived. "I tell you, there are 150 million kids waiting to fill the reservoir," he told USA TODAY in 1994. "I say bravo to the youngsters. I had my day at bat."
So the impish, scampy star reinvented himself as a character actor, with solid if supporting turns in 1954's The Bridges at Toko-Ri and 1956's The Bold and the Brave.
But by the 1960s, Rooney told the London Times in 1988, "the work was very sparse indeed: there was just no demand for me."
Well, not quite. Rooney kept right on acting, playing a horse trainer in 1979's The Black Stallion and returning to the stage and dazzling audiences in the 1979 Broadway spectacle Sugar Babies, which earned him a Tony nomination. Rooney "is the heart, soul and body of the enterprise," raved Newsweek.
"I was a very famous has-been until this show," Rooney told the Associated Press in 1979. "Now, it's almost like the resurrection of a career, of someone saying, 'He didn't cop out on us, he's still there.' "
Indeed, he was there all along, plugging away. But his long list of screen credits aside, Rooney will also be remembered for his marrying ways. Just call Rooney, who said "I do" eight times, the male Elizabeth Taylor.
But Rooney was dismissive of all the fascination with his bedroom antics and insisted that he wasn't addicted to walking down the aisle.
"I was selective," Rooney told People in 1993. "I was looking for a woman who knew how to be a woman ... who knew how a man needs to be treated."
He looked long and hard, trying his luck with, among others, model Elaine Mahnken, California beauty Barbara Ann Thomason and secretary Carolyn Hockett before ending up with country singer/songwriter Jan Chamberlin in 1978. "I guess I practiced a lot," Rooney told New York Daily News in 2004. "But you've got to remember, this is the one that counts."
And to him, all those trips to the altar weren't too big a deal.
"Isn't it a funny thing that Cary Grant, who was a dear friend of mine, married five times, but they don't say anything about that?" Rooney mused to People in 1991. "It's like my divorces were dastardly deeds. I was supposed to marry my high school sweetheart and go off into the sunset with a box of detergent."
You might have spotted him as the speechless Fugly Floom in the sweet 1998 smash Babe: Pig in the City. Or heard him voice a junkyard dog in 2001's Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure. But despite his work ethic, Rooney filed for bankruptcy in 1996 with more than $1 million in debts.
Rooney spent his twilight years with wife Jan in a posh Los Angeles home filled with family pictures. He wrote. He painted. And he remained true to his religion after joining the Church of Religious Science in the 1960s. "We all leave the church some time," he told the AP in 1979. "All of a sudden, your life is empty. I went back because I realized God had never left me. I left Him."
And he kept right on performing, going on the road with his wife in the biographical revue Let's Put on a Show, a touching, intimate traveling tour down memory lane.
"I don't retire, I inspire," Rooney told the Palm Beach Post in 2001. "Mickey Rooney is not great. Mickey Rooney was fortunate to have been an infinitesimal part of motion pictures and show business."
Contributing: The Associated Press