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MICKEY ROONEY, 1920 - 2014

Celebrated child actor of the 1930s and '40s

April 07, 2014|Valerie J. Nelson

Mickey Rooney, a celebrated child actor who embodied the All-American boy in the "Andy Hardy" films of the 1930s and '40s and became one of the era's top box-office draws, has died. He was 93.

Rooney, whose roller-coaster show-business career was marked by an often-turbulent personal life, died Sunday at his home in Los Angeles. Cmdr. Andrew Smith of the LAPD and the L.A. County coroner's office confirmed his death. The cause was not disclosed.

One of the most enduring performers in show business, he made his debut on the vaudeville stage in 1922 as a toddler and toured into his late '80s in a two-person stage show with Jan Chamberlin, his eighth wife. They had been married since 1978 and later separated.

Jokes about his propensity to walk down the aisle were once a staple of pop culture. Even Rooney told them. "My marriage license reads, 'To whom it may concern,' " he told The Times in 1981. The first and most famous of his wives was actress Ava Gardner, whom he married in 1942.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, April 08, 2014 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Mickey Rooney obituary: A caption that accompanied the obituary of actor Mickey Rooney in the April 7 Section A said that Rooney and Judy Garland were shown in a scene from the film "Girl Crazy." The scene was from "Babes in Arms." In addition, a caption in the same obituary misidentified actress Elaine Devry as Ava Gardner.

When the 90-year-old Rooney testified before Congress in 2011 about elder abuse, the actor said he spoke from personal experience. A family member who took and misused Rooney's money had left him powerless, he said.

"I felt trapped, scared, used and frustrated," Rooney told a Senate committee. "When a man feels helpless, it's terrible."

Rooney did not identify the person during his testimony, but the previous month he had obtained a restraining order against his stepson Chris Aber. He accused him of withholding food and medicine and trying to gain control of his assets. A settlement was reached when Aber and his wife, who both denied wrongdoing, agreed to abide by the stay-away order without it being enforced by a judge.

"If elder abuse happened to me, Mickey Rooney," the actor testified, "it can happen to anyone."

In 1982, Rooney earned an Emmy Award for playing the title character in a drama, "Bill," about a mentally challenged man living on his own for the first time. Many critics considered it his best performance.

During his initial burst of fame, Rooney broke through as a dramatic actor playing the young tough in the 1938 film "Boys Town" and starring with Judy Garland in a series of popular musicals that included 1939's "Babes in Arms," which brought him the first of four Oscar nominations.

Between 1937 and 1946, Rooney portrayed the relentlessly positive Andy Hardy in 15 MGM feature films that presented an idealized portrait of American family life. They were among the most popular movie series of all time, according to film critic Leonard Maltin.

A story the late director Billy Wilder often told illustrates how important Rooney was to MGM. Wilder witnessed studio chief Louis B. Mayer -- who was unhappy with Rooney's off-screen antics -- grab the teenage star by the lapels and yell, "You're Andy Hardy! You're America!"

In the early 1940s, Rooney earned a second Academy Award nomination as a teenager who comes of age during wartime in "The Human Comedy" and appeared opposite an adolescent Elizabeth Taylor in "National Velvet," now considered a classic.

When such leading actors of his generation as Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn were asked who was the best actor in Hollywood, they both immediately named Rooney, Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne recalled while interviewing author Gore Vidal, who said the same.

"Tennessee Williams, who knew more about actors than anybody in our time ... said, 'There's only one great actor in the United States and that is Mickey Rooney.... He can do anything. He sings, he dances, he can make you weep. He can play tragedy, he can play comedy,'" Vidal said in 2007 while introducing "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the 1935 film with a teenage Rooney as Puck.

Decades later, Rooney received an Oscar nomination for his subtly drawn performance as a horse trainer in the 1979 film "The Black Stallion." The next year, Rooney was nominated for a Tony Award for his Broadway debut in "Sugar Babies," a musical tribute to burlesque that he called "the resurrection of my career."

"I was a famous has-been before it," he told The Times in 1981.

Through the long-running hit musical, Rooney once again found popular success and took the show on the road for years. A New York Times review of a 1985 touring "Sugar Babies" production called Rooney "one of those rare performers who gives his entire being to the audience in an attempt to please."

One interviewer encapsulated a repeated criticism of Rooney -- that he was always acting -- by describing a conversation with him as "one long monologue punctuated by pauses for applause."

When he was in his early 70s, Rooney joked about the fallout from a life lived in the spotlight: "When I open a refrigerator door and the light goes on, I want to perform."

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