Mickey Rooney Biography

The Long Path of a Diminutive Star

Rooney in 1937. Getty Images

On September 23, 2010, Mickey Rooney turned 90 years old. Rooney, whose biography reads like a history of Hollywood, has the distinction of being the only actor in silent films who is still acting, with three films in post-production in 2010 for 2011 release. Mickey Rooney's career spans 83 years -- 89 if you count his days in vaudeville.

What's in a Name?

When Joseph was five, in 1925, his mother Nell moved with her young son to Hollywood, California. His parents had separated the year before. Nell answered an ad for a dark-haired child to play the role of "Mickey McGuire" in a series of short silent films based on the comic strip Tooterville Trolly. Since Nell Yule couldn't afford to have her red-headed son's hair dyed, she used burnt cork to darken hair. Joseph won the role, and appeared in 78 Mickey McGuire comedies from 1927 to 1936, actually starring under the name of "Mickey McGuire." This was so that the producers did not have to pay the Tooterville Trolley comic strip writers royalties, since they could argue that Mickey McGuire was the child's real name.

Urban legend has it that that little Mickey McGuire met Walt Disney at Warner Brothers, and that Disney named Mickey Mouse after him. Since Mickey Mouse's original name was Mortimer Mouse, and Disney's wife suggested the name Mickey, this seems more than doubtful.

A New Name, a New Series, a New Star

National Velvet
A Family Affair
Andy Hardy

There were thirteen Andy Hardy movies, though MGM kept Rooney busy with other projects. In Thoroughbreds Don't Cry, Rooney was teamed with Judy Garland, who went on to play Betsy Booth in several Hardy films. The two were teamed up for a series of "hey, kids, let's put on a show" musicals through the early '40s: Babes in Arms (1939), Strike Up the Band (1940), Babes on Broadway (1941), and Girl Crazy (1943).

Rooney also proved himself an excellent dramatic actor as a delinquent in Boys Town starring Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan. In 1938, he was awarded a juvenile Academy Award. At the age of nineteen, he became the first teenager to be Oscar-nominated in a leading role for Babes in Arms (1939).

War Service, Career Slump

Love Laughs at Andy Hardy
The Crowd Roars
Killer McCoy
Words and Music

Ever the survivor, Rooney moved into directing, and turned to character roles in films and on television. Besides guest-star appearances and TV movies, Rooney appeared in four series: The Mickey Rooney Show (1954-1955), a comedy sit-com in 1964, Mickey, One of the Boys in 1982, and from 1990-1993, The Adventures of the Black Stallion. Though his TV work won him an Emmy and a Golden Globe, Rooney had one miss -- he turned down the role of Archie Bunker in All in the Family. Rooney returned to the stage in 1979 in Sugar Babies with Ann Miller, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award, and later on, he was the Wizard in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with Eartha Kitt at New York's Madison Square Garden. Other work includes voiceovers, commercials, nightclubs, and dinner theater.

Private Life

Rooney suffered from drug and gambling addictions, and in the 1970s, he became a born-again Christian. His autobiography, Life is Too Short, was published in 1991. He says: "Had I been brighter, the ladies been gentler, the Scotch weaker, the gods kinder, the dice hotter - it might have all ended up in a one-sentence story."