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‘The greatest actor of them all’: Mickey Rooney’s scandalous life – and sad decline

In Europe
April 05, 2024
Mickey Rooney with his first wife Ava Gardner, in 1942

Mickey Rooney with his first wife Ava Gardner, in 1942 – Getty

Hollywood, 1942. Mickey Rooney was the biggest star in the world. He’d spent three consecutive years as the most successful performer at the global box office. He’d won a special Academy Award for child stars, and been nominated for the grown-up Best Actor Oscar too. Laurence Olivier had called him “the greatest actor of them all”. And he was about to marry Ava Gardner.

Milton Keynes, 2009. Sixty-seven years and eight marriages later, a cash-strapped Mickey Rooney was performing in panto with Bobby Davro and Celebrity Big Brother finalist Ben Adams. His tumultuous past had by now involved addiction, multiple bankruptcies and the tragic murder of his fifth wife by her ex-lover.

His career choices were increasingly bizarre and he was being abused by his stepson, who was accused of withholding food and medicine from Rooney while using the elderly star’s money to fund his own flashy life.

There are no modern stars like Mickey Rooney, who died 10 years ago this week. Larger than life at only five foot two, Rooney could act, sing, dance, play the piano (and write a respectable symphony), convince in both slapstick and Shakespeare, and sleep with most of Hollywood’s leading women despite looking, as he described himself, “half-human, half-goblin”. And he did it all while maintaining a personal life that was stranger than the most outlandish fiction.

No other actor has experienced such a prolonged decline in both private and public after such a spectacular beginning.

America's golden boy: Mickey Rooney

America’s golden boy: Mickey Rooney – Michael Ochs Archives

Rooney was born as Joseph Yule, Jr. in 1920, to burlesque performer parents in Brooklyn. His first show business experience came 15 months into his life, when he appeared in his parents’ vaudeville show wearing a miniature tuxedo and smoking a rubber cigar.

Rooney’s parents separated and he travelled to Hollywood with his mother. By the age of six, he’d made his big screen debut and was cast as the comic strip character Mickey McGuire – a role he played for six years across 80 films, and which gave him the name Mickey Rooney.

In 1935 a 15-year-old Rooney delivered the best performance of his career, standing out as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by committing to the role’s otherworldly strangeness – decorating the Shakespearean dialogue with strange squawks and brays, and powering the film’s phantasmagorical pageantry with his signature frenetic energy.

Mickey Rooney, aged 5

Mickey Rooney, aged 5 – AP

Rooney’s defining role as the plucky teenager Andy Hardy seemed comparatively inhibited and predictable. But he played it in 16 phenomenally popular films released between 1937 and 1958.

The Andy Hardy movies made Rooney the biggest star in the world, a status he held when the 19-year-old Ava Gardner arrived at MGM in 1941. Gardner recalled that she was “practically still a child” when she first met her future husband. “I still didn’t know that he was the biggest wolf on the lot. He was catnip to the ladies. He knew it, too.”

The women who fell for Rooney’s manic charm during the peak of his fame spanned the length and breadth of MGM’s talent roster, from the imperious Norma Shearer, 20 years older than Rooney during their affair, to the young Lana Turner, who nicknamed Rooney “Andy Hard-On”.

'Catnip to the ladies': Ava Gardner and Mickey Rooney

‘Catnip to the ladies’: Ava Gardner and Mickey Rooney – Jack Albin

Gardner soon fancied Rooney too and the pair got married. Their relationship was a perpetual power struggle though, prone to huge emotional explosions. Rooney always denied infidelity but Gardner claimed that her new husband was incessantly adulterous. To get back at him, she’d mock his diminutive height after they slept together. When Rooney drunkenly read out a list of names of women he’d slept with – providing accompanying commentary on their strengths and weaknesses in the bedroom – in front of Gardner, her patience with him expired, and she made the bold decision to divorce America’s golden boy.

MGM scrambled to silence stories of Rooney’s bad behaviour. Audiences weren’t to know that the mildly irreverent Andy Hardy’s real-life cheekiness extended to wild promiscuity and drug addiction.

Rooney’s drug habit had in fact been initiated by the movie studios. Like his close friend and co-star Judy Garland – a rare leading actress Rooney didn’t sleep with – Rooney had been fed pills to keep him lively during arduous shooting schedules. He’d then been given sleeping tablets to calm him down after filming was over – followed by another round of stimulants (probably amphetamines) to fuel the next 72 hour-long working day. His dependence on drugs lasted until he was well into his seventies, when sleeping pills caused him to be hospitalised for exhaustion.

In 1944 Rooney was drawn into the US Army, where he entertained more than two million troops over 21 months in service. While in the military Rooney met his second wife, Betty Jane Phillips, but their marriage was over shortly after it began. He then crammed in two more marriages in less than a decade.

Rooney’s career faltered after his return from the army. He was dropped by his beloved MGM and performed in grotty film noirs for which his cheery on-screen persona was particularly unsuited. In 1961 he made the most misguided decision of his career, and played the Japanese character Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The performance was criticised for being grotesquely racist, but remains the role Rooney is most associated with.

He filed for bankruptcy in 1962, financially crippled by decades of misguided investing and a gambling addiction. (He once bemused poker-playing gangsters by losing $50,000 at Las Vegas’s Riviera Casino.) In 1996, he was bankrupt again, despite having made $65,000 a week at points during the Eighties. The final price of his gambling habit is difficult to estimate exactly. But a few months before he died he confessed: ‘I p—-ed away millions’.

The Sixties were the most painful decade of the star’s life. In 1958, he had married Barbara Ann Thomason, a famous beauty queen 17 years younger than him. Soon into their marriage, Rooney’s taste for adultery reemerged, and in response to her husband’s cheating Barbara Ann began an affair of her own, with the dashing Serbian actor and stunt double Milos Milos.

Short lived bliss: Mickey Rooney with Barbara Ann Thomason and their newborn baby Kelly Ann

Short lived bliss: Mickey Rooney with Barbara Ann Thomason and their newborn baby Kelly Ann – Bettmann

Milos’s life had been almost the inverse of Rooney’s. He came from a powerful family, whose wealth had been forcefully expropriated by the Soviets. Milos had found himself brawling on the streets of Belgrade until fortuitous circumstances landed him the unusual job of bodyguard to French New Wave star Alain Delon, and from there Milos hauled himself to Hollywood, where he met Mickey Rooney and the middle-aged actor’s charming new wife.

Rooney discovered that Barbara Ann and Milos had been having an affair when he returned home after filming in the Philippines. The married couple seemed set for divorce, but they negotiated a reconciliation on the condition that Barbara Ann stopped seeing her new lover.

On the night of January 30 1966, Barbara Ann told Milos what she and Rooney had agreed, just as Rooney checked in to hospital for treatment of a blood disease he had picked up abroad. The next morning, a guest at Rooney’s house found Barbara Ann and Milos dead in the bathroom. She had been shot in the jaw; he had shot himself in the head.

A rare leading actress he didn't sleep with: Rooney with Judy Garland for Babes on Broadway, 1941

A rare leading actress he didn’t sleep with: Rooney with Judy Garland for Babes on Broadway, 1941 – Kobal collection

The police held Milos responsible for this apparent ‘murder-suicide’, though rumours spread that Rooney might have committed a revenge killing. Yet Rooney had been sedated that night, and was entirely oblivious to the murder of his wife. When he was told the next day, he was so shocked that he had to prolong his stay in hospital. “I died when she did”, he wrote in his autobiography.

After this tragedy, Rooney’s career experienced a gradual and stuttering revival. Offsetting a preponderance of critical and commercial disappointments were a handful of accomplished roles. They came in the likes of 1972’s Pulp, in which he played a gangster opposite Michael Caine in a surreal collision of cinematic universes, and in 1979’s The Black Stallion, for which he was Oscar nominated, though he didn’t win.

Another Academy Award was around the corner, though. In 1983 Bob Hope, Rooney’s fellow veteran of the Golden Age of Hollywood, presented him with an honorary Oscar. A crowd including Dustin Hoffman and Richard Pryor rose to applaud a star whose most famous performances appeared before they were even born.

Rooney was by now less of a performer and more of a vibe. He brought an authentic connection to the world of old vaudeville when he starred for five years in the musical Sugar Babies and he toured with his eighth and final wife Jan Chamberlin in a low-budget, old-fashioned variety show. Rooney had started on the stage, and in his old age he returned to it.

The most unexpected of all his late-period career decisions were his multiple forays into British pantomime. When the Telegraph interviewed him in 2007, he was performing as Baron Hardup in a production of Cinderella at the Sunderland Empire, alongside Les Dennis and Michelle Heaton. He appeared in two more regional pantomimes before the decade was over.

Reviews of Rooney in panto mode noted his stilted delivery of jokes which strained to make the elderly star relevant in a foreign land and a foreign century (plenty involved his footballing namesake Wayne). But they also mentioned the hugely affectionate audience reaction which met his appearances on stage. Rooney was always a deeply loved performer – even in the most random of circumstances.

Fallen hero: Mickey Rooney in Cinderella at the Milton Keynes theatre

Fallen hero: Mickey Rooney in Cinderella at the Milton Keynes theatre – PA

Public affection was particularly important to Rooney during his final years, when he accused his stepson, Christopher Aber, of subjecting him to harrowing and prolonged abuse. Rooney claimed that he had spent years being controlled by Aber, who had denied him access to food and medicine, confiscated his ID and awards, and pilfered a fortune’s worth of his earnings. Weeks after Aber was finally served a restraining order, Rooney appeared in front of the US Senate to testify emotionally on the humiliations he’d suffered and make a plea for greater awareness of ‘elder abuse’. It was his last significant moment in the public eye.

Rooney died on April 6 2014, leaving behind an estate worth only $18,000 and a divided family whose arguments over the star’s inheritance began almost immediately after his death.

Media coverage of Rooney’s passing focused on the decades of pain and the infamous tragedies he experienced. Vanity Fair called him “the original Hollywood train wreck”. But anyone who watches his films today is struck by the complete and persistent absence of suffering in his performances. Rooney played the embodiment of Hollywood optimism for nearly a century. Maybe Olivier was right to say that he was “the greatest actor of them all”.

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