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Palm Beach Tribute: Mickey Rooney

Tonight, the Palm Beach International Film Festival holds its most glamourous event, the annual Grand Gala at the Boca Raton Country Club. This year, the Festival is honoring the likes of acting legend Mickey Rooney, Oscar winner Louis Gosset Jr., hot director Jason Reitman, actress Cheryl Hines and up-and-coming actor Josh Hutcherson. In a series of articles over the next few days, I will offer a bio and filmography of the honorees and why their careers have been dubbed worthy of recognition.

The biggest name of the bunch is a true living legend. At age 88, Mickey Rooney surely has the longest continued active career in show business. He is also one of the only remaining links to the “golden age” of Hollywood, when his career was in full blossom in the 1930s and 1940s. Most of his contemporaries from the MGM studio that boasted having “more stars than they are in heaven” have long since go on to their next reward. But Rooney is still here, irascible, talented, full of stories and a living link to classic Hollywood.




Rooney was born Joseph Yule Jr. in Brooklyn, New York in 1920 to a vaudeville family. He began performing at the age of fifteen months as part of his parents' routine, wearing a specially tailored tuxedo. As vaudeville went into a slump in the late 1920s, his mother moved the family to Hollywood. She answered a newspaper ad for a dark haired child to play the role of “Mickey McGuire” in a series of short films. Dying his son’s hair, she accompanied the 5 year old to an audition, which he eventually got. Young Joe played “Mickey” in 78 short comedies from 1927 to 1936.




In 1937, MGM signed the 17 year old Mickey, who had since changed his last name to Rooney, to a contract and cast him as the teenage son of a judge in A FAMILY AFFAIR, which started Rooney in his most successful role, that of Andy Hardy. The film had been planned as a B-movie, but after Lionel Barrymore was cast as the judge father, the film became a more top-drawer project. It became an unexpected success, spawning thirteen more “Andy Hardy” films between 1937 and 1946, with one final film in the series in 1958.




1937 was a pivotal year for the young actor. It was also the year that he made his first film co-starring Judy Garland (a forgettable trifle called THOROUGHBREDS DON’T CRY). In the second year of his contract, Rooney was cast against type in the drama BOYS TOWN, opposite Spencer Tracy. The film was a major hit, winning Best Picture and Best Actor Oscars, and catapulting the young Rooney into major actor status at the tender age of 18.




Beginning with BABES IN ARMS (1939), Rooney and Garland appeared in a string of successful musicals, and the Rooney/Garland team would become one of the most successful pairing in films of the late 1930s and 1940s.. For a six year period, Rooney was the number one box office actor in the business, surpassing others including Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and Spencer Tracy. In 1944, Rooney put his career on hold as he entered military service during World War II. After his return to civilian life, his career slumped. The actor, who remained diminutive in height despite being in his 20s, found it hard to get adult roles after being so closely associated as “America’s favorite teenager”.



He made some sporadic films in the late 1940s, of which the musical biopic WORDS AND MUSIC (1948) was the most successful. But his star was very definitely waning. In 1951, he directed his first feature film, MY TRUE STORY, starring Helen Walker, which did not do much box office. He then turned to television, starring in the MICKEY ROONEY SHOW, for one single season in 1954. His career resurged when he starred as a ragingly egomaniacal television comedian in the live 90-minute television drama THE COMEDIAN , written by Rod Serling and directed by John Frankenheimer, on the legendary PLAYHOUSE 90 omnibus drama series. In 1957, he was nominated with a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his role in the World War II military drama THE BOLD AND THE BRAVE, but substantial movies roles were only sporadic from then on.

In 1960, he directed and starred in THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ADAM AND EVE, an ambitious comedy which was rather ahead of its time. In the 1960s, Rooney returned to live theater and concert appearances, discovering that there was still a large following of both older fans who remembered him from his glory days and young people curious about him. He had a memorable role as the Japanese fashion photographer in Blake Edward’s winning comedy BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961) and followed it the next year with a substantial dramatic role in the film version of the Rod Serling television drama REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT (1962). For the rest of the decade into the 1970s, he took parts in mainly B-movies, but he did have a breakthrough in 1979 with the family film, THE BLACK STALLION, for which he received an Oscar nomination.




Rooney has won two statuettes from the Academy. In 1938, he won an Academy Juvenile Award, a prize that has since been discontinued. In 1983, the Academy cited him for a Lifetime Achievement Award, which he accepted in front of an enthusiastic industry audience. Sir Laurence Olivier, no less, called Rooney “the single best film actor America ever produced”, high praise indeed.




In the past two decades, Rooney made a successful transition to television and stage work. He loaned his voice to a number of television animation specials in the 1970s. He won a Golden Globe and an Emmy Award for his role as a mentally challenged homeless man in BILL (1981). He reprised the role in BILL: ON HIS OWN (1983), which earned him another Emmy nomination. One of his biggest career missteps of this period was refusing to take on the role of Archie Bunker in the upcoming CBS series, ALL IN THE FAMILY. Rooney had rejected the script as “too controversial” but perhaps had some regrets when the television series become a ground-breaking success, with Carroll O’Connor achieving iconic status in the role.

Rooney continued to work on stage and television through the 1980s and 1990s, appearing in the acclaimed vaudeville hommage stage play SUGAR BABIES, co-starring fellow MGM hoofer Ann Miller. He continues to work in film, on the stage and in touring shows with his eight wife Jan Chamberlin, in a multi-media live stage production LET’S PUT ON A SHOW. He has stayed current with choice appearances on such television shows as THE GOLDEN GIRLS and THE SIMPSONS. Just last year, he co-starred opposite Ben Stiller in the highly profitable A NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM.

Rooney’s personal life has been as colorful and varied as his long professional career. He has been married 8 times, including short marriages to actresses Ava Gardner, Elaine Devry and Martha Vickers. He has sired nine children over the course of these marriages. In 2008, Rooney will enter the Guinness Book of Records as the actor with longest career on both stage and screen. Tonight, in Boca Raton, Rooney will be honored for an astonishing career that is a veritable history of Hollywood.

Sandy Mandelberger, Palm Beach FF Dailies Editor

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