The prodigiously gifted actor was a natural in musicals: He could sing, dance, play drums and piano. Less remarked-upon is how impressive he was in drama ( National Velvet) and comedy (the Andy Hardy series). Cary Grant and Gore Vidal named him as the most talented actor to come out of Hollywood.
Between 1937 and 1944, the height of Rooney's career, he made 43 pictures and $10 million, and lost even more to his unslakable thirst for gambling and women. He married eight times. His first wife, Ava Gardner, said she was overwhelmed by his energy. "He was always on," she said, adding, "and always in heat." He sired nine children and had 19 grandchildren.
Another testament to that superhuman energy was his prolific professional output. He appeared in more than 300 movies, telefilms, and television episodes. His trademark was an ability to bounce from the maudlin to the madcap, often rebounding in the same scene.
There are so many vital Rooney performances that it's hard to winnow them down to the top 10. But if one were to edit a clip reel, start with his Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), a magical sprite with a gurgling laugh and precocious knowledge of human folly.
Cut to the bantam bully in Boys Town (1938), tough and irredeemable, yet gradually overwhelmed by the good will and goodness of Father Flanagan (Spencer Tracy), who clears him of false robbery charges.
Cut to any of the Andy Hardy movies, starring Rooney as the cheeky teenage son of a small-town judge (Lewis Stone). The youth obsessed with girls and cars and ice cream sodas inevitably gets a gentle rebuke from the judge and ultimately rights a wrong. (Think, father knows best.) Lana Turner and Esther Williams serially costarred as Andy's lust objects; Judy Garland played Betsy Booth, the girl next door.
Watch Garland and Rooney in one of their energetic "Let's put on a show!" musicals: Babes in Arms, Babes on Broadway, Strike Up the Band, or Girl Crazy (1939-43). They jitterbug. They sing. They entertain. (Think, kids know best). Make sure there's a clip of Mickey doing his Carmen Miranda imitation, with a tutti-frutti hat and platform shoes, in Babes on Broadway.
Then it's on to The Human Comedy (1943), a moving vignette of the home front during World War II. Mickey worries about his older soldier brother (Van Johnson) and is heartbreaking as the Western Union messenger bringing the bad news about soldiers killed in action.
Next, Rooney in National Velvet (1944) as the downcast jockey reinvigorated when he inspires young Elizabeth Taylor to ride her beloved horse in the Grand National.
The tribute reel could end with Drive a Crooked Road (1954), a noirish heist film with Rooney as a race car driver. Or with Baby Face Nelson (1957), an acid-etched portrait of the mobster who intimidates with a gun bigger than he is. Or It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), as one in an ensemble looking for stolen loot.
What killed Rooney's movie career? In part, his enlistment as a USO entertainer during World War II. His baby face and short stature didn't help the cause. Nor did the public's changing tastes.
While touring with a USO troupe, Rooney met a Philadelphian, Dan Tabas, stationed at an air base in England. In the 1950s, Tabas built a Catskills-style resort in Downingtown, where for years Rooney appeared and recruited other entertainers, such as Frank Gorshin and Robert Goulet.
After multiple divorces and a bankruptcy, Rooney enjoyed a comeback with the Broadway revue Sugar Babies in 1979. Of this tribute to burlesque and its star, one reviewer wrote: "Rarely has so much energy been packed into so small a package."
Also part of the Rooney renaissance were The Black Stallion (1979) and Bill (1981), the telefilm starring Rooney as a developmentally disabled man who is deinstitutionalized and placed with a family. It won him an Emmy.
In 1991, he published a candid memoir, Life Is Too Short, taking blame for his excesses and describing in detail his lady conquests. In 2011, he testified before a congressional committee, claiming he was a victim of elder abuse.
Of his many marriages he wrote, "People ask, 'How can you be married eight times?' . . . I was friendly with most of my ex-wives. My God, there's a Mickey Rooney's Former Wives Marching Band!"