Mickey Rooney was truly one of the most enduring and talented performers of all time. He could act seriously, tell jokes and be funny, sing, and dance in his many roles in the theater, Broadway, vaudeville, radio, TV and more than 300 movies over his 90-year career. He starred in 43 films between ages 15 and 25 and was Hollywood’s top box office draw from 1939 to 1941. However, when he wasn’t performing, his behavior was so self-destructive that it is hard to believe that he was able to live for 93 years.
A Very Early Start
Rooney was born Joseph Yule, Jr., in 1920 to parents who were both vaudeville actors, and he started performing at age 17 months as part of their act in Brooklyn, NY. His parents separated when he was four years old, and the next year he and his mother moved to Hollywood. There his mother began a campaign to get him into the movies, and he appeared in his first film at age six. At seven he won the role of Mickey McGuire, which led to a series of 78 short comedy films that ran from 1927 to 1938.
His most notable role came in 1937, when he was cast as Andy Hardy, son of Judge Hardy (played by Lionel Barrymore) in A Family Affair. The film was an unexpected hit which led to 13 more Andy Hardy films from 1937 to 1946. Later in this series Rooney was paired with Judy Garland and they went on to become an immensely popular song-and-dance duo in several musicals such as Babes in Arms
Adult Life Was Not So Easy
Rooney was drafted into the Army in 1944 and spent almost two years entertaining troops in combat zones and as a radio personality on the American Forces Network. At the end of the war, he went back to Hollywood but found that he was now too old to play a teenager, and at 5’2″, too short to play an adult romantic lead. He appeared in various films and made a successful transition into television with The Mickey Rooney Show, but he never again attained the dominating stardom he had enjoyed in his early years. He gradually became recognized as a character actor, and in 1979, Francis Ford Coppola cast him as an aging jockey in The Black Stallion, which got excellent reviews and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Rooney.
His Eight Wives
• At age 22, Rooney married teenage actress Ava Gardner and she claims that they divorced one year later because he was cheating on her. She later married Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra.
• At 24, he married Betty Jane Phillips, who later became a singer. They had two children and divorced after five years.
• At 29, he married Martha Vickers for two years and had one child.
• At 32, he married Elaine Devry for six years, with two children.
• At 38, he married Barbara Ann Thomason for eight years and they had four children. She died in 1966 in a murder-suicide with a lover.
• At 46, he married Barbara Thomason’s best friend, Marge Lane. They divorced one year later.
• At 49, he married Carolyn Hockett, had two children and divorced after six years.
• At 58, he married Jan Chamberlin. They stayed married for 34 years until his death, although they separated in 2012. That relationship lasted longer than all of his others added together.
Bad Choices, Lousy Lifestyle
Maybe he had too much, too soon. He was famous and earning lots of money while his high school classmates did not even know what they were going to do in life, so he may have felt that he did not have to follow the “rules” that help to make people like you. He spent his life in conflict with his partners, friends and relatives, took alcohol and various pills to excess, repeatedly gambled away his fortune, and suffered from serious emotional disease.
• His second ex-wife claimed that she had caught Rooney in a sex act with Elizabeth Taylor, his co-star in National Velvet, when Taylor was 14 and he was a 26-year old married man with a child and a wife pregnant with his second child.
• He was addicted to sleeping pills, but said he overcame this addiction in his late 70s.
• He was reported to have suffered from bipolar disorder, attempted suicides, and was hospitalized for “nervous breakdowns.”
• His addiction to gambling caused financial problems even though he earned millions of dollars throughout his career. At age 42 and again at age 76, he filed for bankruptcy because of his inability to manage his money. He continued to earn lots of money in his old age by working constantly, but his personal property at the time of his death was valued at only $18,000 and he owed huge medical bills and back taxes.
• At age 77, he was accused of beating his wife, but charges were dropped.
• At age 93, he testified before Congress for a bill on elder abuse, stating that it could happen to anyone and that he had been abused and exploited by members of his family. He had terrible conflicts with some of his own children. His eight surviving children said that they were barred from seeing Rooney during his final years. At age 91, he was granted a temporary restraining order to keep one son and his wife away from him.
Lessons From a Long But Not Very Happy Life
Rooney had one of longest careers in show business history and was one of the last surviving stars of the silent film era. Photos of Rooney’s army years show that he was in good shape at age 25, but by his 50s he was obese and had the large belly that is a visual symptom of diabetes. I have no record of when he was diagnosed with that disease, but he apparently suffered from it for decades and the fact that he was still grossly overweight in his 90s means that he was never adequately treated. Diabetes takes its toll on every organ in the body, and by his last years Rooney was confined to a wheelchair. Rooney died on April 6, 2014 at age 93, with the cause of death listed as complications of diabetes. The most common cause of death from diabetes in older people is heart failure, where the heart is no longer strong enough to pump adequate amounts of oxygen to the brain and other essential organs.
Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a Villager. Learn more at www.drmirkin.com