The Centennial of Mickey Rooney, America’s Most Persistent Performer

Mickey Rooney never stopped trying to shed his Andy Hardy image. At President Roosevelt’s Inaugural Ball, he shocked the audience with a surprising performance.

Shirtless Andy Rooney sits in a director's chair surrounded by Hollywood execs

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Today is the centennial of the birth of Mickey Rooney, the once-golden boy of Hollywood with likely the longest-running career of any American (or otherwise) film actor.

After beginning his lifelong stint in show business in a specially-tailored tux in his parents’ vaudeville shows at 15 months old, Rooney landed his first film role at age 6 and didn’t stop until 2014, the year he passed away.

The America of Rooney’s films at the height of his celebrity – when he played the lovably well-intentioned troublemaker Andy Hardy in 16 movies – was The Saturday Evening Post’s America: one with a freshly-ironed moral fabric and joyful endings. In fact, Rooney was a Post boy. As the Post bragged in a short piece in 1942, the actor won a medal at age 13 for selling magazines door-to-door and even at the studios where he made his Mickey McGuire movies: “Andy Hardy, as portrayed by Rooney, more often than not engages in financial enterprises that backfire, but in real life Rooney got away to a fast business start with no adolescent detours.”

The Post’s coverage of Rooney wasn’t always so laudatory, however. By 1962, he was just another example of “moral decay in America” as an editorial shone light on his multiple nasty divorces and thousands in back taxes. “Nothing in this sad story surprises us, Hollywood being the way it is,” the Post printed, “but we remember Andy Hardy.”

Actor Andy Rooney with wife Betty Jane and their kids Timothy and Mickey, Jr.
Rooney with his second wife, Betty Jane, and sons Timothy and Mickey, Jr. (Gene Lester / The Saturday Evening Post)

The now-familiar arc of the innocent child star becoming a frighteningly flawed adult perhaps began with Rooney’s departure from the saccharine cinema of the Hardy family into the trappings of wealth and fame. But he couldn’t play Andy Hardy forever, and he didn’t want to.

In 1947, the year after Rooney’s last film as Andy Hardy (with the exception of the 1958 revival), the Post published a lengthy profile of the actor called “Hollywood’s Fabulous Brat.” Rooney had spent three years – 1939, ’40, and ’41 – as the biggest box office draw in Hollywood, and he had a reputation for being belligerent, on the set and off. He was also seeking more substantial work.

“I’ll never make another Hardy picture,” he told the Post, incorrectly. “I’m fed up with those dopey, insipid parts. How long can a guy play a jerk kid? I’m 27 years old. I’ve been divorced once and separated from my second wife. I have two boys of my own. I spent almost two years in the Army. It’s time Judge Hardy went out and bought me a double-breasted suit. With long pants.”

Rooney wanted to stretch his wings as he had when he played Puck in Warner Brothers’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1935, when The New York Times reviewed his “remarkable performance” as “one of the major delights of the work.” He wanted to enter into a new chapter of complex films like the forthcoming gritty boxing drama Killer McCoy and the Eugene O’Neill-adapted musical Summer Holiday. After the decades-long run of Hardy family movies and musicals with Judy Garland, however, Rooney’s box office draw dwindled.

Since conquering the motion picture industry with nothing but talent and grit, Rooney couldn’t have foreseen a future where he wasn’t at the top. He imagined he could reinvent his career with the same momentum he always had. As Nancy Jo Sales wrote in Vanity Fair after Rooney died in 2014, “his career suffered from his juvenile appearance, and his diminutive height — he wasn’t a boy anymore, and he wasn’t a leading man, so where did he fit in? — but he never gave up.” Rooney kept making films into the 21st century, delivering memorable performances in movies like The Black Stallion and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. In 1979, he took on Broadway in the successful revue Sugar Babies, spawning years of tours.

Mickey Rooney and his manager Sam Steifel
“Rooney and manager Sam Steifel, who has made Mickey the world’s richest runt after being for years the most underpaid star in Hollywood.” (Gene Lester / The Saturday Evening Post)

Rooney’s undeniable talent steered him toward a lifelong commitment to entertainment. Given his start in the demanding realms of vaudeville and the old Hollywood studio system, the performer never hesitated to master new skills, like banjo-playing or crying on demand, to satisfy his audience. This was perhaps never more true than in 1941, when Rooney performed at President Roosevelt’s Inauguration Gala.

Alongside talents like Charlie Chaplin, Ethel Barrymore, and Irving Berlin, Rooney was expected to contribute an act of celebrity impersonations. He had a better idea: he would play his three-movement symphony Melodante on piano instead. As the Post reported, “The audience of 3,844 celebrities laughed when Rooney sat down at the piano that evening and shot his cuffs as he poised his hands over the keyboard.” They thought he was doing a bit. After he played the 19-minute score he had written himself, however, they burst into applause.

For Rooney, the label “triple threat” was an understatement. Starting from a poor broken home, he gave everything he had to build his iconic career, but it never turned out exactly the way he wanted. “People look at me and say, ‘There’s a lucky bum who got all the breaks,’” he said in 1947, “Yeah, I got the breaks — all in the neck.”

First page for the article "Hollywood's Fabulous Brat"
Read “Hollywood’s Fabulous Brat” by Stanley Frank from the December 6, 1947, issue of the Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Gene Lester, The Saturday Evening Post, December 6, 1947

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Comments

  1. Mr. Gilmore, I wish you had thought the decision to commemorate Mickey Rooney more carefully. As a man who was married 8 times, this should have disqualified him. This is not to say your article was not well written and enjoyable to read. Your articles always are, so I should give you a free pass this time.

    Bob’s comments are as well. He knows a lot about quite a broad range of subjects. However, he is a divorced man from other comments and I am confused here. He seems disapproving of Rooney’s 8 marriages, yet wonders how a marriage between Rooney and Elizabeth Taylor would have worked out. It would not have. Was he aware she was married 8 times herself? How could he make light of such of thing, by either of them? Please ask and let me know.

  2. Happy 100th birthday to Mickey Rooney. He thanks Nick Gilmore for remembering, and doing this mostly flattering feature. I looked up his IMDB and he covers every decade except the Deadly ’20s we’re in now! Who else can say that?

    I admire him for all of that work. One of my favorite films is ‘Baby Face Nelson’ from ’57 I only saw recently. Yeah, it was on YouTube and he nailed it playing the legendary gangster. It came out later that year when I was 6 or 7 months old and my parents saw it in the theater on their date night. It’s VERY enjoyable to me in 2020. The film is set in 1933, but I could totally tell it was from the ’50s, just like with so many films set in the past. Not enough to spoil it, but enough to enjoy it even more. Carolyn Jones before ‘Morticia’ in 1964? Yes!

    I never knew he could play the piano and wow them at FDR’s Inaugural Gala like that. He was full of surprises, and wives. Married 8 times, including Ava Gardner, he got around in that department—a little too much. Nasty divorces, thousands in back taxes. I wonder how one would have worked out between he and Elizabeth Taylor. Forget I said that! The Post was right in 1962, and called it as they saw it. Ouch nevertheless though!

    He was a very versatile actor and from what I saw was always busy; from beginning to end in 2014. I wish I could have seen Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller in ‘Sugar Babies’ on the stage in 1979 or ’80 in hindsight. The scenes online are still entertaining, and there was a big, plush spread on it in the March 1980 issue of LIFE with Rooney on the cover. I have it in my storage.

    Mind escapes from today’s ever-worsening nightmare to 40+ years ago is what we ALL need now, and from now on. More frequent trips to my storage are coming. That wall-to-wall carpeting I laid out was the best $100 I ever spent (plus the X-acto knife of course). Never gritty cement! Only that fresh, perennial new carpet smell.

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