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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,471

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This is the grave of Mickey Rooney.

Born in 1920 in New York, Joseph Yule grew up in a vaudeville household. Given Rooney would basically be a vaudeville-type guy his whole diverse career, this isn’t surprising, but given that he took on the most Irish name in history and looked pretty Irish too, I am disappointed to find out that he isn’t so Irish after all. I mean, passing as Irish, who would lower themselves that much? In fact, he was Scottish of all things.

Well, anyway, to move away from the various rivalries of genetically identical ethnicities of the British isles, Rooney started performing at the age of 17 months in the act of his parents. They needed a baby for the act and they had one right there. His parents broke up when he was a kid and his mother and he moved to Hollywood in 1925 to break into the pictures. His first movie appearance was in 1926, in something called Not To Be Trusted. He got a great part the next year as a child lead in a long series of shorts for a character named Mickey McGuire. He starred as this character in a mere 78 films between then and 1936 and he was so associated with the character that he took on the name Mickey for his stage name, though not yet Rooney. He got some other early roles too, including in relatively major films such as The Beast of the City with Walter Huston and Jean Harlow, and in The Life of Jimmy Dolan, with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Loretta Young.

Now, Rooney’s career probably should have gone the way that so many child actors did, which is that it ended when he grew up. There were so many kids in the movies at this time. Hardly any of them could act at all. Just watch child actors in old movies. Shudder. Child acting sure has improved in the last half-century or so. But Rooney was an exception. He really could act. He was a big hit in the 1935 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Then he got to be friends with Judy Garland and they started doing musicals together. This made both of them enormous stars. Then he got the lead role in the Andy Hardy movies, another series that only increased his stardom.

Rooney was a teenage star and he acted like a teenage star. Older actors mostly hated him and he was chasing women left and right. Finally Louis Mayer literally grabbed him by the lapels, threw him against a wall, and told him to knock it off. Said he could do whatever he wanted in his private life, but he needed to keep it out of the public. Rooney listened too and straightened his act out before he lost his career.

Rooney received an Oscar nomination in 1939 for his work in Busby Berkeley’s musical Babes in Arms, which is one of his films with Garland. He proved he had dramatic chops when he more than held his own with Spencer Tracy in Boys Town. Now, Rooney was not only the biggest star in Hollywood by this time but he was a weird star too. His face was described, accurately, as looking like a drawn comic strip. He was small (5’2″) and he had bad hair and he had a weird voice. But his Everyboy thing sure worked well at the box office. And the man worked very hard at his acting. Even Laurence Olivier stated publicly that Rooney was a great actor and who else do you want to hear that from?

In 1942, Rooney entered the military and spent the next couple years entertaining the troops as his military service. He received the Bronze Star for entertaining troops in combat zones, which, well…..not sure that’s a particularly appropriate use of what is usually an exclusive medal but I guess if you want to incentivize other starts to join in the collective sacrifice, that’s one way. He still made some very good pictures during the war–he received an Academy Award nomination for The Human Comedy in 1943 and then in National Velvet in 1944, working with Elizabeth Taylor. Rooney was seen as a brilliant comedic actor. The great director Clarence Brown compared him to Chaplin, which is high praise.

However, the postwar period was tough on Rooney, as it was on so many actors. He was still a really young guy, but his persona didn’t really fit the late 40s film world. No noir for Rooney. He was still in some key movies, including working with Marilyn Monroe in The Fireball in 1950 and more importantly, in The Bridges at Toko-Ri with Grace Kelly in 1954 and Breakfast at Tiffany’s with Audrey Hepburn in 1961. Those are big important films. On the other hand, he played a racist Japanese stereotype in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which he later regretted but it was 1961. But mostly he was doing TV. That was a transition Rooney was well-placed to make given his comedic skills. Still, the early 50s were legit really bad for him and he was quite depressed. In fact, he suffered from depression generally and there were a couple of suicide attempts over the years. Things got better as TV got more established and it would be in more family friendly programming that Rooney would keep his career going over the years. He also was horrible with all the money he made in his heyday, so now he needed to work doing what he could just to make ends meet. He was a tiny little aging man in an era when he was long past playing the bratty teen.

But he made it work. Rooney did a lot of TV, a lot of Broadway, the occasional film, including the Coppola produced The Black Stallion in 1979. Rooney got an Academy Award nomination for that, his third. Was Rooney on The Love Boat? You know he was. How about The Golden Girls? Oh yes. He was offered the role of Archie Bunker in All in the Family, which would have been fascinated. Hard to see how he could have done more in the role than Carroll O’Connor, but who can tell. He did a bunch of Christmas movies where he did the voice of Santa.

Rooney really worked all the way to the end. He became the kind of beloved old man who was perfect in kids movies, just like he was perfect in those movies when he was a kid himself. His size and face and voice really worked as an old man. He showed up in Night in the Museum, which is a stupid film but whatever.

Rooney’s personal life was a mess. He was married a mere eight times, with six divorces. One wife was killed by her lover in his own bed with his own gun in a murder-suicide. He married Ava Gardner when she was barely known; she left him for his cheating, the most ironic thing ever given her later life. I guess she learned from the champ. Unfortunately, in the late 70s, Rooney became a born-again Christian and was a follower of the odious Pat Robertson, a fervent watcher of The 700 Club. He married his last wife in 1978 and they stayed married through his death. At the end of his life, there were lots of rumors that he was an abused old man whose family had stolen all the money. I am not sure how true that is, but it was ugly. In any case, he appeared in front of a Senate committee in 2011 to promote a bill around elder abuse, so it is clearly something he felt strongly about.

Rooney died in 2014. He was 93 years old.

Mickey Rooney is buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Hollywood, California.

This is the first of the 118 graves I saw last week in Los Angeles. Let’s just say that there’s going to be a lot of show business coming up, which should be fun. If you would like this series to visit other actors nominated for Academy Awards in 1939 (1940 awards, 1939 films) you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Robert Donat, who won Best Actor that year for Goodbye Mr. Chips is in London, so I guess that won’t work. Thomas Mitchell, who won for Best Supporting Actor for Stagecoach is in Los Angeles, but not a cemetery I visited. Irene Dunne, nominated for Best Actress in Love Affair, is also in Los Angeles. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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